Charleston is one of America's finest eating cities, and there are enough fabulous restaurants here for a town three times its size. The 'classic' Charleston establishments stick to fancy seafood with a French flair, while many of the trendy up-and-comers are reinventing Southern cuisine with a focus on the area's copious local bounty, from oysters to heirloom rice to heritage pork.
Eat & Drink Like a Local
We hope y'all packed an appetite and a change of bigger clothes, because this here's a top eatin' city with a darn good restaurant scene. Culinary influences from France, the Caribbean and West Africa spice things up, while mouthwatering ingredients come straight outta the Lowcountry fields, forests and marshes.
Year in Food
Times and weather patterns are a changin', particularly when it comes to undersea temperatures, so once-local blueline tilefish and the anglers who love them have already headed north for cooler waters. But here's some information about the seasonal foods and festivals you'll enjoy during your visit.
The local farmers markets start in April, with fresh seasonal produce including everything from squash to zucchini to sweet peas. Late spring is for soft-shell crabs. In March, the Food & Wine Festival is a gastronomic throw-down.
Oyster season kicks off, and Mt Pleasant's Lowcountry Oyster Festival draws thousands to Boone Hall Plantation in January. Restaurant Week has everybody in Charleston venturing out to try new places and dishes.
- Shrimp and Grits A menu all-star throughout the city, this Lowcountry classic is eaten with any (and sometimes every) meal. Best and most authentically served with creek shrimp, stone-ground grits and smoky bacon.
- She-Crab Soup Named for the crab roe garnish (which many restaurants leave off), this rich, creamy soup usually includes lumps of blue crab meat, sherry and plenty of spice.
- Fried Green Tomatoes Every proper Charlestonian kitchen has its on take on this classic dish, prepared with unripe tomatoes fried in bacon fat and encrusted in cornmeal. Bonus points if you load on the pimento cheese.
- Frogmore Stew Not actually a stew, nor does it contain frogs. Instead, this specialty is composed of shrimp, corn on the cob, potatoes and smoked sausage. You might also hear it called a Lowcountry Boil.
- Oxtail Made from the cow's actual tail, this bony Southern delicacy is often slow-cooked into a stew, or braised. It helps with flavor if the hunks of meat and bone are floating in a broth with their own collagen.
- Buttermilk Biscuits Whether you get 'em smothered in gravy or piled with pimento cheese, this quintessential Southern snack will have your taste buds singing.
- Deviled Eggs A common hors d'oeuvre, made by slicing the yolk out of a boiled egg, mixing it with some combination of mayonnaise, relish, pepper, dill and other stuff, then putting it back.
- Oysters Raw, steamed, Rockefellered or otherwise, these divine bivalves rarely disappoint in Charleston kitchens. Buy 'em in bulky clusters over near Folly Beach for a mighty fine (and affordable) oyster roast.
- Boiled Peanuts Not-quite-ripe peanuts boiled in salt water and served hot, still in the hull. Incredible snack.
Dare to Try
- Shad Roe A sack of eggs from an Atlantic Coast herring, available only while they migrate to spawn. It's got a liver-like taste and a mealy texture, and the Grocery has a lovely rendition with bacon, caramelized onions and a cornbread puree. Slightly North of Broad does a bacon-wrapped shad roe.
- Chitterlings (or Chitlins) Hog or cow intestines, often boiled with salt and garlic. Martha Lou's makes it best.
- Hot Quail Legs Inspired by Nashville's hot chicken, this delicious, insanely spicy appetizer is served at Virginia's on King. The recipe is a secret but they seem to be made with an abundance of hot chili oil and sugar.
- Pig Feets No, that's not a typo – people actually call them pig feets. They can be pickled, salted, barbecued, smoked or boiled, and though there's not much meat, there's plenty of gelatin. During our research they were elusive; let us know if you find them.
Lowcountry cuisine is all about the bounty of the sea, and with all that water surrounding the peninsula, the fish, shrimp, oysters and crabs tend to come in fresh off the boat. If there's something wriggling around in the salt marsh or the ocean, you can pretty much guarantee that it's been fried or steamed up in a local seafood restaurant.
Now, the local oysters are tough to crack unless you steam 'em, and that's meant to be done with friends over a lot of beer. Also, the raw oysters from up in Prince Edward Island or Massachusetts tend to go down easier than the local guys. As for the shrimp, local's always the way to go, and luckily there are three shrimping seasons that stretch roughly from May to January.
If you're a little bit fancy, you may want to seek out some of the finer fishes in life. In South Carolina, that's the wreckfish, which looks and tastes like grouper (only sweeter) and lives in hard-to-reach caves. Then there's also the blueline tilefish, a mild and delicate creature that's been harder to find more recently thanks to rising ocean temperatures. Triggerfish has also been showing up on menus, and is particularly tasty as a crudo (raw).
If you're really fancy about your seafood, plan your visit to coincide with the soft-shell-crab season. It only lasts a couple of weeks in April, but every restaurant in town comes up with a new way to cook and serve 'em. Favorites have included the tempura treatment with avocado dressing, and over a bed of creamy parmesan and bacon grits
It often gets lumped in with soul food or Southern cooking, but Gullah food is very much its own (very tasty) thing. And though you may not stumble on a strictly Gullah restaurant in Charleston, as most of it is prepared within households, you may see hints of it on menus in some of the most posh and prestigious eateries in the city.
Here's why: Gullah food was hyper-local, rotating and seasonal for centuries before anybody started using those words in their marketing material. The cuisine is all about what can be found on the land and fished from the sea, as well as West African land cultivation and cooking techniques that have been passed down through generations.
The most prevalent ingredient is okra, both because this is South Carolina's most reliable vegetable and because it came over from West Africa. There are also some unusual grains like benne seeds, sorghum and millet. Main meats include oxtail and chitterlings, and stews are common, particularly with rice as a base. Root vegetable soup using whatever is growing, be it cabbage, rutabaga, garlic or ginger, is super-Gullah. So are local oysters stewed in alcohol with bacon and onions. Dessert is peanut cake, which tastes like a cookie.
Keep a look out for these ingredients on menus downtown. And should you venture out to St Helena Island, make it a point to dine at one of the authentic Gullah restaurants there.
Maybe it's because barbecue needs a lot of room to be prepared and devoured, but the city's best meat-munching happens in expansive spaces in the northern part of town. In fact, the top two spots are within a half-mile of each other, and whether you're on team Lewis Barbecue or team Rodney Scott's BBQ is deeply personal.
We might slightly favor Lewis Barbecue, if only because there's a giant mural painted on the side of the building that says 'ALL HAIL THE KING,' with the likeness of a bull wearing a crown. It's really tough to decide otherwise, mainly because both joints have gurus for pitmasters, with very different styles.
John Lewis is more about beef, and his greasy, blackened brisket tastes like it's straight out of Texas. Rodney Scott goes whole hog, cooking the entire pig at once in true South Carolina style. This makes sense, since Lewis is from El Paso and learned to barbecue in Austin, while Scott is from Hemingway, SC, where he got his start in the family pit at the ripe old age of 11.
Both places have super Southern sides: mac 'n' cheese, collards, beans and cornbread. The dining room and patio at Lewis Barbecue has more style and polish. But when that saucy, flavor-saturated pulled pork at Rodney Scott's hits your mouth, who cares where you're sitting?
The point, basically, is that the barbecue bar has been raised in Charleston.
How to Eat & Drink
When to Eat
Breakfast, lunch and dinner (aka supper) are still the day's three main meals in Charleston, though on weekends, a noon brunch has edged out both breakfast and lunch to become everybody's favorite meal.
Breakfast and brunch tend to be large meals heavy on carbs – expect heaping portions of biscuits, chicken 'n' waffles, grits and pancakes, early in the morning. The main difference is that breakfast happens earlier than brunch, but menu items tend to look similar.
Lunch is a midday affair, and can be anything from a to-go sandwich to a three-course extravaganza at an upscale restaurant. It's probably the least important meal of a Southerner's day, though.
Dinner (or supper), is often a social affair, either with family and friends in the home or out on the town. In a true Southern household, many dinners will involve 'meat and three,' which is essentially a main meat and three sides. Supper used to be taken around 3pm, but these days people eat it between 6pm and 8pm.
Where to Eat
- Cafes Usually smaller establishments that serves coffee and tea along with some baked goods or pre-made sandwiches.
- Food Trucks Kitchens on wheels that tend to show up for events and sometimes for no reason at all.
- Fish Shacks These places tend to be holes-in-the-wall made almost entirely of wood, oftentimes near the sea. They serve mostly fried food of varying quality.
- Breweries In Charleston, craft breweries are big on offering at least a few snacks to pair with your brew.
- Restaurants Standard sit-down places where somebody takes your order and then brings the food.
- Experimental Food Courts OK, so there's only one of these (Workshop). But it's an awesome place to try out new dishes in North Charleston.
- Small plates Bigger than an appetizer but smaller than a main dish, these tapas-style dishes are often intended for sharing.
- À la carte Choose anything you like from the menu; sides often must be ordered in addition to main dishes.
- For the table A very large portion of food, meant to be served family style.
- Tasting menu A series of small plates chosen by the chef; often the whole table must agree to participate in the tasting menu.