Where to Eat in Charleston
Charleston is one of America’s top dining destinations, but deciding where to eat (and once there, what to eat) can be overwhelming. Here’s a first-timer's guide to some of the best places and dishes to eat in Chucktown.
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Barbecue: Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ
Rodney Scott already had a loyal following at his first whole hog barbecue joint up the coast in Hemingway, but the 2017 opening of his Charleston location has introduced thousands more fans into his pig pen. Scott smokes whole hogs overnight over chopped wood, and you can smell the restaurant blocks before reaching its Upper King Street location. The meat is chopped and served in a sandwich with one side or as a platter with two sides. Scott also takes serious pride with his scratch-made sides, including hush puppies, cole slaw, baked beans, mac and cheese, greens and a veggie of the day. Other options include spare ribs, pit-smoked chicken, a rib-eye sandwich and catfish for those who don’t do ’cue.
Dessert: Coconut Cake at Peninsula Grill
On the menu since Valentine’s Day of 1997, the 12-layer Peninsula Grill Ultimate Coconut Cake® is another Charleston classic. The five-inch tall, 25-pound coconut colossus is actually two cakes cut into three layers each, with fluffy filling, cream cheese icing and toasted coconut pressed into its sides delivering decadent bits without being too sweet or tropical. A huge slice is 1/16 of the cake, but whole coconut cakes are also very popular Charleston souvenirs (and are shipped around the country). It’s the perfect ending to a Peninsula Grill meal, which features Executive Chef Ramon Taimanglo’s exquisite takes on other Charleston classics and more in a classy Lowcountry setting.
Iconic Spot: Husk
Perhaps no other restaurant — in Charleston or all of the South — has furthered the cause of Southern fare more than Husk. The menu showcases local and regional ingredients, farmers, fishermen and other suppliers, with dishes like their glazed pig ear lettuce wraps. Though offerings change twice a day, dishes like the wraps, shrimp and grits, fried chicken and skillet cornbread with Benton’s bacon crumbles rarely leave the list. With locations in Nashville, Greenville and Savannah, Husk is sharing Southern bounty throughout the region.
Go to: Husk Restaurant
Iconic Dish: She Crab Soup at 82 Queen
Though versions of it can be traced to Scottish settlers in the South as early as the 1700s, today’s Charleston she crab soup is said to have been created by Mayor Goodwyn Rhett’s butler at the John Rutledge House during one of several visits by President William Howard Taft. Versions of it are found today at restaurants throughout Charleston, but many long-time residents swear by the version ladled out at the historic 82 Queen. There’s lots of butter and cream involved, but it’s the crab roe, crab meat, fish stock, sherry and whipped sherry cream that give this dish nearly holy status in the Holy City.
Located in North Charleston’s hip Park Circle neighborhood, EVO (Extra Virgin Oven) — along with its sister bakery out back — lures locals from miles around. —Creative starters like wood-fired olives, puffy focaccia bread and house-made pimento cheese and pickles pave the way for Neapolitan-style pizzas. The pistachio pesto pie features fromage blanc from Split Creek Farm; the Pork Trifecta is a meat lover’s bonanza of bacon, house-ground sausage and Felino salami, as well as their own house-pulled mozzarella.
Asian Meets Southern: Xiao Bao Biscuit
Situated in a former gas station, Xiao Bao Biscuit consistently receives rave reviews for its trans-continental Asian cuisine. Chef and Co-Founder Josh Walker learned to make his extremely popular Okonomiyaki (cabbage pancakes) while working on a Japanese farm. Made with cabbage, scallion, mayonnaise, sweet soy sauce and hot sauce, they’re available for lunch or dinner year-round. Seasonal dishes using local vegetables and seafood, as well classic Asian takes and plenty of vegetarian options, also attract lots of repeat visitors after their introduction to the allure of the pancakes.
Brunch: Poogan's Porch
Serving brunch seven days a week in a classic Charleston setting inside and out, Poogan’s Porch attracts locals and tourists alike. For their chicken and waffles, a Southern brunch tradition, the restaurant uses Springer Mountain Farms’ chicken breast with sweet potato waffles, sorghum butter and maple syrup. This is also a great place to try popular Charleston Mix bloody mary mix, which can be found in more than a dozen restaurants in Charleston. Poogan’s Porch uses Charleston-bred Dixie Black Pepper Vodka and pickled okra to spice it up a notch.
Go to: Poogan's Porch
See & Be Seen: Charleston Grill
Located in the upscale Belmond Charleston Place, Charleston Grill is elegant and refined, even for gentile Charleston. Executive Chef Michelle Weaver prepares creative, artful Southern dishes, including the celebrated house crab cake, with creek shrimp, tomato and a lime-dill vinaigrette. Pair food with carefully curated wines from Wine Director and Sommelier Rick Rubel, and the soft sounds of nightly live jazz.
Biscuits: Callie's Hot Little Biscuit
The biscuits at Callie’s have a seriously loyal following. Biscuit options include buttermilk; cheese and chive; country ham; black pepper-bacon; and blackberry.A biscuit sampler platter comes with a choice of three varieties; those who can’t decide can opt for the baker’s dozen package deal. The biscuit sandwiches are also hard to resist, including the sausage, egg and pimento cheese sandwich (with a choice of a fried or scrambled egg and regular or fiery pimento cheese sandwich.
Burger: Little Jack's Tavern
Just down from equally popular sister restaurant Leon’s Fine Poultry & Oyster Shop, Little Jack’s draws rave reviews for a retro tavern-style menu that features their bestselling Tavern Burger. Served on a sesame bun, the burgers are made with a blend of brisket and chuck that’s pressed flat on the plancha and topped with sautéed onions, American cheese, and a sauce made with sunchokes and mayo. It’s available as a “Little Snack” (single patty) and as a sandwich (two patties). For those who prefer savory over sweet, the single patty option is even on the dessert menu (and it’s often ordered). Order a round of caviar and potato chips to start and be sure to get a side of garlic fries, which come with a unique mayo-based gribiche sauce that utilizes hard-boiled eggs.
Open since 1990 and still going strong on East Bay Street’s restaurant row, Magnolias is beloved as a local classic by veteran visitors and first-timers in search of quintessential, yet contemporary Charleston fare in a casual Lowcountry atmosphere. Helmed by Culinary Arts Director Donald Drake, who is on the short list of restaurant royalty in Charleston, and Executive Chef Kelly Franz, the kitchen excels at inventive takes on the classics, including shrimp and scallops over creamy grits, topped with a luscious lobster butter sauce, along with boiled peanut hummus, fried green tomatoes and smoked pork belly.
Happy Hour: Edmund’s Oast
Happy hours are serious business in Charleston, and many spots offer oyster- and other food-focused deals. Situated up Meeting Street in an area locals call NoMo (“North of Morrison”), Edmund’s Oast remains a top pick for one of Charleston’s most-diverse and tasty happy hours. It features an ever-changing short list of snacks, cocktails, wine, cider and craft beers available at their bars for just four bucks each from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily. Possibilities can include Executive Chef Bob Cook’s sticky peanut wings, Edmund’s Old Fashioned, a dry rosé cider and house beers. Cook’s charcuterie is also worth the trip, whether it’s happy hour or not.
Italian meets Southern: Wild Olive Cucina Italiana
Wild Olive’s Jacques Larson is a transplanted Frenchmen with the heart and stomach of a southerner — and an Italian. Located out on Johns Island west of Charleston, Wild Olive is like a trip to the Tuscan countryside, but just minutes from downtown Charleston. Starters to share include the house-cured salumi with mozzarella, caponata and chicken liver rustica crostini, but Larsen’s pastas keep regulars returning — including his light-as-a-pillow ricotta-goat cheese gnocchi.
Seafood: Rappahannock Oyster Bar
Sure, Rappahannock Oyster Bar in The Cigar Factory has great oysters — their own popular Virginia-farmed options along with well-sourced choices from near and far (as well as raw local clams from famed Clammer Dave). However, it’s Executive Chef Kevin Kelly’s creative seafood dishes beyond oysters on the half shell that make Rappahannock one of Charleston’s best restaurants. After a selection of bivalves or a seafood tower, opt for small plates like red snapper tartare followed by entrees like Kelly’s art-on-the-plate grilled whole fish drizzled with chile oil and dressed with watermelon radish and watercress, or his Spain-meets-Lowcountry squid ink version of shrimp and grits.
Food with a View: Bowens Island Restaurant
Quite simply, you can’t say you’ve experienced Charleston dining until you’ve experienced Bowens Island Restaurant. Open since 1946, this James Beard Foundation America’s Classic features a rustic atmosphere, renowned sunsets and classic Lowcountry seafood, along with notoriously long lines. The order-at-the-counter menu includes their famous locally harvested oysters (steamed or fried), fried or boiled shrimp, fried fish, crab cakes, shrimp and grits, Frogmore stew and, of course, hushpuppies and cold adult beverages.
Mexican Meets Sean Brock: Minero
Minero first opened on a small East Bay Street spot adjacent to Unity Alley and in front of the original McCrady’s, but it’s popularity quickly outgrew the space. Now upstairs in hip, expanded digs, the creative Mexican fare has made it a must-stop in Charleston. The menu has lots of locally inspired touches, like tortillas made from a house-ground combination of Mexican and South Carolinian corn. Tacos are a major draw, including one filled with charcoal-grilled chicken, unripe peach, cotija cheese, lime-pickled red onion and smoky pasilla de Oaxaca chile.
Oysters: The Darling Oyster Bar
Of course, oysters can be found throughout the city, but there may be no better location for slurping some from near or far than The Darling Oyster Bar on now-booming Upper King Street. The U-shaped oyster bar — staffed by friendly shuckers with chops — seats just 12, but goes through more than 4,500 oysters weekly. The team sources the freshest oysters each day, with a focus on bright, briny East Coast options. Those in the know head for Oyster Happy Hour every day from 4pm to 7pm, with select house oysters shucked for a dollar each to pair with drink specials.
Fine Dining: Circa 1886
Executive Chef Marc Collins carries the torch of southern hospitality to the table at Circa 1886 the way adjacent and equally elegant five-star hotel Wentworth Mansion brings it to accommodations. A complete renovation in 2015 has made Circa 1886 as welcoming as ever, where Collins creatively uses impeccably sourced ingredients — Texas antelope from Broken Arrow Ranch (the chef’s old stomping grounds) and local produce, for example — in ever-changing dishes like Carolina flounder with king trumpet mushrooms and saffron daikon “noodles, and coffee-brined antelope with sorghum sweet potato mousseline, braised greens and pineapple relish. Their “5 for 5 at 5” from 5pm to 7pm Monday to Saturday is a fine way to start the evening, with five specialty cocktails and five wines available for just five dollars at the bar or out in the lush patio garden.
Worth the Trip: The Ocean Room on Kiawah Island
Situated inside the sumptuous Sanctuary in Kiawah Island Golf Resort, The Ocean Room features a stunning view of Kiawah’s wide beach and the Atlantic Ocean. Billed as a steakhouse, the restaurant serves a signature 18-ounce bone-in ribeye. The view and the steak alone are worth the drive, but it’s Chef de Cuisine Kyle Bowling’s red curry fish that keeps locals coming back. Bowling typically sears local fish with a luscious curry sauce (curries have long been an important spice in the area) and serves it with a side of coconut-infused Carolina Gold rice with pineapple-lime foam.
Rooftop Bar: The Vendue Rooftop
Rooftop bars are all the rage across the country and the Charleston peninsula's setting of historic buildings, church steeples and water on three sides made it ripe for a rooftop bar (and restaurant) revolution. Among many varied choices across town, the multi-level Vendue Rooftop atop The Vendue is a local and tourist fave, offering sweeping views of the Charleston harbor, Waterfront Park and the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, along with sophisticated cocktails and wines by the glass, and a menu of creative salads, sandwiches and snacks to share.
Tasting Menu: McCrady's
A major 2016 re-do and re-concepting of beloved Charleston institution McCrady’s resulted in a new ‘American’ restaurant called McCrady’s Tavern and a separate tasting-menu-only offering, McCrady’s Restaurant. The tasting menu is like a love letter to Charleston from Sean Brock. It’s a 22-seat concept featuring more than a dozen ever-changing small dishes, wine pairings, occasional caviar add-ons and more. It’s a relatively expensive evening by almost any standard, but dishes like the Beet Leather Bark with cocoa and lime, various preparations of aged beef and Southern sides, and multiple colorful desserts make it a bucket list evening for fans of Sean Brock and contemporary Southern cuisine with deep-reaching roots.
Go to: McCrady's
Soul Food: Bertha's Kitchen
Long beloved as a Charleston-area classic, Bertha’s Kitchen was officially deemed an America’s Classic in 2017 by the James Beard Foundation. Located up Meeting Street Road in North Charleston, Bertha’s cafeteria-style meat-and-three experience showcases different specials each day in addition to mainstays like golden fried chicken, fried whiting and fried pork chops, which are almost always on offer until they sell out. Southern sides, like sweet cornbread, boiled cabbage, mac and cheese and okra soup add heart and soul to this Southern soul food landmark.
Cocktail Bar: Proof
With so many world-class restaurants nearby, Upper King Street is ideal for pre- and post-dinner imbibing. Proof is a Charleston cocktail bar classic, serving both traditional and creative drinks in a subdued and simple environment. The list is long and the mixologists are knowledgeable, but not haughty. Those with time will want to try My Elephant’s Keeper, a creative blend of gin, Drambuie, pollen cream, lemon, honey and egg whites. It takes about 15 minutes to prepare, thanks to the egg whites, so ordering it scores a quick pony bottle of Miller High Life to tide you over (it’s listed as an ingredient in the drink).
With a much-desired Upper King Street location and a vibe that varies depending on the hour, O-Ku has remained a go-to hotspot in Charleston for sushi (and socializing) since it opened in 2010. The lobster nigiri is a social media star, but regulars know to add on local options like white fish crudo, local clams (with unfiltered sake) and the spicy sesame pork belly with kimchee puree and melted red cabbage. The O-Ku fever has spread beyond Charleston, with locations in Atlanta and Charlotte.