One of my favorite concepts is homeostasis, which is the scientific way of describing the changes that systems make in order to maintain equilibrium.
I think about homeostasis every January, which is when I annually revise my three-day itinerary for Charleston visitors. Every year, there are restaurants that have to be pulled because they’re no longer in business; this time around, for example, Hominy Grill was scratched. And there are always new places to consider adding to the list: Charleston County in 2019 gained close to 200 restaurants and other food retailers.
But no matter how much change the local food-and-beverage scene has endured in the preceding year, it ends up pretty much where it began. Downtown Charleston remains a fantastic place to eat and drink. Here’s one way to experience it:
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.
DRINKS: The Living Room
You could get drunk on design alone at The Living Room, the lobby bar at The Dewberry, a mid-century modern spectacular that in 2016 sprung up within the shell of the former federal building opposite Marion Square. Or you could focus on the bespoke cocktails, the sophistication equal of the smoked-glass mirrors and wingback chairs.
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.
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.
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 crabs close to town might want to swing by Nana’s Seafood & Soul instead.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 10 p.m., so it might fit better into a pre-dinner drink slot. If so, Proof is a reliable way to end the evening.
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 and Imbibe, which doesn’t quit serving superlative pancakes until the doors close at 3 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, where food truckers also offer huevos rancheros and breakfast burritos. Or, if you’d prefer to confine your breakfast to this portion of the planet, you could dispense with convention and make a meal of boiled peanuts. (The Farmer’s Market only operates from April until December).
After wandering the market, stroll across the square to the Charleston Museum.
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.
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.
BEVERAGE BREAK (WINE): goat.sheep.cow North
Downtown’s beloved cozy cheese shop has won over a new contingent of fans with a location that allows its owners to express their affection for wine and cheese in square footage. Although the designated cheese board changes daily, the store’s inventory includes a number of celebrated and coveted Southern cheeses.
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.
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.
BEVERAGE BREAK (SPIRITS): High Wire Distilling Co.
If you have any interest in sampling locally-made spirits that don’t hide their South Carolina roots, High Wire Distilling Co. in early 2020 is set to open a massive new distillery, offering tours and tastings every day but Sunday. The James Beard award-nominated producer of whiskeys, gins and a Southern-inflected amaro 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.
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.
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.
SUNDAY BRUNCH: The Grocery
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.
If it’s vegetables you crave, though, it’s hard to improve upon The Grocery, driven by wildly talented chef Kevin Johnson and his wood-fired grill. But don’t get stuck on the roasted carrots with harissa yogurt or butterbean salad. Johnson is a fantastic interpreter of local seafood, which tends to pair well with a charred tomato bloody Mary.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.