As you might have heard, South Carolina is one of the fastest-growing states in the country. A lot of the Palmetto State’s new arrivals are coming from the Northeast — a fact that probably rings especially true to Charleston’s diners, who have seen the ranks of this city’s nationally renowned food-and-drink scene swell with talented newcomers from coastal dining capitals like New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and beyond over the past decade.
But even with all these food-loving Yankees flocking to town, the Holy City scene remains remarkably short on the sorts of foodstuffs Northeasterners adore.
Boiled bagels are hard to come by here. Ditto dim sum and real-deal delicatessens. Finding a proper cheesesteak is a proper challenge, and straightforward slice joints are scarce.
So this reporter (recently removed from New York City, raised in New Jersey and born in Connecticut) put out a call to chefs, bartenders and other hospitality professionals who are either from the Northeast or have spent significant time there and asked them two basic questions:
- What foods do you crave from your time spent in the Northeast?
- Have you found any local alternatives to satisfy your hankering?
Their responses form the foundation of our Northeastern transplant’s dining survival guide to Charleston: a delicious, maybe even nutritious, directory to Lowcountry restaurants and retailers that can help hungry, homesick Yankees satiate their nostalgia for flavors they first encountered on the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Several Northeastern transplants contacted by The Post And Courier for comment were wary of coming off like carpetbaggers d'cuisine.
"Sounds like a lot of fun but might get some 'damn Yankee,' 'go back to the city if you're not happy' type (of) backlash from the locals," said Ty Kotz, a private chef who moved to Mount Pleasant after launching his career in Manhattan and Hamptons kitchens. "There is plenty ... here to celebrate that you can't get in NYC."
A reasonable point. It's a simple geographical fact that Charleston is in the Southeast, not the Northeast. And it's a culinary fact the Holy City has its own perfectly good regional foodstuffs. It should not remake its cuisine in Brooklyn’s image (or Brookline’s or Brewerytown's, etc.)
Still, with more Northern expatriates putting down roots in Charleston by the day, the food nostalgia is palpable. This guide isn't meant as a rejection of the Lowcountry's favored flavors (though it'll no doubt be received as such in certain corners of social media). It's just some northerly-facing service journalism for those Charlestonians-by-choice in need of a taste of back home.
And it isn’t a comprehensive guide by any means, so if you’re a transplanted Northeasterner with a “survival” tip to share, join The Post And Courier’s Food Facebook group (bit.ly/PCfoodFBgroup.)
Sound good? Great! On we go.
A not-so-hole-y city
Perhaps unsurprisingly, bagels were top of mind among those who hail from (or have lived) up North. Far more than "rolls with holes," bagels have predecessors in medieval Polish cookery but were created in their current form by Jewish bakers in New York City. They are not so prevalent here.
Megan Mina, a native of Long Island who works as a server at Chubby Fish and a sales representative for Kellogg's Selections, counts "legit bagels" as so lacking in the Lowcountry that their absence is almost too obvious to mention.
"Bagels for sure," said Kotz, recalling fondly his one-time proximity to the Bagel Hole in Park Slope, Brooklyn. "Nobody does that like NYC. It's the water."
This popular bagel-making myth has been at least partially debunked by food-science types, who argue that it's the boiling process, rather than the water itself, that produces a New York-style bagel's shiny shell and doughy bite.
In any case, downtown Charleston offers few alternatives. The Bagel Shop, which began boiling bagels on George Street in 2010, has long since closed.
Eastside Bagel, which opened in 2018, steams its bagels, and they're a serviceable option for erstwhile Empire Staters. Renzo's Sunday bagel brunch has lately delighted doughfolk with its wood-fired creations, too.
Desperately seeking slices
Speaking of dough, our Yankee food enthusiasts yearn almost categorically for pizza.
For those who have never experienced the subtle glories of an NYC slice, or a cracker-thin New Haven crust, or Massachusetts' unpretentious bar 'zas, this may be a bit of a head-scratcher. After all, Charleston has myriad excellent pizza purveyors who've lately taken up residence downtown.
But these aren't the cheap, convenient slices of yore, and accessibility, as much as quality, is a cornerstone of appeal here. A "$3 slice of pizza at 2 a.m. four nights a week after work" is toward the top of the list for Noah Singerman, director of operations at Rerun Restaurants (the group behind Leon's, Little Jack's, Monza and Melfi's).
Downtown Charleston simply isn't as dense as most Northeastern cities, so walkable 'za is hard to come by. Kotz recommended Sabatino's, off Marion Square, for that "walk-up" feel.
Elsewhere downtown, D'Alessandro's, a favorite among College of Charleston students, slings slices across from Cutty's; Benny Ravello's on King Street is a passable option for partiers. Kotz also suggested buying frozen dough from Rio Bertolini to make at home.
(In the course of reporting, another beloved pizza joint, Uneeda Sicilian on Huger Street, announced an indefinite hiatus, to the chagrin of neighborhood grandma-slice fans.)
Certain sorts of sandwiches
Delicatessens, a staple of quick, affordable handheld eating in the Northeastern corridor, rounded out the big three. There's "no place to get a true hero around here ... or hoagie, sub, whatever others call it," complained Mina, whose Charleston submarine of choice is made by Publix, the Florida-based grocer. "I’m not talking about a fancy sammie shop. I mean a real deli. With shredded lettuce."
She's heard good things about Joey Tomatoes — possibly from this very paper, which reported in 2017 that the Mount Pleasant deli's imported-from-Jersey Italian bread "manages to outshine even creamy mozzarella, fresh basil leaves and an admirably juicy breaded chicken cutlet."
Joey Tomatoes counts among its supporters Kotz, Singerman and Michael Toscano, the co-owner of downtown Charleston's Le Farfalle. But for those downtown who can't rationalize a trip across the Cooper for capicola, Mozzo serves a solid Italian sub; unexpectedly, so does Edmund's Oast Exchange.
Kotz, who has dreamed about opening an Italian-style deli in Charleston, is also a fan of James Island's Yous Guys, which deals in Philly-style cheesesteaks in addition to its Italian sub offerings. And he recommends goat.sheep.cow North for properly sliced prosciutto and mortadella.
Still, the private chef has so far been flummoxed in finding a Jewish-style deli for "homemade corned beef and Reubens and that kind of thing."
Readers with similar hankerings might try Julius' Delicatessen, a self-described "Newish-Jewish restaurant, serving Deli classics with a twist" while it's open within Workshop. (Kotz told The Post And Courier he had yet to try it.)
In search of: global cuisine
After moving to Charleston from Boston, Bar Mash's Joy Wolters found herself on the hunt for vegetarian Thai food.
"It was a challenge to find some of those dishes I missed," she said. Nowadays, she swears by Thai Elephants on Folly Road.
Charleston's relative sparsity of international fare, from Thai to Ethiopian, is a common lament among the city's food pros and amateurs alike. The explanation is simple: despite the spectacular influx of Northeasterners moving to Charleston, its racial and ethic demographics, like South Carolina's generally, still skew heavily white.
Thus, Charleston's international dining scene lags. This is particularly true downtown, where high rents create high stakes for would-be restaurateurs, and there is no built-in customer base of countrymen.
Singerman wistfully rattled off his global go-tos in NYC: dumplings, ramen, cheap-and-good Mexican and Indian ... "plus whatever that place in Williamsburg is called that served $5 falafel," he said. Nirlep Indian is "very good, but it hurts when dinner for two for Indian takeout costs $60, sometimes more," he offered.
Sarah Griffith, the general manager at Cutty's Elliotborough Establishment in downtown Charleston, has struggled to find local substitutes for international offerings she enjoyed up north, be it Taiwanese popcorn shrimp or borscht. To feed a "latent pho addiction," she journeys to North Charleston's venerable H&L Market or Pho Saigon on James Island.
And what about sushi?
"I have tried and tried here and it can't hold a candle to New York City," Kotz said. Your mileage may vary.
Late-night and all-hours eats
Not all the respondents rued the absence of a specific Yankee foodstuff; for some, Northeastern kitchens' extended hours inspired almost as much nostalgia as the food they served.
We're not talking about street meat or 7-Eleven, either. It's "late-night real food" that Charleston lacks, Singerman said.
"I’d love to see a place like Kwei Fei stay open 'til 3 (a.m.) but I’m not holding my breath," said Lindsay Collins, the host and creator of popular podcast EffinB Radio. Having returned to her home state of South Carolina after spending most of a decade in Boston and NYC, "the lack of options for restaurant folks to eat at when they get out of work has been the hardest adjustment," she said.
"Thank you Waffle House for never closing," she added.
Corrie Wang is the co-owner of two Asian kitchens almost universally beloved by our respondents: the food truck Short Grain and the newly opened Jackrabbit Filly on Spruill Avenue. But Wang, who spent a decade in NYC, misses the distinct Americana of the all-hours neighborhood diner.
(The reporter, who grew up in the so-called "diner capital of the world", can sympathize.)
To procure a cheesy omelet between 7 a.m.-9 p.m., Wang heads to West Ashley's Bear E Patch Cafe.
"Nothing fancy, just good home cooking," she said.
Diners are not exclusively a Yankee institution, of course. They checker the Midwest, and there are plenty in the Southeast, too. Regional culinary traditions are rife with overlap, and it's not always easy to parse what started where.
(To wit: Buffalo, where Wang grew up, is synonymous with a chicken wing preparation that very well may have been invented by an Alabama man.)
And former Northeasterners who haven't been able to find a fix have adapted to the Lowcountry's own offerings.
"I miss steak tips," said Chris DiMattia, owner of downtown Charleston's Recovery Room and Bangkok Lounge. He hails from Massachusetts and goes by the nickname Boston but has struggled to track down that city's beloved, niche bar snack. "I guess BBQ substitutes (for) it in the South," he mused.