South Carolina champions its homegrown farms and bountiful waters with the best of them (a popular state sticker says 'Friends don't let friends eat imported shrimp.'). Along the gorgeous coast, Lowcountry fare, a historically significant, African-influenced cuisine spawned from the shrimp, crab and crawfish-rich coastal estuaries, dominates dining. Farm-to-table offerings excel from Columbia to Greenville – and there's a whole lot of BBQ too.
Eat & Drink Like a Local
In South Carolina, God comes first. Then comes food. From biscuits to BBQ, pickled okra to pimento to cheese, the Palmetto State is the epicenter of Southern cuisine, a veritable melting pot of regional flavors, signature dishes and lipsmackin' ingredients that has everybody, atheists included, praisin' the Lord.
Year in Food
Although changes in climate are afoot and crop availability varies from year to year, here's a general idea of what seasonal foods and festivals you'll enjoy during your visit.
Farmers markets start up across the state in April and May, with fresh seasonal produce including everything from artichokes to arugula, kale to kumquats. Late spring is for soft-shell crabs.
Oyster season kicks off, and Mt Pleasant's Lowcountry Oyster Festival draws thousands to Boone Hall Plantation in January. Across the state, Restaurant Week has everybody venturing out to try new places and dishes.
- Fried Green Tomatoes Every proper Southern kitchen has its on take on this classic dish, prepared with unripe tomatoes fried in bacon fat and encrusted in cornmeal.
- 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.
- Shrimp and Grits A Lowcountry icon, usually eaten for breakfast but really it's good anytime. Best and most authentically served with creek shrimp, stone-ground grits and smoky bacon.
- Oxtail Made from the cow's actual tail, this bony Southern delicacy is often slow-cooked into a stew, or braised.
- Fried Catfish OK, so it's a bottom feeder that doesn't have very much flavor. Somehow in the South it still comes out delicious. Don't ask questions.
- BBQ America's oldest BBQ is of the pork variety, served pulled, shredded, chopped or sliced. Spice and vinegar rubs are common, and the smoking often involves oak or hickory wood.
- 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 Whether you order oysters raw, steamed, Rockefellered or otherwise, Lowcountry kitchens rarely disappoint with this salty bivalve. Also, if you buy 'em in bulky clusters for your own oyster roast, they become entirely affordable.
- Boiled Peanuts Not-quite-ripe peanuts boiled in salt water and served hot, still in the hull. Incredible snack.
- Buttermilk Biscuits Whether they're smothered in gravy or piled with pimento cheese, this quintessential Southern snack will have your taste buds singing.
Dare to Try
- Shad Roe Essentially, a sack of eggs from a kind of herring found on the Atlantic coast, only available during the time of year when they migrate to spawn. It's got a liver-like taste and a mealy texture. Grocery has a lovely rendition with bacon, caramelized onions and a cornbread puree, while Slightly North of Broad does a bacon-wrapped shad roe.
- 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. Delicious at Jasmine Porch and Halls Chophouse.
- Chitterlings (or Chitlins) Hog or cow intestines, often boiled with salt and garlic. Martha Lou's makes it best, and Momma Lou's Gullah Cuisine does an interesting chitterling fried chicken.
Across South Carolina you're basically looking at Southern cooking, Lowcountry cuisine and plenty of BBQ. But there are a few variations here and there, based on the proximity of the coast and what's available locally and seasonally.
Myrtle Beach has a never-ending stretch of fried seafood places, pancake houses, high-calorie buffets and 24-hour doughnut shops. Most of it isn't very good. But head a smidge south to Murrells Inlet, the source of much of South Carolina's seafood, and the fresh fish will flow like wine.
Some of the restaurants here are known for basement fish kitchens, where fishermen pull right up to the docks to hand their catch to the cooks. Local delicacies are on display every year at the World Famous Blue Crab Festival held in Little River, just north of Myrtle.
The foodie hub of the Upcountry is this burgeoning city, where a locally sourced menu is all but worshipped as a new bible. Expect to see the name of the farm, fishery or forager alongside the name of your restaurant dish: for instance, the High Valley Farms trout tartare or the Hopkin's Farm muscovy duck. Although most of the great restaurants are concentrated in the downtown, West Greenville is also coming into its own with a couple of new 'haute Southern' places. Small plates are still big here, as are tasting menus, charcuterie, food pairings and the annual food festival Euphoria, which Edwin McCain (yes the singer/songwriter) co-founded.
A top city for food in America, Charleston offers a veritable smorgasbord of local and regional Southern food, with a heathy side of international restaurants. One popular route for the 'classic' Charleston establishments is to fuse Lowcountry ingredients (seafood, rice and local produce) with French cooking techniques. Meanwhile, many of the trendy up-and-comers are aiming for a more 'haute Southern' style, with little plates full of local bounty, from chicken skins to oysters to heirloom rice.
Choosing from the incredible number of restaurants that claim to offer the city's best shrimp and grits or fried green tomatoes can sometimes feel overwhelming, to the point where you just want a bowl of pho. And it turns out that's totally fine, because Charleston has that, too. Perhaps the best time to visit the city is during the Food & Wine Festival or Restaurant Week.