It’s the aroma that first snags you—that lush wave pulsing with hot fat, peppery spices and sizzling meat. It shoots through the olfactory nerves to the gustatory niches of the brain, yanking the tummy into full alert.
The sight is what does you in, though. When that mound of Southern fried chicken is before you, everything else falls away and life becomes a singular matter of satisfying your craving. The initial crunch, the release of grease on the tongue, the bloom of heat and spice on the palate and the burst of moistness as the teeth tear tender meat from bone, well, it’s nothing short of gastronomic heaven.
In South Carolina, this delectable drama plays out every day in restaurants and dining rooms across the state. But we aren’t alone. Thought by some food historians to be the offspring of a marriage between Scottish cooking methods and African seasoning techniques, fried chicken came to roost in this country a long time ago. Today, methods for making it fall into three categories: deep fried, broasted (pressure cooked) and pan-fried, which is said to be the best way, but is highly impractical for serving the fried chicken-loving masses.
And Americans do love their fried chicken. In a survey by National Today, 50 percent of respondents said they “loved” fried chicken and 16 percent took it many steps further by proclaiming they would “marry” fried chicken if they could. Now, South Carolinians do enjoy a love affair with the dish, but understand the best way to honor that relationship is at the dinner table. Keep the statistics—plates of lonely chicken bones are how we measure our ardor.
Ready to experience the love? Here’s a partial list of South Carolina restaurants, dedicated chicken shacks and other operations famous for their Southern fried chicken finesse:
Bernie’s, Columbia: Since 1979, Bernie’s has been serving its broasted version of juicy, non-greasy fried chicken and luring customers with the tagline: “Come try my chicken!”
Biddie Banquet, Orangeburg: Make no bones about it, this modest operation is a hotspot for fresh-from-the-fryer, fried chicken goodness.
Chicken Place, Johnston: Great things happen in the kitchen here, where the fried chicken poses a serious threat to Grandma’s recipe.
Drake’s Duck-in, Columbia: Serving the capital city’s hungry since 1907, Drake’s is a true institution. The fried chicken is legendary, too, fried up fresh to order and served piping hot.
Fayz at the Lake, Manning: Located on the shores of Lake Marion, this homey café serves up a hefty fried chicken dinner with four pieces of crusty perfection.
Jewel’s Deluxe, Darlington: Lightly battered, freshly fried chicken is the menu pinnacle of this meat-and-three Darlington darling serving weekday lunches.
Jimmy B’s, Marion: Ask anyone in Marion where to find the best fried chicken and they’ll point the way to this hidden hub of Southern comfort food.
Little Howie's, Aiken and Bamberg: Don’t let the humble appearance fool you. Little Howie’s draws fried chicken fans and keeps them coming back for more.
OJ’s Diner, Easley and Greenville: This pair of family-run diners has found much favor with its made-from-scratch dishes, including a time-honored recipe for fried chicken.
Pickled Cucumber, Conway: Fried chicken holds top position on the menu at this bustling meat-and-three—and customers like it that way.
Shrimp Boat, Rock Hill: Forget the name, this is the place where locals go for fried chicken. Marinated in a secret blend before it is battered and fried, the dish is so popular at both locations that their tagline is: “Ain’t no chicken like Shrimp Boat chicken!”
Soapstone Baptist Church, Pickens: Dining is a religious experience at this historic church, established by freed slaves in 1865. On the third Saturday of the month (except December), the public shows up in droves to partake in a “fish fry,” a comprehensive affair that also includes some of the best fried chicken in the Upstate. Proceeds support preservation efforts. This is an experience to relish on many levels.
Steak House Cafeteria, Walhalla: Though T-bones were the signature dish when it opened in 1973, Steak House Cafeteria has made a name for itself as the home of the “Arabian Chicken,” its much-lauded recipe for fried chicken. If you get lost, just ask for the “Chicken House” and a local will direct you there.
Sunrise Drive-in, Florence: Florentines still swear by the fried chicken at this iconic restaurant, which operated as a drive-in eatery back in the day. This classic fried chicken is prepared when ordered, but it’s totally worth the wait.
Yogi Bear’s Honey Fried Chicken, Hartsville: For more than four decades, this last-man-standing of the once-burgeoning franchise has held firmly to its spot as the favorite fried chicken shack in the Pee Dee. The hint of honey and secret spices in the batter make this broasted chicken stand out from all the rest.
Zesto, Columbia: Tailgaters and hungry folk, in general, consider Zesto to be the fried chicken capital of the capital. Broasted and lightly seasoned, it’s always hot and ready whether you want a snack or a bucket.