Charleston’s Top Restaurants

A city built on seafood and rice, Charleston remains focused on its abundance of local fish and produce, especially as its restaurant scene continues to boom. This once sleepy Southern town is now an international dining destination.

Highlights
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.
1503 King St, Charleston, SC 29405, USA
Charleston is a relatively small city to sport a food court, and Workshop’s out-of-the-way location on the Peninsula’s Neck underscores that. Situated in a Silicon Valley-esque complex of start-up office spaces, you’ll need to drive to get there, and once at the modern, industrial food hall, you’ll be faced with some tough decisions. The rotating vendors have included Juan Luis, a Tex-Mex spin from BBQ master John Lewis, and seasonal booths where the city’s up-and-coming chefs test out their latest concepts, from Japanese sliders to shareable Indian small plates. Although the vendors change regularly, there’s always a coffee shop, a craft pizza or burger stand, and a variety of ethnic options, making Workshop a must on any dining tour of Charleston’s latest and greatest. It’s also directly adjacent to Edmund’s Oast Brewing Co., a popular hangout and generally regarded among the city’s best breweries.
544 King St, Charleston, SC 29403, USA
A two-story dining room with an always-packed raw bar, The Ordinary serves some of the South’s best seafood. Here, chef Mike Lata dishes up must-try options like a seafood tower, crab toast, fish chowder, and triggerfish with fingerling potatoes. While the lobster roll is only on the menu as a Tuesday special, you can ask for it any day of the week and the chef will happily make you an order. Also worth requesting is the barbecue shrimp, which Lata poaches in a creamy sauce infused with Worcestershire and sets atop charred sourdough. Just be sure to book a table early. Groups should request the downstairs booths, while solo diners without reservations should order a cocktail and wait for a seat at the raw bar.
224 Rutledge Ave
XBB, as locals call it, occupies a remodeled and brightly furnished former gas station in the Elliotborough neighborhood. Catering to its surfer clientele with Nicaraguan beer, the spot also offers a constantly changing menu of authentic Asian fare. Order the Vietnamese-style shrimp toast, a purée of local shrimp, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, lime leaf, and chilies spread on baguette slices, then pan-fried—crispy and satisfying.
76 Queen St
At this Charleston hit, James Beard Award–winning chef Sean Brock reinterprets traditional Southern dishes with a steadfast commitment to local and regional ingredients—the restaurant even has its own garden. Constantly changing, the menu is filled with inventive new takes on Southern cuisine, such as pig’s ear lettuce wraps done up “buffalo” or “Kentukyaki” style.
FIG
232 Meeting St, Charleston, SC 29401, USA
It’s a big deal when a chef wins a James Beard Award for “Best Chef: Southeast.” It’s an even bigger deal when that chef’s successor wins the same award a few years later, but that’s exactly what happened at this downtown hot spot. Overseen by Mike Lata and helmed by Jason Stanhope, FIG is one of the hallmark restaurants that put Charleston’s dining scene on the map. Seasonal veggies are an important part of the menu, which is inventive and thoughtful without feeling fussy. (Anthony Bourdain raved when he dined at FIG—he had the asparagus salad with fromage blanc, quinoa, green garlic, and carrots—during a 2017 episode of Parts Unknown.) For local, creative food in the Lowcountry, FIG is the model.
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.
698 King St, Charleston, SC 29403, USA
Restaurateur Brooks Reitz built his name with this chicken-and-oyster joint that feels old-school despite its carefully crafted ambiance. On a first visit, it’s sinful not to order the perfectly salted, crispy/juicy fried chicken amalgam shellacked with a glaze of Old Bay and cayenne suspended in melted lard. That necessitates a second visit to gorge on the poached char-grilled lobster and sausage, or the Leon’s Fish Fry, a platter of shrimp, oysters and catfish. Leon’s was the first to open way-Upper King, now the restaurant hotbed, and it’s held onto its cool status thanks to its thoughtful buildout in a restored auto body shop, retaining the exposed rafters and a rollup garage door that opens to a patio out front.
1081 Morrison Dr, Charleston, SC 29403, USA
This cavernous brewpub has a wide-open kitchen, a long bar, tall communal tables, and a patio shaded by live oaks. If you can, grab a seat at the chef’s counter and watch the team spread creamy aïoli on locally made rye bread, topping it with pickled shrimp, vegetables, fresh herbs, and chervil leaves. The beer selection is unparalleled in Charleston, with the restaurant’s own brews ranking among the city’s finest local offerings.
1068 Morrison Drive
This tiny, pink soul food restaurant is a great spot to visit for fried chicken, fried pork chops, and, for the adventurous, fried chitterlings. Don’t let all that deliciousness keep you from trying the stand-out veggies, though, which range from lima beans and collards to mac and cheese—yes, mac and cheese is a vegetable in the South.
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.
710 King St, Charleston, SC 29403, USA
When local restaurateurs Brooks Reitz and Tim Mink shut down Saint Alban, Charleston was distraught. They had something different in mind for the space, however, and replaced their airy, all-day café with a cozy steak house straight out of the 1950s. Much like its predecessor, Little Jack’s has quickly established itself as a neighborhood favorite. It’s open every day from 11 a.m. until late in the evening and serves classic, meat-heavy dishes (steak, sliders, pastrami) alongside seasonal salads. A solid menu of classic cocktails (Harvey Wallbangers, sidecars) rounds out the throwback experience.
229 St Philip St, Charleston, SC 29403, USA
In the South, it’s quite easy to eat bacon at every meal—it shows up in everything from the Bloody Marys to the brussels sprouts. After several days in Charleston, however, you might need a break from all that meat. Thankfully, the crew at the sandwich shop Butcher & Bee does ingenious things with vegetables. Take, for example, the vegetarian riff on a pulled pork sandwich, in which barbecued squash comes topped with smoked slaw on a perfect hoagie roll.
6 Payne Ct, Charleston, SC 29403, USA
Everyone seems to be talking about Chez Nous and, frankly, it’s easy to see why. A meal here feels like dining at your most fashionable friend’s place. The restaurant is tucked away from the main drag in a beautiful Charleston single house, with a handwritten menu that changes daily, with the chef taking inspiration from the daily market as well as the cuisines of Northern Italy, Northern Spain, and Southern France. If the weather’s nice, request a table on the porch or in the courtyard.
476 1/2 King St, Charleston, SC 29403, USA
Whether it’s for breakfast, brunch, or a late eat after a night of revelry on King Street, owner Carrie Morey whips her mother’s recipe of the freshly baked, handmade Southern staples inside this counter-serve bake shop. Consisting of flour, butter, cream cheese, and buttermilk, biscuits come in sweet and savory flavors such as cheese and chive, country ham, blackberry, and black pepper bacon. For a more substantial meal, specials like fried chicken and pickle, and pimento cheese sandwiches are available. You’ll definitely stand in line at this sunny little counter-only shop, but here’s an insider tip: You can order ahead on the Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit app.
730 Rutledge Ave, Charleston, SC 29403, USA
Despite its refined food and atmosphere, the Park Cafe is really a neighborhood spot at heart. It opens up at 7 a.m. on weekdays, dishing out top-notch coffee and avocado toast, and stays open into the evening with great cocktails and a diverse menu full of local, seasonal ingredients. Try the mushroom-and-walnut pâté, which comes with raw vegetables and crostini.
1219 Savannah Hwy, Charleston, SC 29407, USA
This sweet restaurant in West Ashley serves up all the Southern classics, from fried green tomatoes to pimento cheese and grits, but makes everything with local ingredients. The grits come from nearby Edisto Island, and much of the produce is sourced from Johns Island. Come at lunch for one of the delicious (and enormous) po’boys, or swing by for dinner and pair fried pork chops with beer, wine, or cocktails from the extensive drink menu.
More From AFAR