When I first answered the below reader question in 2016, I wrote that the question of where to eat while visiting Charleston was the one lobbed my way most often. That hasn’t changed, but the restaurant scene’s evolved in exciting ways since I first wrote up a dining itinerary.
Although this schedule was designed with timelessness in mind, openings and closings are a fact of the food-and-beverage business, which is why I revisit it every year. The following should remain current for the foreseeable future. Feel free to forward along to friends and relatives, since I bet you field this question, too.
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.
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 Little Jack’s Tavern 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. 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
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 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.
This itinerary assumes oyster season. If you’re visiting Charleston in the summertime, Bowen’s doesn't serve local oysters (too hot to collect them from the water.) 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.
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.
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.
Depending on how you spent Friday night, your highest ambition for Saturday morning might be sleeping in. Late-risers can brunch at Renzo, the best restaurant to open in Charleston in 2018. Wood-fired pizzas usually make the menu, but the a.m. fun comes from riding along with chef Evan Gaudreau, who weekly applies his command of technique to a theme that’s tickled his fancy.
Those aiming to get started sooner can eat at Hannibal’s as early as 8 a.m. 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 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 opened South Carolina Historical Society museum 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 (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.
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 seven breweries located on The Neck (not to mention those beyond it), Edmund's Oast has an excellent selection of local beers, clean lines and proper glassware.
BEVERAGE BREAK (COFFEE/SPIRITS): The Daily has a full complement of sophisticated coffee drinks, as well as inventive pastries from its well-regarded bakery at Butcher & Bee. 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.
And if you have any interest in sampling locally made spirits that don’t hide their South Carolina roots, High Wire Distilling Co. is right next door. 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.
When Sean Brock severed ties with the restaurant group behind Husk, Minero and McCrady’s, the widespread assumption was that the company would shut down the tasting counter he’d created late in his Neighborhood Dining Group career. Instead, the current team invigorated it, vaulting the set-menu meal into the upper echelon of the South’s fine-dining experiences. Pastry chef Katy Keefe is a miracle worker.
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 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.