From the mailbag:
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!
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 here a one-size-fits-all eating itinerary for a long weekend in the city that starts on Thursday night and ends on Sunday afternoon.
Here’s one testament to the restaurant action that unfolded in Charleston in 2016: The standard itinerary I had been forwarding to every tourist who asks for dining suggestions neared obsolescence.
That wasn’t the case in 2015. At the end of the year, the tour I’d compiled in December 2014 still looked pretty current. This year, though, I had to find room for half a dozen exciting new additions to the local food scene (which meant creating a few choose-your-own-adventure slots. So OK, I cheated.)
Honestly, the task would have been easier if Charleston restaurants weren’t performing at such a high level: I couldn’t strike a single restaurant from the two-year-old list for slacking. Even though that compounded the challenge, it was a reassuring discovery in a city that’s always attuned to the next big opening.
No doubt I’ll revisit this list again in 2017. In the meantime, though, the suggestions below ought to help answer your guests’ most pressing restaurant questions.
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.
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 old 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. And 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.
BREAKFAST: Marina Variety Store
You could start your day at Hominy Grill, and be very happy indeed. But a seafood-themed day really ought to begin at the marina, where the city's surrounding waterways aren't dismissed as tourist pabulum. The restaurant 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 pork chops, 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. Bonus: Friday is buffet day.
This itinerary assumes oyster season: If you're visiting Charleston in the summertime, scratch Bowen's from the list. But the 58-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.
When fellow food writers come to town, I always pair Bowen's 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 smoked oysters, enshrined in John T. Edge's 2014 dishes-of-the-year column for Garden & Gun. (And if two restaurants sound like one too many, I won't even try to sell you on stopping at Roadside Seafood — right on the way to Bowen's! — for a cup of the area's best she-crab soup.)
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 one-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. (Editor's note: At press time, Scott's hadn't yet announced an opening date, but he was aiming for January.)
AFTER-DINNER DRINKS: Edmund’s Oast
A rib bone’s throw from Lewis Barbecue and Home Team BBQ, Edmund’s Oast offers an opportunity to cap off your meaty experience with first-rate charcuterie. But even plant eaters appreciate the drinks list at this handsome hangar of a brewpub: In addition to sensibly obscure beer, Edmund’s Oast is responsible for one of the city’s smarter wine lineups and imaginative cocktails.
BREAKFAST: Butcher & Bee
The whipped feta and kale salad are available as early as 10 a.m. on weekends at this contemporary Israeli-influenced restaurant, but morning also is a fine time to enjoy pastry chef Cynthia Wong’s brilliant croissants, breads and scones.
Should you not want to hike north of downtown again —Butcher & Bee is basically located in Edmund’s Oast backyard — the restaurant sometimes sells its baked goods at 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, head 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 newly renovated Gibbes Museum of Art or take a walking tour, you have a chance to get to know Little Jack's Tavern burger.
Indeed, the burger at this stylish throwback roadhouse is so special that it’s listed on the menu twice: Once as a starter, and once as dessert, for guests who couldn’t possibly leave without one last slider. Despite the visual references to boxers and racehorses, Little Jack’s is very cognizant of the way people want to eat now: There’s no shame in (or regret associated with) ordering the chopped kale salad.
BEVERAGE BREAK (COFFEE): Mercantile & Mash
Ideal if you’re returning from a Sullivan’s excursion, Mercantile & Mash boasts a coffee counter supervised by Michael Mai, who’s leading the Charleston charge for better espresso drinks. Not incidentally, the emporium also sells a range of edible artisan goods, so you can finish any souvenir shopping you didn’t polish off at the farmer’s market.
BEVERAGE BREAK (WINE): goat.sheep.cow North
Downtown’s beloved cozy cheese shop recently opened a new location that allows the 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.
On the way back to downtown, should you have any interest in sampling locally made spirits that don't hide their South Carolina roots, consider a stop at High Wire Distilling Co. The distillery has a deserved reputation for always being one of the first local outlets to fully harness flavors of newly resurrected ingredients, such as the Bradford watermelon and Jimmy Red corn.
DINNER: McCrady’s Tavern
It's not a Charleston trip if you don't brush up against a Sean Brock restaurant. And they don’t come more fun or accomplished than the Tavern, a merry revival of Gilded Age dishes plucked from Brock’s cookbook collection and wedged into a modern context. The caviar is served with tater tots, and escargot arrives in a marrow bone.
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 is great about Husk — 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 launch 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 eggplant hummus and pimento cheese grits: 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.