Dining scene shines with diversity, newcomers

Tuna escarole tartan with white beans and house fermented watermelon radish (left) and ham fat confit potato, oil-packed sardines, ham fat hot sauce, house fermented Fresno chiles with white onion and celery leaf at Stems & Skins.

It's true, North Charleston's dining scene isn't the same as downtown Charleston. It doesn't boast restaurant-lined cobblestone streets with flickering gaslights, but it doesn't need to.

This city fosters a diverse food culture with strong Southern staples, innovative ethnic eateries and established culinary treasures. There is an excitement to the food scene here, and plenty to eat and relish. Many restaurants are already destinations for people outside the city, and newcomers are delighting locals and drawing fresh audiences.

If the only road you traverse through North Charleston is I-26, then it is easy to imagine that this city is full of chain restaurants and not-so-good buffets. And like much of the United States, it, in fact, does have its fair share of those places. But pull off the highway and go exploring, and from main arteries to side streets, this city is teeming with good eats.

North Charleston is and always has been a city of industry, from the military to paper to its new focus on technology and aeronautics, and thus it attracts people who are up-and-comers and move to the area for job opportunities and quality of life. The dining scene follows this trend, and instead of being ingrained in one tradition or style, is vibrant with a variety of cuisines, price points and locations.

For many diners who want to support their community through their fork, the center of the scene is Park Circle. This walkable neighborhood right next to North Charleston High School boasts numerous dining options, from the well-established Fratello's and EVO to newcomers The Junction Kitchen & Provisions and LoLA Low Country Louisiana Seafood Kitchen. The area has a few bars as well, from Madra Rua to Stems & Skins, and often the strains of live music waft out onto the street.

Further in the thick of the business sector, Rivers Avenue and Remount Road are hot spots where diners in the know hit a variety of places whose hardworking cooks serve authentic ethnic eats. Hopefully the beginning of a mini Buford Highway, Atlanta's hub of multi-ethnic cuisine, these roads offer everything from Vietnamese to Indian to some seriously good Mexican.

But sometimes the only thing that will satisfy is homestyle cooking, and in the Lowcountry, that means mac and cheese, peach pie, green beans and, of course, fried chicken and fish. Soul food and comfort food spots are sprinkled throughout the city, and often the easiest way to spot them is to look for a lunch line out the door.

“We were working on this project for two years and had been looking to place our bar downtown,” said Matt Tunstall, one of the owners of Stems & Skins, which opened in late January in Park Circle. “We looked at and (bid) on a few places, but in short, nothing really felt right. I had a friend who lived up here, and as soon as our Realtor showed us the first places in the neighborhood, we knew this is where we needed to be.”

Tunstall, who honed his knowledge of the area through his work as a sommelier at Husk Restaurant, wanted to serve locals and invest in a community. Park Circle gave him both. And when the wine bar opened its doors, the community spoke back.

“People came in curious and many would say, 'I live in this neighborhood and wanted to see what you were about,' ” Tunstall said. “There was a sense of ownership about this community. Some of the wines we carry, there are only 3-5 cases of them sold in South Carolina. I got to know those wines, and that's one of the reasons we opened — to serve them to locals, not have to have a $250 meal to try these wines. In the short time we've been open, the neighborhood has really seemed to have embraced us.”

Stems & Skins is capitalizing on a maturing of the beverage scene in North Charleston, a place known more for craft beer than anything else, and it is not the only place to serve up ambitious glasses, from craft cocktails to rare wines. But there is a maturing of food sourcing as well. Eateries such as EVO have been pioneers in sourcing locally, but as new development comes to the area, some restaurants are looking to build upon that model.

Basico, part of Mixson Bath & Racquet Club, “has defined itself in the North Charleston dining scene over the past three years by incubating its own sustainable practices with a half-acre farm, raised bed gardens and a weekly farmers market,” said owner Bryan Lewis.

“It's exciting to see other restaurants in the area starting to pop up that are committed to similar philosophies,” Lewis said.

The new crop of restaurants is thinking renewable, from energy sources to food sources, and green design and creative reuse of existing structures is creating a new modern feel for the city's dining scene. Longtime restaurateurs Henry Eang and Annmarie Benda of Basil played off the trend when opening Lotus in Park Circle. The revamped space, formerly home to a bank, fits right in with exposed ductwork and ceiling beams in the dining area and an easy, comfortable, urban vibe outside in the patio area, which is concrete and framed by the brick wall of an adjacent building. It's a beautiful space, and that's not even mentioning the food, which is always good.

There is really nothing like getting out of your comfort zone and being rewarded for it, and that comes to food as well. North Charleston's ethnic offerings richly reward ambitious taste buds.

La Nortena Taqueria and Mexican Grill is a great introduction to the North Charleston ethnic food scene. It's bright, expansive and has a decor that will be familiar to many diners used to Mexican “combination platter” restaurants, but this spot goes beyond chimichangas and refried beans to offer lingua tacos, ceviche and tacos al Pastor on the menu. But when it comes to North Charleston ethnic eats, La Nortena is just the beginning.

“Basically, it's almost cliche, but I've explored this area like food travelers Anthony Bourdain or Andrew Zimmern, driving around and looking for happy accidents,” said Paul Cheney, a food photographer and something of a local ethnic food expert. “You can walk in a place, and it looks scary, and you're thinking that maybe you won't stay, and then if you look back in the kitchen, you see someone's grandmother cooking something like a Nicaraguan pork chop. The majority of my favorite restaurants are like this.”

Cheney sees this exploration as a serious hobby, from touting the broth at Phuong Vietnamese to sharing his knowledge of the quesadillas at El Chapin Centro Americano on Remount Road. He's built a map for himself with 30-plus pins and photographed a lot of these proprietors, and he said that “this area is full of places in plain sight.”

Although the options are full of Central and South American eateries and Asian specialties, look hard and you can find flavors from other regions as well. For instance, The Codfather, a petite spot on Reynolds Avenue, offers a taste from “off” with mushy peas and fish and chips inspired by Great Britain. It's all about tasting something new, a flavor you didn't know you even liked because you didn't know it existed, and that can go for everything from mushy peas to bubble tea.

If eating out sparks your culinary creativity, you can combine dinner with grocery shopping and take something home for your own kitchen inspiration. Stores such as Bombay Bazaar, Jerusalem Market and H&L Market offer meal or snacks as well as packaged goods, and expanding your pantry while exploring these aisles is also a great way to connect to the larger community.

While North Charleston is very welcoming to new restaurant ventures and cuisines, the Lowcountry has a strong culinary tradition of its own, and that comes through in comfort food restaurants. Family and tradition are strong in the food here, and that's worth exploring, too.

Fratello's Italian Tavern, which is a beloved and comfortable restaurant in Park Circle, is consistently good, and for many of its diners, feels like visiting family, since the staff is friendly and the owners are usually in the building. The crowds respond to the workers as well as the food, and it's often hard to find a table without reservations.

The crowds also congregate at Nigel's Good Food, one of the “still” hidden meat-and-three gems of the city. With close to 300 reviews on TripAdvisor, though, the word is getting out on this spot. Go for banana pudding, Geechie wings, collard greens and, of course, chef Nigel Drayton's inside-out version of a chicken pot pie — chicken and biscuits.

But of all the comfort food that North Charleston offers, Bertha's Kitchen might be the most well-known. Featured in multiple publications, including “Garden & Gun,” this restaurant is a haven for people looking for a comfort food fix.

“Bertha's is one of my favorite day-off places,” said chef Forrest Parker of the Old Village Post House in Mount Pleasant. Parker, a 2016 South Carolina Chef Ambassador, has a secret to ordering: “Whatever looks good. I love what the sisters are doing there. But if I'd have to suggest, that okra soup is pretty special, and with a piece of cornbread, it's hard to beat.”

That sentiment goes for the evolving North Charleston food scene, with the promise of diversity, a good foundation and plenty of progressive ideas. And the best way to learn all that is to take a bite.