A Foodie's Tour of Charleston South Carolina
Go for the Southern charm, historic mansions, plantation homes and exquisite nearby beaches, stay for the food. Tourists are flocking to Charleston to get a taste of the Southern cuisine that goes far beyond fried chicken and biscuits.
By Anne Roderique-Jones | Photos by Andrew Stephen Cebulka
Heavy on Flavor: The grilled deckle is a signature dish at The Macintosh. Cut from the rib eye, deckle is a rare menu find, but a reliable choice at this Charleston joint.
Charleston, South Carolina, has long been known for its Southern charm. Historic mansions and plantation homes are the background for famous ghost tours, and exquisite beaches lay within a half-hour drive. But it’s the food here that really makes the town worthy of a visit. With great chefs and a variety of cuisines, Charleston is like a mini New York City. Tourists are flocking to Charleston to get a taste of the Southern cuisine that goes far beyond fried chicken and biscuits. (Although it serves up some pretty mean bird and bread.)
Standard menus in Charleston are rare. They change so frequently that most restaurants have resorted to chalkboards featuring the day’s specials—often made with only what’s in season and fresh that day. Husk, Charleston’s golden child of restaurants, was one of the first to pioneer this trend, and others soon followed. In the case of Martha Lou’s Kitchen, a small cinder block of a chicken joint, there’s no menu or chalkboard; you simply lend an ear to hear what’s on tap for the day.
Between freelance pieces for 417 Magazine and Saveur magazine and my weekly foodie column, it’s safe to say food is always the focus of vacations for my husband, Nate, and me—and Charleston was no exception. On a recent trip to the historic city, I started taking notes on the restaurants we visited, and the result is this guide to the best eating in Charleston. Use my tips to plan your own visit, and come prepared to loosen your belt a notch and feast like a true carnivore.
Sweet & Savory: Bone marrow bread pudding is a one-of-a-kind dish at The Macintosh. It’s a savory delicacy.
This new kid on the block has been on everyone’s lips since landing a spot on Bon Appétit’s “50 Best New Restaurants List.” The large, upscale space, filled with reclaimed wood and massive iron chandeliers, draws in a casual but hip crowd—like most hot spots in this town. Fresh, seasonal dishes make up a menu that celebrates a Southern focus with a farm-to-table bend.
If roasted okra’s on the menu while visiting, don’t miss a chance to enjoy—rather, devour—it. This preparation is a welcome riff on the typical fried version and enhances the flavor with smoky char. And while The Macintosh serves its share of delicious pork dishes, it’s the marrow bread pudding that’s worth a visit. Soft pillows of bread are rippled with creamy swirls of bone marrow—making for the ultimate upscale savory delicacy.
The bar upstairs is the perfect place (try the roof deck) for a pre- or post-dinner cocktail. It serves up carefully curated libations that are often laced with ingredients snipped from potted herbs that grow on the bar. The Bourbon Wedding Punch is concocted of bourbon, grapefruit, pineapple, honey and sage and packs a punch, indeed. They also have a bacon happy hour during the week, and a weekly changing small pork dish, like chorizo on a baguette with lemon-chi butter, for $5—it’s foodie heaven.
Finger Food: This luscious burger from Butcher & Bee comes topped with pimento cheese.
Butcher & Bee
The vibe inside Butcher & Bee mixes modern with vintage: An antique cooler is filled with soda bottles, and a stainless steel communal table lives alongside an antique cabinet holding cookbooks with cherished Southern recipes. A chalkboard features a short and simple sandwich-centric menu, including a fried green tomato sandwich served on crunchy multi-grain bread that’s made in-house. The tomatoes are topped with bacon (naturally) and a spicy mayo, and it pairs perfectly with the hand-cut fries and a side of fresh fruit, drizzled with local honey. Owner Michael Shimtov has added Friday Night BYOB dinners to the mix, showcasing international cuisines, like the bahn mi (a traditional Vietnamese sandwich) filled with purely Southern ingredients like pork shoulder and veggies harvested in the garden out back.
Despite its spot in a completely nondescript, mall-esque location, you won’t miss the place. Bearded locals wearing Toms and skinny jeans sprawl on the vintage chairs out front, while sipping cans of craft beer and inhaling the famed sandwiches.
More Dining Options
This is an upscale joint where you can make a meal out of the family-style veggies alone. This is the spot where you'll want to sample Charleston's famed red porgy, a tender fish with a mild, sweet flavor comparable to snapper.
Settle in for supreme steaks and a bottle of bubbly. This is one of Charleston's finest (and most romantic) dining establishments. Don't miss the live jazz seven nights a week.
This is the spot where Sean Brock began his career as superstar chef and put this city on the culinary map. If you can't get a reservation for dinner, grab a glass of wine off the Wine Spectator Award list and some top-notch bar snacks.
Early Bird Diner
A feature on Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, this bustling diner is a dive in disguise. Chicken and waffles, knock-out biscuits and gravy and some of the city's best shrimp and grits (with a twist) can be found here.
This local haunt near Folly Beach is a mega-dive serving the freshest seafood in Charleston (don't miss the oysters in the winter months). Local brews are the BFF to an inexpensive tray of seafood, so bottoms up.
Martha Lou’s Kitchen
You’ll need to sample some soul food while visiting Charleston, and to do that you’ll want to go to Martha Lou’s Kitchen. Although it’s just a speck in the gastro landscape, you can’t miss Martha Lou’s. This tiny chicken shack, painted bright pink, is a short drive from the downtown area. The wall is cluttered with local memorabilia, and countless glowing reviews hang next to family photos, curling from the heat in their inexpensive frames. The ancient air-conditioning produces little relief, so dress lightly, and wear an elastic waistband.
Most folks come here for the fried chicken; a half bird will set you back about a ten-spot and comes with two sides. The lima beans are legendary here and delicately float in a bath of butter and smoked pork. There’s also a super-rich mac and cheese and an okra soup—heavily spiced and filled with rice. A handful of tables often make for a long wait, but none of this matters, because it’s all about the just-out-of-the-fryer, home-cooked food that’s enthusiastically served by two sisters who deliver a big hello when you enter and a hug when you leave.
The Clam Man: Clammer Dave is notorious at Two Boroughs Larder, where he stocks the restaurant with super-fresh clams. Here they’re served with lemon verbena.
Two Boroughs Larder (Editor's note: This restaurant has closed since the publication of this article.)
Just north of Morris Street, Two Boroughs Larder has made its home in the upcoming Cannonborough-Elliotborough neighborhood. This is where the locals go to get some of the most innovative food in Charleston—and some of the freshest.
The chalkboard near the entrance displays the day’s menu, and when an item like the famous Charleston steamed clams runs out, you’ll have to wait for Clammer Dave to replenish the supply. Dave is a local seafood celeb and even runs his own seafood CSA. If you see him in this restaurant (or any in Charleston), you’ll know that those clams are straight from the ocean. The bivalves at Two Boroughs Larder are served in a bath of oxtail, San Marzano tomatoes, olives and chili—eat them with the crispy pork belly nestled in silky tofu. If you’re lucky (and adventurous enough), you’ll have the chance to try the pickled lamb tongue carpaccio—thin slices of lamb provide a delicate, lightly vinegar flavor. Dessert varies by what’s in season, but apple tartlets and ice cream sandwiches are among the sweetest contenders.
Fresh Take on Fish: At Two Boroughs Larder, roasted grouper is served with cockles and pickled chili.
This über-local downtown darling continues to rack up an impressive score of culinary accolades. Chef Sean Brock relies heavily on his Southern roots to create the daily changing menus and has earned cult status for doing so. You’ll often find local seafood and shellfish, accompanied by vegetables plucked straight from Brock’s garden plot. His lettuce wraps are a mainstay, with crispy bib leafs wrapped lovingly around crackling strips of pig ears. Dessert is ever-rotating, but scan the menu for the powdered sugar-coated beignets with a mini skillet of smoked lard caramel.
If you can’t score a table at the beloved restaurant (reservations are booked three months out), you’ll enjoy the bar all the same with its special menu and prohibition-style cocktails, like the Barrel-Aged Manhattan with bourbon, rye whisky and flavored bitters (aged for 30 days). Just pull up a seat and get to know some of the locals who congregate.
Where to Stay
Charleston Place (above): A mainstay on “best in the world” lists, this is the place to stay for the ultimate Charleston experience. Located in the heart of the historic district, the hotel features an Italian marble lobby, luxe suites and a full-service spa and pool. (charlestonplacehotel.com)
Planters Inn: This historic boutique hotel was built in 1844 and features antiques, four-poster beds and high ceilings. Bonus: You’ll be in the closest possible proximity to its restaurant, Peninsula Grille (named Charleston’s best restaurant nine years running) and its famous coconut cake. (plantersinn.com)
John Rutledge House Inn: Stay at this family-owned hotel that’s earned its chops as a National Historic Landmark. Perks include breakfast, afternoon tea and evening cordials—perfect to enjoy on the piazza. (johnrutledgehouseinn.com)
Charleston Area Beaches
A nature-lover's paradise. With more than 30 miles of walking trails and year-round golfing, this beach is an outdoor heaven. Don't forget your bike—it's the perfect beach for a ride.
This bustling beach is a hotbed of activity. Sand volleyball, beach bocce and kite surfing are found along the stretch. Bring your surf board; this is the beach where you're most apt to catch a wave. The main street is filled with quaint shops and beach bars, making Folly a fantastic option for a water-lover's vacay.
This quite island's upscale beach area is often a secret to tourists, but the unspoiled beaches and relaxed family atmosphere make it a must. (Hint: Park for free on the street and walk to the beach between one of the hundreds of beautiful beachfront houses—they don't mind.)
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