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3 days in Charleston: Our food critic's 2021 itinerary, updated for COVID-19 conditions

From the moment that Gov. Henry McMaster ordered restaurants statewide to shut down their dining rooms in hopes of containing COVID-19, it was clear that this three-day eating itinerary was in for a change.

Of course, this agenda has always been a living document: I revise it every January, pulling places that are no longer in business and adding standouts that didn’t exist when the list was last updated. Charleston County typically gains close to 200 independent restaurants, bakeries, cafes and breweries each year.

Yet, at the outset of the pandemic, considered analyses called for 80 percent of restaurants to close forever. A mass extinction event of that kind would have made this itinerary totally useless (as well as the least of our worries).

Those dire predictions didn’t come to pass.

Instead, so many restaurants survived with the help of the federal government that the preexisting staffing crisis swelled to catastrophic proportions. In desperate swipes at stability, restaurants across the Charleston area shortened service hours, axed menu items, suspended to-go service, and rescinded long-standing specials. Those adjustments are reflected in the modified itinerary below.

More significantly, though, the 2021 three-day itinerary is restricted to restaurants that offer a takeout menu, outdoor tables or both.

While the availability of vaccines has helped some restaurant workers and diners feel more comfortable with indoor seating, public health experts still caution against spending unmasked time in closed spaces with people who have not yet been vaccinated.

For example, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health in April said he wouldn’t eat inside a restaurant because it’s not clear if vaccinated people can spread the virus. Additionally, the vaccine prevents serious illness and death, but doesn’t wipe out the possibility of breakthrough cases, which could fuel dangerous variants.

So for now, fine dining restaurants and other establishments that require patrons to dine inside aren’t eligible for this list. But the itinerary will get another looksee in 2022, by which point scientists may have issued the all-clear.

In the meantime, here’s one way to experience the best of Charleston food and drink without sacrificing your personal safety or the community’s health:

Q: Hi, me and two friends will be visiting Charleston for three nights in a few weeks, and we love to eat! We’re looking for a range of dining ideas, to get a taste of S.C. I think we’ve already earmarked one meal for Husk, but looking for some good local suggestions for both upscale and Lowcountry cuisine. Thanks!

A: By far, the question I’m most frequently asked is “Where should I eat on my Charleston vacation?”

That’s probably a question best answered on an individual basis. If you’re allergic to shellfish and traveling with a 2-year old, my standard suggestions are useless. But I’m doing the foolish thing and laying out a one-size-fits-all eating itinerary for a long weekend in the city that starts on Thursday night and ends on Sunday afternoon.

This packed schedule assumes that you’re not allergic to shellfish. It also assumes a car, and that you don’t plan to fill every hour with eating and drinking. (Not that there’s anything wrong with nonstop gourmanding, but that’s a different tour). Reservations are recommended.

Additionally, this itinerary is more flexible than it looks. Every venue listed here can be counted on to satisfy whenever it’s open. So if you shuffle the suggestions and end up at The Obstinate Daughter for dinner or Babas on Cannon for your morning cortado, I guarantee you won’t feel as though your weekend was wasted.

And one final clarification: While every included restaurant is exceedingly excellent, there are many local restaurants equally good to those listed here. So this itinerary shouldn’t be mistaken for a comprehensive list of the area’s “best” restaurants. Instead, it was designed to convey a sense of Charleston’s unique culture and contemporary dining scene, with an eye to geography and service hours.

Sunset drinks

Thomas Aspinwall has his photo made by Zach Lee at the Citrus Club's outdoor patio at the Dewberry Hotel Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Thursday

DRINKS: Citrus Club

Since 2016, when mid-century modern spectacular The Dewberry sprung up within the shell of the former federal building opposite Marion Square, its first-floor cocktail lounge has led off this list. But visitors with a taste for a sweeping view of the city and the fruit-forward drinks that are synonymous with leisure should really ride the elevator to downtown's swankiest rooftop bar.

DINNER: FIG

Everything you’ve heard about FIG — Mike Lata’s James Beard award-winning restaurant, helmed by the terrifically talented (and also James Beard award-winning) Jason Stanhope — is true. It’s impossible to have a bad meal here.

Because Stanhope and his crew are so thoroughly attuned to the area’s bounty, and wise to how to prepare it, whatever’s on special should provide a suitable welcome to the Lowcountry. But there’s a reason that a few items are pretty much epoxied to the menu: It would be a shame to leave Charleston County without a taste of FIG’s chicken liver pate.

Marina Variety Store

Hashbrowns with grilled shrimp at the Marina Variety Store Restaurant. File/Renee A. Myer

Friday

BREAKFAST: Marina Variety Store

You could start your day with a benne-indebted Jam Sesh bar at The Harbinger and be very happy indeed. But a day on the coast really ought to begin at the marina, where the city’s surrounding waterways aren’t dismissed as tourist pabulum.

Marina Variety Store isn’t half as ritzy as the dining rooms featured in glossy food magazines. Yet here, in the company of sailors and lifelong Charleston residents who know where to find a good deal on a square meal, you can enjoy a plateful of gator with gravy and grits or green tomatoes stuffed with crab. The winning order is Lowcountry hash browns topped with eggs and grilled local shrimp.

Fried chicken at Bertha's Kitchen

Steaming fried chicken on its way to be served at Bertha's Kitchen in 2017.  File/Staff

LUNCH: Dealer’s choice

If you’re paying Charleston a weekend visit, Friday lunch represents your best shot at Lowcountry soul food. I’d steer you to Bertha’s Kitchen for fried chicken, red rice and okra soup, although eaters intent on sampling garlic blue crabs, which have of late emerged as a regional obsession, might want to head farther north to Nana’s Seafood & Soul or Garlic Crab on Wheels.

Still, if I was organizing the day, I’d devote it to visiting Middleton Place and Drayton Hall, two former plantations along Ashley River Road. That means you’ll be a fair distance from the nearest bowl of lima beans come noon.

Depending on how you time your visits, you might lunch at Middleton Place Restaurant, where you can sample catfish stew and hoppin’ John. Or you could dart over to Bessinger’s Barbecue to get acquainted with Midlands-style mustard-based barbecue and hash.

Bowens Island

The annual Save the Light Oyster Roast was held at Bowens Island Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020, to support the restoration and preservation of the Morris Island Lighthouse. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

DINNER (SURF): Bowens Island Restaurant and The Ordinary

This itinerary assumes oyster season. If you’re visiting Charleston in the summertime, scratch Bowens from the list. But the 59-year-old institution is a must-do when roasted oysters are served by the shovelful. Make sure to snag a seat downstairs for the complete self-shuck experience (and if sunset’s not scheduled to come too early, you might make time beforehand for a frozen drink at Lowlife on Folly Beach, one of the area’s best cocktail bars.)

When fellow food writers come to town, I always pair Bowens Island with The Ordinary for an evening of local seafood high and low. If you’re not up for two dinners, at least consider dropping by Lata’s fetching restaurant for the legendary smoked oysters, served with saltines and housemade hot sauce.

Lewis Barbecue

A tray with sliced brisket, 'hot guts,' pinto beans, potato salad and green chile sauce at Lewis Barbecue on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016. File/Wade Spees/Staff 

DINNER (TURF): Home Team BBQ, Rodney Scott’s Bar-B-Que, Lewis Barbecue

The Washington Post described Charleston as “the future of barbecue,” meaning the melding of chef sensibilities and traditional meat smoking skills may eventually reign across the land. But it’s unlikely any other city will ever offer access to one of the top Texas brisket practitioners and South Carolina’s leading whole hog pitmaster within a 1-mile radius.

Because the restaurants are situated within walking distance, might as well make an evening buffet of it. And it would be foolish to miss out on the white-sauced wings at Home Team while enjoying the scene’s diversity. Notice the joints can’t even agree on how to spell the South’s favorite noun.

Babas on Cannon

Avocado toast on Tiller bread at Babas on Cannon. File/Matthew Fortner/Staff

AFTER-DINNER DRINKS: Babas on Cannon

The premise for this shotgun salon sounds like the set-up for a joke: A bartender, a truffle salesman and a wine dealer walked into a partnership. ... They were determined to create a space reminiscent of European cafes, where refined drinks and small snacks charge conversation, and they succeeded magnificently. But Babas shuts down at 8 p.m., so it might fit better into a pre-dinner drink slot. If so, Proof is a reliable way to end the evening.

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Daps' pancakes

Apple Jack pancakes at Daps Breakfast & Imbibe on Ashley Avenue above the Septima P. Clark Parkway. File/Wade Spees/Staff

Saturday

BREAKFAST: Dealer’s choice

Depending on how you spent Friday night, your highest ambition for Saturday morning might be sleeping in. Late-risers can brunch at Daps Breakfast & Imbibe, which doesn’t quit serving superlative pancakes until the doors close at 2 p.m. Like many of the more dynamic restaurants to open in Charleston in recent years, Daps has a small footprint, smart drinks list and a set of young food-and-beverage vets calling the shots.

Those in search of something heartier might instead head to Hannibal’s: The neighborhood institution serves traditional breakfasts of shark and grits, but those in the know order smothered pork chops.

From there, head to the lively Saturday morning Charleston Farmer’s Market. Under COVID-19 restrictions, the market is no longer hosting food trucks, but you might still be able to snag a plastic bag of boiled peanuts. After wandering the market, stroll across the square to the Charleston Museum for its essential rice exhibit.

The Obstinate Daughter

The Five Fathom Hole Pizza from The Obstinate Daughter on Sullivan's Island. File

LUNCH (SURF): The Obstinate Daughter

The Charleston Museum is likely to leave you amped for more history or fully satisfy your fact quota. In either case, you’ll want to take a short trip to Sullivan’s Island, where you can tour Fort Moultrie or spend time on the beach. Sullivan’s also is home to The Obstinate Daughter, a terrific convergence of rustic Italian cooking and Lowcountry seafood under chef Jacques Larson’s stewardship. Try the wood-fired pizza with local clams.

Little Jack's Tavern

Customers at Little Jack's Tavern on King Street enjoy a meal under a tent Thursday, March 4, 2021. Brad Nettles/Staff

LUNCH (TURF): Little Jack’s Tavern

If you instead stay in town to check out the South Carolina Historical Society museum, swing through the Halsey Institute or take a walking tour, you have a chance to get to know the Little Jack’s Tavern burger, which has picked up just about every prize it’s possible to pin on a patty.

Little Jack’s got its start in 2016 as a throwback roadhouse serving cold martinis and straightforward steaks: For a sense of the retro mood it’s meant to convey, you might pay a dinner visit to the thoroughly enjoyable Melfi’s, its little sister across the street.

In fact, that’s also where you’ll have to go if you want a piece of beef and a knife to go with it. The green-and-white checked tablecloths and racehorse artwork remain, but the menu at Little Jack’s has lately been pared back so the burger figures into three of its eight available dishes. Take the hint.

Graft Wine Shop

Graft Wine Shop owners Miles White and Femi Oyediran. File/Stephanie Barna/Staff

BEVERAGE BREAK (WINE): Graft Wine Shop

Depending on when the mood for wine strikes, you may find yourself sipping rosé on a hotel rooftop without complaint. But Graft, the passion project from two recent alums of downtown Charleston’s top dining rooms, is the destination of choice for drinkers partial to biodynamic and sustainable wines. Not incidentally, that group includes many Charleston-area wine importers, distributors and sommeliers.

Edmund's Oast

Edmund’s Oast bar manager Jayce McConnell stands in a lifeguard chair while waiting for customers to arrive at Edmund’s Oast Monday, June 29, 2020, in Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

BEVERAGE BREAK (BEER): Edmund’s Oast

Charleston’s beer scene has grown at breakneck speed, with so many breweries now in residence that the city has an entire district devoted to keeping drinkers in suds. If you don’t have a full day to spend touring the nine breweries located on The Neck (not to mention the two dozen breweries beyond it), Edmund’s Oast has an excellent selection of local beers, clean lines and proper glassware.

Furthermore, Edmund’s Oast in 2020 was the top winner of The Post and Courier’s Dr. Leon Banov prize program for restaurants taking steps to protect their guests during the pandemic. While vaccines have diminished the need for an employee stationed in a giant lifeguard chair to monitor social distancing violations (and to remind worried folks that restaurants can be fun), Edmund’s grasp of hospitality remains impressive.

The Daily on King Street

The Daily offers a variety of espresso and coffees at the 652 King St. location on Sept. 12, 2014. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

BEVERAGE BREAK (COFFEE): The Daily

The Daily has a full complement of sophisticated coffee drinks, as well as inventive pastries from its well-regarded bakery at Butcher & Bee and a menu that’s wellness-centric by Charleston standards. The café’s avocado toast transcends trends, although it’s hard to beat the acclaimed whipped feta and honey on bread. But part of the draw here is the retail collection of local artisan goods, should you need any sea salt or hot sauce for the folks back home.

High Wire

Melissa Butts serves a variety of options offered for sampling at High Wire Distilling Co. Friday, Dec. 11, 2020, in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

BEVERAGE BREAK (SPIRITS): High Wire Distilling Co.

Delaney's crab claws

Blue crab claws with mojo sauce served at Delaney Oyster House in Charleston on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

If you have any interest in sampling locally made spirits that don’t hide their South Carolina roots, High Wire Distilling Co. has a deserved reputation for always being one of the first local outlets to fully harness flavors of newly resurrected ingredients, such as Bradford watermelon and Jimmy Red corn.

The James Beard award-nominated producer of whiskeys, gins and a Southern-inflected amaro in 2020 opened a massive new distillery along the forthcoming Lowcountry Lowline linear park, offering tours, tastings and a full-fledged cocktail bar, serving drinks such as an Irish Coffee based on its sorghum whiskey.

DINNER I: Delaney Oyster House

Set in a Charleston single directly across the street from Emanuel AME Church, Delaney Oyster House is deliberately understated: It doesn’t stock brown liquor or pour room-temperature red wine, both of which could obscure the delicacy of tiny blue crab claws, raw oysters and caviar.

But the new restaurant doesn’t shy away from flavor, as its rendition of crab rice makes clear, or the fun of an after-dinner ice cream cone.

Renzo

Jake Jacobson and his dad, Chuck Jacobson, drink their wine at Renzo Pizzeria and Wine Bar Thursday, March 22, 2018, in Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

DINNER II: Renzo

If there’s a drawback to Delaney, which exclusively serves small plates, it’s how many seafood snacks it takes to equal a full meal. Rather than griping about leaving the restaurant hungry, take your appetite straight to Renzo, home to an outstanding selection of wood-fired pizzas and natural wines to match.

Singapore Fried Rice

Singapore fried rice with the house maple ham, local shrimp, sweet peas, carrots, pineapple and buttermilk curry aioli at the Jackrabbit Filly restaurant in North Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

Sunday

BRUNCH: Jackrabbit Filly

If you’re determined to answer “yes” when folks back home ask if you ate at Husk, this is the meal at which to get your passport stamped. All that’s great about Husk, which was launched in 2010 as Sean Brock’s edible manifesto in defense of traditional Southern cooking, is on full display at brunch and lunch, and tends to disappear at dinner. Mornings mean fried pig ears and Benton’s bacon, among other dishes that helped foment the Southern food craze.

But if you’d rather get the jump on your friends and clue them in to what’s latest and greatest, spend your Sunday morning at Jackrabbit Filly, the Park Circle restaurant that grew out of Shuai and Corrie Wang’s terrifically popular food truck.

While the chirashi bowl that made them famous proves Shuai Wang’s precision with seafood, the brunch menu is highlighted by rollicking mashups of East Asian techniques and Southern ingredients, such as smoked local fish served with milk bread.

Fusing breakfast and lunch into one massive meal frees up more Sunday hours for wandering around downtown and scoping out where you might eat on your next trip. We’ll see you soon.

Still have questions? Email me at hraskin@postandcourier.com.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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