Partake of the Palmetto State: What to Eat in South Carolina
Dig into the seafood, sips, sweets and savories that make South Carolina one of the most food-forward destinations in the country.
Photo By: Andrew Cebulka
Photo By: Stephen Stinson/FishEye Studios
Photo By: Jason Stemple
Photo By: DiscoverSouthCarolina.com
Photo By: Erin Hartigan
Photo By: DiscoverSouthCarolina.com
Photo By: Amawasri
Photo By: Bart Boatwright
Photo By: Jeff Saxman
Photo By: DiscoverSouthCarolina.com
Peaches and Beyond
Being at the heart of all things Southern, South Carolina is a hub of regional flavors and tastes. From boiled peanuts to pimento cheese, and with a little BBQ, collards, and sweet tea thrown in for good measure, the Palmetto State is filled with signature dishes and iconic ingredients. Here are some flavorful favorites.
Illustration by Hello Neighbor Designs
Barbecue, BBQ or Bar-B-Que, no matter how you spell it, ’cue in South Carolina is a religion. Whether you go whole hog (Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway and Rodney Scott’s BBQ in Charleston are king), pork butts (Carolina Bar-B-Que in New Ellenton has been smoking theirs since 1968), ribs (Henry’s Smokehouse in Greenville and Simpsonville slow-roasts their St. Louis-style sticks for six hours), or an all-you-can-eat buffet with a wide variety, you can find them all on the South Carolina Barbecue Trail. And don’t even start on the tomato, mustard, or vinegar sauce wars.
Go to: Scott’s Bar-B-Que
A rich soup that’s similar to bisque, she-crab soup traditionally blends cream, fresh crabmeat, red-orange roe from the female crab (hence the ‘she-crab’) and a splash of sherry. It can be found on menus from the Lowcountry to the Upstate. South Carolinian chef Sean Mendes serves up one of the state’s best bowls using his family recipe at James Island’s Roadside Seafood. Another classic version has been a signature dish since the day Soby’s opened their doors in Greenville in 1997. And it’s also a 55-year fave that garners more adoration than any other dish on the menu at the iconic Sea Captain’s House in Myrtle Beach.
Go to: Soby's
There are few more-iconic foods in South Carolina than buttery, scratch-made biscuits. Served sweet or savory, the fall-apart flaky biscuit is nearly ubiquitous. Lizard’s Thicket certainly knows a thing or two about biscuits. Grilled, served with jelly; stuffed with egg and meats; or smothered with gravy, 38,000 biscuits are served each month at their 15 locations in the Midlands. The biscuits at Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit in Charleston (pictured) have a seriously loyal following with biscuit options including buttermilk; cheese and chive; country ham; black pepper-bacon; and blackberry. Can’t decide? Try a biscuit sampler platter with a choice of three varieties or a baker’s dozen package deal.
Also known as goober peas, boiled peanuts found their way to the Southeast with African slaves in the early 19th century. When peanuts were abundant in the summer, surplus crops were often boiled for preservation. These “boils” were enjoyed by friends and neighbors as part of social gatherings and ultimately became a symbol of Southern heritage and cuisine. Boiled in heavily salted water for hours (often with other flavorings), the peanuts become soft and salty, with a texture similar to cooked beans; they are often sold still in their easy-to-peel shells or canned. Charleston-native food and travel writers Matt and Ted Lee are the masters of boiled peanuts with their Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue, a mail-order cornucopia of canned peanuts, boil-your-own-peanut kits, and other Southern pantry staples.
It’s no mystery that deviled eggs are typically shelled, halved and filled with a mixture made from the yolks, mayonnaise and mustard. That mix is a canvas for creative chefs. Staying true to its devilish name, Bacon Bros. Public House in Greenville starts with the freshest golden-yolk eggs, mixes them with Duke’s (of course), yellow mustard, homemade hot sauce and a touch of apple cider vinegar. Their Devil’s Dust Eggs are then topped with spicy tasso ham, tangy pickled mustard seeds and a sprinkling of Devil’s Dust, a blend of some of the hottest peppers in the world grown and dehydrated in-house.
South Carolina is the nation’s second largest peach producer, behind only California. So, it should come as no surprise that perfectly picked peaches are abundant, used in cobblers, crumbles, and crisps, as well as salsas, soups and salads. If you are looking to create your own peachy creations, pick up perfectly picked peaches at Edgefield County’s Titan Farms, the largest peach grower on the East Coast. Chef Mike Davis at Terra in West Columbia makes the most of the summer peach crop with creations like his peach pork schnitzel. If dessert is more your thing, head to Juniper in Ridge Spring for South Carolina Peach Semifreddo. Served with pecan praline and a caramelized bourbon drizzle, this is a perfectly peachy summertime dish.
South Carolinians love a good old-fashioned fish fry, with all sorts of seafood fried to a perfect golden brown and served piping hot with sides and lots of napkins. Located in the oldest building along the Grand Strand, Hot Fish Club in Murrells Inlet—known as the seafood capital of South Carolina—is a true local joint paying homage to the original 1700s-era Hot and Hot Fish Club social club located on nearby Drunken Jack Island. Nothing screams iconic South Carolina food more than the Hot Fish Platter, loaded with fresh, golden-fried local flounder, shrimp, oysters and crab cakes, sourced from the inlet just steps away, with creamy slaw, a hot baked potato and hushpuppies.
Roasting oysters or slurping ‘em on the half shell are South Carolina rites. There are literally dozens of oyster hotspots up and down the coast. But Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks on Hilton Head Island takes oyster eating one step further by leasing the waters within sight of the restaurant to harvest wild single and cluster oysters, as well as cultivate their own single selects. With a shucker on duty daily, the restaurant shucks tasty bivalves to order, serving them with cocktail sauce, horseradish or a champagne-pink peppercorn mignonette. Pair a dozen with the Lowcountry Dirty Martini; it swaps out the olive juice for oyster liquor in a glass garnished with splash of salmon roe.
Whether you pronounce them pee-can or peh-kahn, pecans are a great source of protein, fiber and antioxidants, and lend a nutty crunch to foods, from pecan-crusted catfish to pestos and the Southern classic pecan pie. Young Plantations Pecans in Florence is the undisputed pecan king in this neck of the woods, selling raw, roasted, sugar-dusted, praline-coated and chocolate-covered pecans, not to mention brittles, log rolls, pies, gift baskets and more. Their retail store even includes a pecan tasting bar, and a bakery with fresh pecan muffins, cakes and pies, all offered with pecan ice cream from their ice cream counter.
Grits have long been a staple in the South and are made from corn that is ground into a course meal, boiled and served as a breakfast dish or part of a savory dinner, such as shrimp and grits. Geechie Boy Mill in Edisto Island has recaptured a bit of Southern culinary history of stone-milling their heirloom corn on a 1945 restored antique gristmill. The resulting variety of grits—white, yellow, Jimmy Red, blue and speckled—are used by chefs throughout the state and sold to home cooks at their farm store and online. They have also started producing their own Carolina Gold rice. Visitors to the farm can watch the milling process, as well as fill up on acres of heirloom vegetables.
Meat 'n Three
The concept of meat ‘n three is so popular in the South that it could be its own food group. Basically, it’s a restaurant where you choose one meat from a daily selection and three sides from a list that may include up to a dozen options. Perhaps no one does it better than Wade’s Southern Cooking in Spartanburg. With five meat choices daily, an additional four rotating meat specials and more than two dozen sides in rotation, Wade’s could serve diners every day for weeks and never repeat the same meal. It’s all served with a yeast roll or cornbread and tea or coffee. And, bless your heart, don’t forget to save room for one of their homemade desserts.
A staple of Southern cooking, collard greens are ubiquitous in South Carolina, often found accompanying barbecue, meat ‘n threes, beans, cornbread and so many other dishes. Cooked low and slow the old-fashioned way, with smoked pork neck bones and hocks, brown sugar and Valentina hot sauce, the collards at Old Bull Tavern in Beaufort are found regularly on the menu in their Oysters 843 — local Lady’s Island Oysters topped with collards, cream and Parmesan — as well as seasonally accompanying their grilled pork chop with peach compote and roasted sweet corn polenta.
Okra is not for the faint of heart. With its fuzzy outside, slightly slimy interior and mild eggplant-ish taste, okra is either beloved or reviled. South Carolinians tend to love it, serving it fried or in stews for generations. It’s on many a menu, but the charred okra at Za’s on Devine in Columbia is changing the minds of naysayers by the droves. Split lengthwise, deeply charred on high heat and finished with a hint of sea salt and red pepper flakes, the light, shareable snack minimizes the slime and allows the flavor and texture of fresh okra to shine through.
A childhood classic, beloved picnic food and staple for Southern chefs, pimento cheese has become one of the ‘it’ ingredients on menus across the state. Some argue it has lost its way with too many ingredients and too much refinement, but Heidi and Joe Trull at Grits & Groceries in Belton have kept it simple. Their recipe relies on the sharp tang of cheddar, the creaminess of Monterey Jack, the slight spice of roasted red peppers, creamy Duke’s mayo and a touch of grated onion.. Oh yeah, and it’s served on their own grass-fed beef burger with bacon, on buttered Texas toast.
Go to: Grits & Groceries
Cornbread (or Corn Muffins)
Known for its unique texture and undeniable aroma, cornbread can be baked or fried and is typically served in cast iron skillets or as muffins. Inn on the Square in Greenwood takes homemade corn muffins up a Southern notch by adding local peaches to create their signature peach corn muffin. With freshly shucked corn, South Carolina-grown peaches, peach liquor, cornmeal and just a touch of honey, these sweet and savory muffins are served warm with each meal and are available for purchase for those who just can’t get their fill.
Blenheim Ginger Ale
What started as a natural springs tonic for stomach ailments in the 1800s has morphed into the oldest continuously operating soda bottler in the world. Today, Blenheim Ginger Ale Company upholds the century-old tradition of making spicy ginger ale the old-fashioned way near iconic South of the Border in Hamer. With the original #5 Not as Hot, the more popular extra spicy and fiery Old #3 Hot, and a waistline-conscious #9 Diet, Blenheim is sold in 12-ounce glass bottles (never in cans or plastic) online and at dozens of retailers across the state. It has become a cult favorite among locals, visitors, spicy food enthusiasts, and celebrities.
Bloody Mary Mix
South Carolinians are fanatical when it comes to tailgating (and day drinking). Whether prepping for a Clemson or USC football game, cooling off after a day on the beach or lake, or celebrating the state’s cuisine at the many food festivals, locals more often than not include bloody Marys in the mix. A perennial favorite is the Charleston-based original Bold & Spicy Charleston Mix, an epic blend of habanero mash, apple cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce and spices. Their Fresh & Veggie takes the heat down a notch and keeps it vegetarian. All-natural, they’re practically health food in a glass.
Shrimp & Grits
Undoubtedly one of South Carolina’s most iconic dishes, shrimp and grits, once a budget-friendly Lowcountry staple, has become a menu darling across the state. Starting with sweet, wild-caught South Carolina shrimp, chefs spin the recipe in countless ways. For a classic approach, Lowcountry legend Frank Lee’s version at Slightly North of Broad in Charleston features country ham, sausage and tomatoes smothered over creamy grits. For a more modern take, check out Amy Fortes’ version at Rock Hill’s Flipside Restaurant with andouille, spinach, caramelized onions, smoked tomatoes, charred peppers and just the perfect amount of heat over South Carolina grits, all served in a cast iron pot.
Carolina Gold Rice
Rice was a king crop in South Carolina until the turn of the 20th century, and the predominant strain in its heyday was an Africa-sourced variety that came to be known as Carolina Gold. Today, companies like Anson Mills and Carolina Plantation have resurrected this heirloom long-grain rice, which yields fluffy, individual grains, creamy risotto or sticky stir-fries. Columbia’s Motor Supply Co. Bistro serve Fish Camp Fried Catfish over Carolina Gold Rice Grits. After grinding his rice into bits, Chef Wesley Fulmer cooks it risotto-style, transforming it into creamy and sultry rice grits, the perfect oh-so-Southern bed for catfish topped with an okra-tomato stew.
Versatile sweet potatoes find their way onto tables and menus candied, fried, baked, roasted, mashed and in casseroles, pies, pancakes and waffles for good reason. They pack a nutritious punch, they’re available almost all year long, and their color brightens any plate. For a slightly different take on South Carolina sweet potatoes, head to Benford Brewing in Lancaster for their Southern Tater Sweet Potato Ale. Made with fresh cut sweet potatoes straight from the farm, marshmallows and a small hint of cinnamon, this “non-pumpkin” brew has all the key ingredients of a Southern sweet potato casserole that can be enjoyed all year long.
Chow-chow is part pickled relish, part slaw and part condiment in South Carolina. Tangy, sometimes sweet and sometimes spicy, but always crunchy, South Carolina-style chow chow typically starts with cabbage or green tomato; from there, it’s game on. Home cooks use fresh-picked tomatoes, onions, sweet peppers, hot peppers, squash, garlic, mustard seed and pretty much anything else they can fit in a canning jar, covering it all in a brine of vinegar, salt and spices. Serving chow-chow alongside beans with cornbread is customary, but South Carolinians use it the way most people use ketchup, putting it on burgers, fried green tomatoes, biscuits, greens and pretty much anything else that begs for tang. At Columbia’s Bourbon, homemade green tomato chow-chow tops their Fried Green, Eggs and Ham with crispy fried green tomatoes, pan-seared mortadella and scrambled eggs on an English muffin.
Go to: Bourbon
Founded by Eugenia Duke while feeding allied soldiers at Greenville’s Camp Sevier in 1917, Duke’s Mayonnaise has become the condiment of the South. Many battles have ensued between chefs and home cooks alike on which mayo reigns supreme, but the clear winner in South Carolina is the smooth, creamy, slightly tangy, sugar-free spread with the familiar yellow label. Although only the third-largest brand in the U.S., Duke’s Mayonnaise is used by chefs throughout the state in classic dishes like deviled eggs, pimento cheese, potato salad, chocolate cake and the perennial tomato sandwich.
Frogmore Stew isn’t really a stew at all: It’s a one-pot meal featuring the Lowcountry’s peak summer delicacies. It combines seafood, potato, sausage and corn on the cob, in a boil that’s typically spread out over a newspaper-laden picnic table for communal dining. The recipe apparently originated in the community of Frogmore on St. Helena Island. So, it’s fitting to head to Foolish Frog at the crossroads in Frogmore to enjoy their Frogmore Pot. With local shrimp right out of the ocean off nearby Hunting Island, as well as sweet onion, potato, beef sausage, fresh corn on the cob from Dempsey Farms down the street, and a blend of seasonings, it’s a Southern specialty served at its source.
The benne (or sesame) seed has been a staple in the South Carolina Lowcountry foodways for hundreds of years. But as tourism grew in the early 20th century, bakers discovered that the tiny seed made for a delicious souvenir in the form of a benne wafer — a sweet, crunchy, bite-sized flat cookie that represents a true taste of the Lowcountry. Gift shops around the state often carry benne wafers, but if you need a fix between visits, Food for the Southern Soul is your hook-up for Charleston Favorites™ Benne Wafers (splurge and get the eight-pack). Tasty and versatile, the cookies can be spread with pimento cheese for an appetizer or made into diminutive ice cream sandwiches for dessert.