Charleston is such an old city, you’d think it would never change. And the basics never do: The antebellum houses with their sideways porches, the garden walls, the slow clop of horse-drawn carriage tours and worn-out sightseers making their way back to their hotels.
Then, more than a decade ago, something big changed: Charleston discovered the food world, and the food world discovered Charleston. Now people spend more time restaurant hopping than they do antique shopping and the chase to score the next hot table is more competitive than a dance at a debutante ball.
Now, it’s true that there are plenty of things to do in Charleston that don’t involve eating. It’s been a tourist town for several hundred years and the list of walks, tours and museums is endless. Just a simple stroll through those SOB neighborhoods (it’s not an insult, it’s a local nickname for the historic district South of Broad) or a drive over the soaring Arthur Ravenel Jr. bridge, one of the most beautiful in the world, is enough to fall in love with the place. Shopping downtown can be pricey but serious fun. We always stop at the Le Creuset boutique on Market Street. (Oh wait – that’s food again, isn’t it? Sorry, you can’t get far from the table in this town.)
On our last few visits, we noticed two other changes that have made Charleston visits easier and even more interesting: First, ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber have made navigating the old city much easier. Once you find a parking space or a place to stash a car, you don’t have to hassle with the narrow streets and harsh parking restrictions. Second, the city’s food scene has now spread well north of the Broad Street historic district, into areas like Upper King Street and “Upper Upper King,” with old commercial buildings becoming hip destinations.
An easy three-hour drive from Charlotte, Charleston has more food experiences than you can possibly fit into a weekend. We broke it down into categories to help you narrow it down.
In a city by the sea shore, you really should let someone sell you sea shells.
The Darling Oyster Bar: The Ordinary, Mike Lata’s temple to seafood worship, gets the national attention. But the Darling is getting the fun. The tall windows and white-tile interior make you feel cooler as soon as you walk in. The cocktail program is strong with this one, and the oyster selection is excellent (not cheap, usually $1 to $4 each, but good oysters do have their price). An example of fun: Where else can you get chowder fries, with clam chowder poured over French fries tableside? Take that, poutine.
Rappahannock Oyster Bar: When Travis Croxton started his sustainable oyster farming operation on the Chesapeake Bay, he also started opening restaurants in which to serve them. That’s how Charlotte got RockSalt, and now it’s how Charleston has gotten this new, big and buzzy seafood house. It has some things you wouldn’t expect, like well-executed soups (the traditional she-crab makes an appearance) and charred octopus. Lambs & Clams, a Charlotte favorite, is on the menu here, too.
As if summer in Charleston wasn’t hot enough, wood-cooked barbecue has become a town mania. These two outsiders have already claimed acclaim. They’re near each other, so you can pick whichever one has the shortest line. (That’s a joke – neither will probably ever have a short line.)
Lewis Barbecue: John Lewis is a Texas transplant who worked with the revered Aaron Franklin in Austin. This place took off as soon as it opened last summer for good reason: While the smoked turkey, sausage and pulled pork are popular, and the sides have down-home soulfulness (go for the corn pudding, if they have it), it’s the brisket that’s the thing. When they take it out of the warmer to cut it, it’s so tender, it wobbles a little, like meat Jell-O. Meat Jell-O: I drooled a little just typing that.
Rodney Scott’s BBQ. Rodney Scott has found fame all over the serious-’cue world for his family’s barbecue joint in Hemingway, S.C. After one pit house burned, he went on tour to food events around the country while he raised money to rebuild. His Charleston foray finally opened this spring and it’s already gaining big praise for whole hog that hews to Carolinas tradition.
Small but fun
Yes, you can get serious food in Charleston. But you can also get seriously good food that’s big fun.
Xiao Bao Biscuit: Located in an old gas station, this is Asian street food with no (OK, not much) pretension. If you go with friends, you can order everything on the short menu, and you should, because there’s probably something that will be a revelation. If you’re alone or it’s just two of you, don’t-misses include the cabbage pancake, okonomiyaki, and their version of green papaya salad.
Dave’s Carry-Out: When you find Dave’s, you may think it looks a little sketchy. But places like Dave’s and the fried-chicken palaces Bertha’s Kitchen and Martha Lou’s are where you find the real Charleston hiding under the old-money glamour. Prices are $7 to $13 for a takeout box loaded with great, mostly fried, soul food – from pork chops to seriously good fried shrimp. Sides include local favorites like red rice. If you’re really hungry for soul food, the Geechee Eats Food Shuttle will take you around to a long list of small restaurants, including Dave’s, Martha Lou’s and Bertha’s for $25 Tuesday-Saturday. Get the details at geecheeeatsfoodshuttlechs.com.
Leon’s Oyster Shop: We could have included it with the oyster spots above. Oysters here are wood-grilled and delicious. But what they do even better is crispy, peppery fried chicken. Even better: You can get it with champagne. Leon’s draws a young and hungry crowd, and it’s always loud, always packed and always fun.
Hip but good
Butcher & Bee: With locally sourced and very seasonal ingredients paired with Middle Eastern influences, the food here can be an eye-opener. During the day, you can go for breakfast with a healthful spin (well, healthful until you see that bakery case) or do brunch from a long and intriguing list of mezze, like whipped feta with fermented honey and chile-sprinkled cantaloupe. At night, start with the mezze and then hit an inventive list that include a lot of vegetable-focused plates. Don’t worry, there’s meat, too, like the succulent lamb chops.
Edmund’s Oast: Right across the patio from Butcher & Bee, you can double up on your restaurant stops with a trip to this popular gastropub. The food is old English in inspiration and the cocktail and beer lists both deserve serious attention.
The Grocery: The Grocery gets a little lost in Charleston’s hunt-for-hot restaurant world, but in any other town, it would be a standout. The charcuterie and pickles are made in-house and the wood-fired oven turns out a strong set of roasted and delicious plates, including a whole fish that arrives on a platter arranged like it’s still swimming, with perfectly crisp skin.
Hominy Grill: Back when Charleston’s food scene was just breaking loose, Robert Stehling grabbed national attention for his takes on traditional Southern cooking. Today, his food is just as satisfying as it was in the beginning, with righteous renditions of shrimp & grits, pimento cheese and, yes, the Charleston Nasty, his famous fried-chicken biscuit topped with sausage gravy.
Glass Onion: Not everything is in the historic district. You’ll find the Glass Onion on U.S. 17 across the Ashley River – and it’s worth finding (or making a stop on your way into town). Small, comfortable and filled with local art, it’s known for crazy-delicious things like buttermilk fried chicken, french fries with bearnaise and deviled eggs. If peppermint ice cream is on the dessert menu, you want it. I promise.
McCrady’s: If you want something that fits a fine-dining occasion, there are so many good choices. Slightly North of Broad, Charlotte-based 5Church and the Charleston Grill all have supporters, and I’d never turn down a spot at FIG. But if you have time (and budget) for one really high-end experience, get one of the limited seats at McCrady’s for mega-star chef Sean Brock’s tasting menu. It’s $125, plus $85 for the wine pairings, but it’s an inventive experience you won’t forget. If you want to go slightly less high-end, McCrady’s Tavern is less formal (and only a little less expensive) but just as deeply executed with a focus on traditional American dishes. It’s sort of the serious side of Brock’s more playful Southern-always Husk.