Charleston-based travel writer Claire Volkman shares what’s cooking at the latest and greatest restaurants (and a few bars too). Add her recommendations to your itinerary.
Don’t underestimate the Charleston food scene: more than 1,000 restaurants grace the peninsula and neighboring communities. With a growing season that never seems to end, James Beard award-winning chefs, and a stream of visitors who arrive craving a taste of the sophisticated South, Charleston is a place that knows how to satisfy.
The city’s cocktail scene is experiencing its own boom—with speakeasies, hotels, and restaurants stocking their bars with locally distilled spirits and house-made bitters.
After you have found a hotel, whether a historic inn or a newer property like the Hyatt House Charleston/Historic District or the Hilton Garden Inn Waterfront, the next step is to make sense of the abundance of dining options. We’re here to help, with 14 essential restaurants for every meal of the day.
Every Charlestonian has their favorites, but a lead contender for breakfast champion is Hominy Grill, a longstanding joint that makes habit-forming fluffy biscuits. Don’t skip the shrimp and grits either, which have been on the menu since the start. Another go-to choice is High Cotton, with a brunch menu that’s available both Saturdays and Sundays (a rarity in Charleston). Its signature Bellinis pair perfectly with the flaky crab eggs Benedict. Plus, the brunch service comes complete with a trio of bluegrass musicians.
The Darling Oyster Bar, a newbie on King Street, has been making some serious waves with its innovative brunch menu and elegant open design. With its full-time shuckers, you’d be remiss not to order a plate of local oysters along with an oversize bloody mary, topped with a hush puppy, lobster tail, king crab, spiced shrimp, and a pickle.
Beyond the peninsula, in Mt. Pleasant, Tavern & Table is another noteworthy newcomer. The restaurant ’s décor is cool and contemporary, though with a laid-back style, while the menu goes beyond seafood classics with innovative dishes from lobster wontons to shrimp beignets.
One of the most popular spots for a midday meal is also one of the newest, Lewis Barbecue. Located off the beaten path in the Upper Peninsula, this BBQ joint is helmed by renowned pit master John Lewis who creates succulent, melt-in-your-mouth brisket. Nearby is another local favorite—Butcher & Bee. They source all their ingredients locally, right down to the buns and sides like smoked potato salads.
Hidden in plain sight on busy King Street, Leon's Oyster Shop is a true Charlestonian favorite and features everything from chargrilled oysters to scalloped potatoes and fried chicken. And fans of Sean Brock, the acclaimed executive chef at Husk, will want to visit Minero, a casual Tex-Mex dining spot. The chilaquiles made with heirloom beans and the burrito with achiote pork, hoppin’ john and homemade crema are highly recommended.
Small Bites and Drinks
If you want to experience the allure of Husk but haven’t been able to score a reservation, head next door to the Bar, a true hidden gem. Here you can sample the South’s best bourbons and taste a few of Husk’s famous dishes, like the burger on a butter brioche bun or salted fried chicken.
While away some time before dinner and watch the city come to life in the evening, follow the locals to the Gin Joint, a speakeasy-themed bar for specialty cocktails prepared by bartenders in bow ties. Then keep the 1920s theme rolling at Prohibition, a few blocks away. It features a rotating menu of local beers and wines as well as creative cocktails like spicy jalapeño margaritas and cucumber gin coolers.
It’s no surprise that Charleston restaurants feature a variety of seafood dishes, given that the Atlantic Ocean is at its doorstep. But if tasting is believing, sample it for yourself at the Ordinary on King Street. Oysters are just $1.50 each during happy hour, from 5:00 to 6:30, Tuesday to Friday, while crab toasts and oyster sliders are ideal for sharing whenever you drop in. .
At dinner, the award nominees and winners who helm the city’s top restaurants pull out all the stops. One standout, going strong for nearly 15 years, is chef John Zucker’s Cru Café, which serves up gourmet comfort food in an atmospheric 18th-century home.
A more rarified example is the intimate restaurant at the Zero George hotel, which seats only eight people each half hour. Chef Vinson Petrillo puts an inventive spin on everyday dishes, like lobster rolls stuffed into cucumbers and his reimagined beef Wellington.
The décor matches the elegance of the food at Cannon Green, located on up-and-coming Spring Street. The rustic interior is bathed in natural light while the food is just as inviting, with dishes like spicy shrimp aguachile tossed with tomatillo and avocado and Celestial Farms duck egg ravioli in a mouthwatering brown-butter sauce.