Dishes Worth A Drive from Charleston
Okay, some of these restaurants are technically still in Charleston, but what they have in common is food that merits a trip outside the well-trodden tourist area. Get there however you can, but don’t miss the extraordinary things—soul food, Chinese food, barbecue, French-accented local, whatever!—being cooked up in these remarkable South Carolina kitchens.
1870 Bowens Island Rd, Charleston, SC 29412, USA
Bowens Island Restaurant has existed in one form or another since 1946. The original building, covered in Sharpie messages scrawled by diners over the years, burned to the ground in 2006. Owner Robert Barber rebuilt it almost immediately, all the while serving steamed oysters straight from the inlet beyond the dock. Today, the paper plates are modest but come piled high with fried seafood, fries, and hush puppies. Order the oysters, top them with cocktail sauce, and wash it all down with a local beer for one of the best dining experiences in town. Bowens may not have white linen tablecloths or awards hanging on the walls, but this is where you want to be eating in Charleston.
2332 Meeting Street Rd, Charleston, SC 29405, USA
Albertha Grant never set out to win a James Beard Foundation award and win the adoration of international magazines and patrons—she simply cooked good food and served it to people in her North Charleston neighborhood. But amidst the last decade’s gold rush around Charleston cuisine, Bertha’s shines in both its authenticity and flavor. It’s a classic soul food joint, with daily meat-and-three specials like fall-off-the-bone fried chicken, sumptuous pork chops, and collard greens that perfectly balance savory and sweet (there’s plenty sweet in the ice tea for everyone). The neighborhood is predominately African-American, and locals still line up here for lunch along with out-of-towners and Peninsula-based workers seeking Southern food done right. The late namesake’s daughters and granddaughters run the counter-service place now, efficiently taking orders to keep the line moving on busy weekdays.
2063 Middle Street
Chef Jacques Larson operates on the fringes, creating destination restaurants far off the Charleston peninsula, first with his Johns Island trattoria, Wild Olive, and now with this seafood-and-pizza-focused outpost on Sullivan’s Island. His signature ricotta gnocchi with short-rib ragù and horseradish gremolata sets tastebuds salivating and inspires frequent return drives to the beach, as do pizzas like “Old Danger,” featuring pancetta, black pepper, and a farm egg over melted mozzarella and parmesan. Weekend brunch is in especially high demand, but the well-designed, nautical-but-not-kitsch dining room and wraparound raw bar stay packed for lunch and dinner every day of the week. Downstairs, there’s an in-house coffee-and-gelato shop, BeardCat’s, that doles out breakfast sandwiches and lattes in the morning and 20 flavors of house made icy goodness all afternoon and evening.
1977 Maybank Hwy, Charleston, SC 29412, USA
Just through the heavy wooden doors of this Sichuan pop-up-turned-brick-and-mortar is the Pour House, an always-busy music venue where early evening soundchecks often fill the dining room with drum and bass noise. Even louder are the explosive flavors on the plate—the kitchen is unrepentant about not toning down the spice on the Sichuan beef and Yu Xiang pork slivers. For the full lip-numbing cocaine-face experience, start with the dry-rubbed Shaoxing chicken wings, which balance sweet, salty, savory, and spice with plenty of crunch. A few noodle bowls are adaptable for the more spice averse, but this is a place for adventurous fire hounds. On Sundays, brunch offers one of Charleston’s only dim sum experiences, including plenty of dumplings, scallion pancakes, and turnip cakes. After a meal, head to the Pour House deck for free daily concerts by local bands, before bigger-name bands take the indoor stage at night.
464 N Nassau St, Charleston, SC 29403, USA
It seems criminal that what many consider the best barbecue in Charleston comes from a Texas pit-master, but such is the nature of a global food scene in a thriving culinary city. John Lewis arrived in town with focus and intention, constructing an array of smokers that slow-cook hundreds of pounds of brisket, pork, and “hot guts” (sausage) each day. His expansive, counter-serve joint accommodates grab-and-go meals as well as extended feasts, for at least as long as diners can fend off the meat sweats. If you’re indecisive—which is natural at Lewis Barbecue—opt for the Sancho Loco, a mountain of a sandwich that piles guts, pickled red onions, pulled pork, and chopped beef between two slices that do their best to accommodate the onslaught of sauce and smoky flavor. Regulars know not to miss the green chili corn pudding—it’s a taste of Texas that’s more than welcome in the Lowcountry.
237 Fishburne St, Charleston, SC 29403, USA
This quaint neighborhood corner joint, on Charleston’s rapidly gentrifying Westside, serves Charleston food with a French accent. That’s not nouveau fusion-and-foams French—it’s rich old-school braises, and buttery, mounted sauces over braised local fish and pork ribs. Although the fancier entrees shine, it’s hard not to defer to the tempting double burger with pickled lunchbox peppers, or the French dip with its fall-apart brisket and intense au jus. Start with artichoke heart au gratin dip, the crab gnocchi with smoked bacon lardons, or a salad made with pears, figs, burrata, and toasted pine nuts. Pair everything with an excellent wine list and local beers. The best seats in the wood-ceilinged, cozy dining room overlook the kitchen (and can be reserved), where conversation with the cooks is welcome.
247 Congress St, Charleston, SC 29403, USA
Partly owned by part-time Charleston resident Bill Murray, Harold’s Cabin is a nutty combination of Murray’s sweetest comedic roles and Wes Anderson’s cockeyed art direction. This former neighborhood corner grocery store (opened by the namesake Harold Jacobs in 1929) keeps up the bodega tradition by offering some local goods on shelves and in refrigerated cases in the front, like pizza dough and milk, as well as fancier artisanal stuff. The rest of the place is more Wes Anderson—plaid-upholstered furniture, stenciled murals, vintage porch gliders, knotty pine panelling—the look is definitely not haphazard, though, it’s more balanced and a deliberate design. Entrust your cocktail or beer wishes to the affable veteran bartender, Drew Childers, who will draw from the extensive variety of local brews on tap or mix you a cocktail that draws inspiration not just from the bottles behind the bar but from the vegetables grown in the extensive roof garden as well. In addition to dinner entrees like a bison burger and a popular three-cheese ravioli in mushroom sauce, a ‘Graze ‘n Nosh’ menu section includes boards: a snack board is served with a sleeve of Ritz crackers teetering on a plank beside with cheese curds, slices of pepperoni, ham salad, pickles, and savoure cheeese; another board has a generous serving of cured salmon, latkes, pickles, and beet horseradish. The crowd is full of locals (the mournful face of a dog tied up outside implies that her evening constitutional was waylaid) and much of the conversation at the bar concerns surf reports and the merits of the beers on tap. There is frequently live music, as well as goofy regular events like a monthly Johnny Cash day on which customers dressed in black get a discount. Head out to Hampton Park Terrace and join Harold’s Cabin’s low-keyed party.