If you’ve been wishing for a South Carolina culinary adventure that celebrates tradition, culture and Southern foodways, have we got a list for you. Here are a dozen time-honored restaurants, one to try each month, to help you kick off a year-long foodie journey. While most are not well-known outside of their respective towns, a few have generated more widespread buzz and, in some cases, national acclaim.
Whether visibility is high or low, each has unique qualities that have garnered loyal fans and solid reputations for good eating—surprisingly good eating. While you won’t find high-flown fancy here, you are guaranteed a memorable experience. So, settle in, place your orders, take pics and have fun expanding your dining horizons.
(Call ahead to confirm hours of operation and to secure reservations where accepted.)
Expect: Simple, diner-style atmosphere; staff that aims to please
If it seems misguided to suggest a mid-winter beach trip, consider that it’s prime time to shake off post-holiday doldrums, inhale the coastal breeze and feed your soul with a meal you didn’t have to cook. For a decade now, Big Mike’s has been infusing Myrtle Beach with a whole lotta soul in the form of plates laden with savory selections like hot, crusty fried chicken, creamy mac-and-cheese, candied yams, field peas, mashed potatoes and gravy, fried fish, fried pork chops, okra, Big Mike’s famous fresh collards and so much more. While other beach operations shut down for the season, this cafe is hopping like tomorrow’s the Fourth of July. Go hungry. Very hungry.
Expect: Lots of dark wood, multiple hearths, intimate but casual feel
Perhaps you’ve dined at a Peddler before. But if it wasn’t this one, you’re missing out on something special. Tucked away in a woodland cove and operating in a century-old stone house, this particular steakhouse (locally owned, of course) has been serving the Greenville community since 1969. That’s quite a testament to its status as a favored foodie haunt. The food and attentive service add to the allure. February is an apropos month to visit, considering the Upstate’s history of wintry weather. Inside the Peddler, you’ll find a rustic ambience that matches the exterior, with cozy tables and more than one crackling fireplace to keep you and yours warm. Steaks prepared your way, prime rib, chicken, fish and a thoughtfully stocked salad bar are among the mainstays that keep this dining room full.
Expect: No-frills, limited dining space, long lines during peak hours
This humble operation has been serving up legendary ‘cue since 1972. That’s when Ella and Roosevelt Scott first fired up the pit and started offering their wood-smoked meats. A few years later, their son, Rodney, developed a knack for cooking whole hogs low and slow. His techniques rendered juicy, tender, smoky meat that folks found irresistible. Now a James Beard award-winning pitmaster, Rodney Scott has been doing his own thing in Charleston, Birmingham and, most recently, Nashville. But his family carries on the proud tradition, filling orders for ribs, chicken, sausage links and, of course, that amazing pulled pork slathered in vinegar-pepper sauce.
This historic landmark in the tiny town of Rembert has been going strong since 1951. That’s when a couple named Lilly and Fred did a name mash-up and started serving exceptional meals. The tradition continues to this day with diners coveting reservations so they can experience the restaurant’s four-course meals. Steaks, pork, fish, pasta and sides created with a farm-to-table focus show up on the rotating menu. Don’t miss Lilfred’s famous coleslaw and do start your meal with an order of baked pimento cheese.
Expect: Casual, family feel, friendly staff, lots of buffet options
Dukes has been the go-to barbecue joint for Aiken locals since 1996. Its staying power can be chalked up to made-from-scratch Southern recipes and a bountiful buffet centered around hickory-smoked pork. Squash casserole, broccoli casserole, corn on the cob, mac-and-cheese, sweet potatoes, rutabagas, okra and tomatoes, mash potatoes and gravy, green beans, peach cobbler, banana pudding—this is the stuff of Grandma’s Sunday dinners.
Expect: Come-as-you-are vibe, plenty of tables inside and out, fun crowd
Edisto Island is home to a handful of great eateries and Whaley’s is a jewel among them. One of the oldest restaurants in the area, the one-time gas station/convenience store opened in 1948 and is now a hub for fresh seafood and fish dinners with plenty of American grill favorites to please all palates. Its unfussy, dive-like style and reputation for fresh-off-the-boat seafood earned it a nod from Southern Living. Cold beer and other libations served up by the proudly always-grouchy, oldest bartender in SC, “Grumpy George,” made it a favorite haunt for locals and visitors. While George has slowed down in recent years, he still shows up to delight his many fans.
Expect: Country, farm-like feel; former general store; look for the giant chicken out front
Heidi Trull, a 2015 SC Chef Ambassador, and husband, Joe, operate this hotspot for farm-to-table, market-inspired Southern cuisine. Ingredients are sourced within a 100-mile radius of the restaurant. Shrimp and grits, tomato pie, praline bacon and creole stews are some of the reasons this restaurant has been lauded by the New York Times, Food Network and other national outlets. Southern dishes get creative, expert treatment here for an eclectic and memorable dining experience. Don’t miss it. Open for lunch 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Wed/Thurs/Fri. Dinner is served on Thursdays only 5 – 9 p.m.
Expect: Old-timey, country kitchen; former general store; patio with live music
For more than 20 years, travelers have traversed back roads to have a seat at the table of this beloved Southern kitchen. Farm-to-table vegetables, local seafood, crab cakes, fried green tomatoes, pork chops, collards, she-crab soup, fish stew, oysters—this is Lowcountry eating done right. Beautiful salads topped with fresh shrimp, crab, oysters and chicken are worth your attention, too.
Expect: Historic and quaint; hand-painted art; authentic Gullah cooking
Bill Green knows a thing or two about Gullah cooking and loves to showcase his culture through the sharing of these amazing dishes, each reflecting local bounty and the seasons. Crab soup, fish chowder, fried fish, red rice, shrimp, oysters, barbecue, ribs, potato salad and sweet potato pie are some of the offerings you might find. The food is simple, fresh and seasonal in keeping with Gullah culinary traditions. Wash your meal down with a glass of Swamp Water—a half-lemonade, half-tea concoction.
Expect: Rustic, laid-back; great marsh, river, wildlife views
If you look up “no frills dining,” you just might see a picture of this rustic eatery known for serving steaming piles of roasted oysters sourced from the surrounding waters. Named a James Beard Foundation American Classic, Bowens Island operates on the tip of a 13-mile island. It is the darling of oyster lovers near and far as well as those craving a helping of Frogmore stew and a cold beer. The ramshackle building is right on the water, which makes the atmosphere perfect for having oysters shoveled onto a newspaper-covered table. This is Lowcountry eating in all its earthy, simple glory—you won’t find another dining experience like this one anywhere.
Expect: Pleasant dining room; raw bar with big screen TVs; generous portions
The restaurant arm of the state’s only remaining oyster shucking house, Toomer’s is a family-run operation with a long history. In fact, the Toomers have been harvesting from local waters since 1913. Among their many fresh-off-the-boat seafood offerings are May River oysters served by half-bucket or bucket. Get them steamed or on the half-shell. The peel-and-eat shrimp is also a rousing favorite. Little neck clams, mussels, she-crab soup, seafood platters and sides like smoky collards and cheese grits round out the mouthwatering menu.
Expect: Moody, dark, swanky but laid-back; relaxing music
Though this gem is in the Five Points district favored by the college crowd, you’ll find a more sophisticated clientele here. Maintaining the vibe of its popular forerunner, Goatfeather’s, Goat’s menu features fan faves like duck poutine, crab au gratin, beef bourguignon, oyster po'boys and a classic Philly cheesesteak. An extensive cocktail lineup is a huge draw, too, though wine and craft beer lovers are far from forgotten here. Whether you’re planning a date night or an outing with friends, Goat’s is the perfect adult dining destination for fun, great food and inspired drinks.