F&W names the best Charleston restaurants, including a soul food spot so legendary it appeared on Jeopardy! and award-winning chef Sean Brock’s Husk, where every ingredient comes from below the Mason-Dixon Line. Plus: where to line up for hot pecan-coated sticky buns and who serves the most amazing cocktails. » F&W’s Full Charleston Travel Guide
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Charleston Restaurants: Insider Picks
Local star chef Sean Brock opened Husk to showcase Southern food and ingredients. Every single item on Husk’s menu comes from below the Mason-Dixon Line, from the salt to the olive oil, from the rare heirloom beans to the seafood. Located in a beautifully restored circa-1893 Queen Anne, Husk is more simple and straightforward than Brock’s flagship McCrady’s, where the kitchen is full of high-tech toys and modernist ingredients. At Husk, Brock puts his fanatically sourced products in daily-changing menus that feature incredible versions of classics, like his shrimp and grits made with smoked sausage, roasted tomatoes and fennel topped with fried pigs’ ears; or a fried chicken cooked in four types of fat—butter, chicken fat, bacon fat and country ham fat. huskrestaurant.com
Charleston Restaurants: Splurge
Photo courtesy of Cypress.
At the over-a-decade-old Cypress, chef Craig Deihl combines whole hog cooking with Asian accents, serving grilled pork belly with kimchi fritters and local oysters with a green tomato wasabi and horseradish-lemon mignonette. The high-tech dining room—the computer-controlled lighting slowly changes color throughout the evening—is dominated by a wine wall of 4,500 bottles. magnolias-blossom-cypress.comPhoto © Ben Williams.
Opened in 2003, FIG (an acronym for “Food Is Good”) showcases the French bistro–meets–low country cuisine of chef Mike Lata. He might serve Carolina Gold rice with a fish stew en cocotte or use local beef in his pot au feu. Lata is so obsessed with freshness and the provenance of ingredients that FIG has no giant walk-in fridge, just a few small ones. The smart wine list includes Lioco’s 2009 Indica, a cherry-inflected Rhône-style blend on tap. eatatfig.comPhoto courtesy of the Neighborhood Dining Group.
Since taking over the kitchen in 2006, chef Sean Brock has reinvented this historic Charleston restaurant, housed in an 18th century tavern that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. Now, where George Washington once slept, Brock serves Southern food with a modernist twist, combining gels, powders and foams with great local ingredients—he even makes country ham cotton candy. mccradysrestaurant.com
Charleston Restaurants: Classic
Founder Albertha Grant was such a well-known figure in Charleston that when she passed away in 2007 at the age of 70, Mayor Joseph P. Riley spoke at her funeral. Now her three daughters, Julia Grant, Sharon Coakley and Linda Pinckney, operate the legendary soul-food cafeteria, open since 1979. Among the draws: hot-from-the-fryer pork chops, fried chicken and whiting, stellar okra soup seasoned with bacon, and fall-off-the-bone barbecued pigs’ feet, all served via Styrofoam plates and bowls. (843) 554-6519
A 60-year-old seafood dive on an island just 10 miles from the city, Bowens is a local tradition for platters of hush puppies, steamed oysters, fried fish, shrimp and grits and Frogmore Stew—a boil of shrimp, corn, sausage and potatoes. The original structure burned down in 2006, but it was rebuilt by the founder’s grandson, Robert Barber, in the same location. bowensislandrestaurant.comPhoto © Peter Frank Edwards.
Following the example of his mentor, famed Southern cook Bill Neal, chef Robert Stehling remains loyal to low-country cooking traditions at this Charleston institution located in an old barbershop. The restaurant serves three meals a day six days a week, and brunch on Sundays; there are biscuits with fried chicken and gravy in the morning; a fantastic pimento cheese sandwich at lunch; and more complex dishes at dinner, like sautéed chicken livers in gravy flavored with country ham or beignets dotted with okra and shrimp. hominygrill.com
Jestine’s is such a landmark that it was once featured on Jeopardy!: “A soulful stop for catfish in this city.” Besides fried catfish, Jestine’s is also known for its warm corn bread (served with thick pats of butter drizzled with honey), terrific macaroni and cheese and massive plates of fried chicken. Redefining health food, many recipes passed down from founder Jestine Matthews, who lived to be 112. facebook.com/Jestines-Kitchen
Just outside of downtown, in an little pink house, Martha Lou Gadsden and her daughter Debra Gadsden turn out what are arguably Charleston’s best soul-food dishes: crispy fried chicken, pork chops smothered in brown gravy and vegetables like okra and lima beans cooked low and slow. (843) 577-9583Photo courtesy of Peninsula Grill.
A grand, formal space inside an antebellum-era hotel, this Peninsula Grill is one of Charleston’s longest-running high-end restaurants. Chef Graham Dailey, who took over the kitchen in 2011, still serves some of the Peninsula’s most famous dishes (low-country oyster stew with wild mushroom grits, seared foie gras with barbecued duck and peach jam;) while mixing in lighter, more modern dishes (pan-roasted local trout with tomato confit, bok choy and rock shrimp). The Ultimate Coconut Cake, with loads of buttery frosting and coconut, is so popular that it’s available through mail order. peninsulagrill.comPhoto courtesy of Slightly North of Broad.
Slightly North of Broad, S.N.O.B., as it is often known, is anything but arrogant. Located in a renovated warehouse space with exposed ventilation ducts and an open kitchen, the fun, low-country bistro has been one of Charleston’s best restaurants for over 20 years. Chef Frank Lee consistently cooks impressive, delicious plates that are based on traditional dishes, like his Maverick shrimp and grits, a small plate of spicy shrimp, smoked sausage and country ham on a bed of creamy yellow grits. mavericksouthernkitchens.com/slightlynorthofbroad
Barbecue aficionados make the hour-long trek out of town to this legendary no-frills wooden shack, open only on Fridays and Saturdays, for hardwood-smoked pork from whole hogs. There are divine ribs and crackling, but the most famous dish is the pulled pork, with its sublime balance of porkiness, juiciness and smoke, served with tangy mustard sauce. sweatmansbbq.com
Charleston Restaurants: Best Value
Unlike a lot of spots in the barbecue-loving South, Alluette’s Café is a no-pork zone, and proudly so—the proclamation is scrawled on a chalkboard wall. Chef-owner Alluette Jones-Smalls grew up eating from her grandmother’s garden, and that upbringing informs much of her “holistic soul food.” She prepares terrific herb-flecked, shatter-crisp fried local shrimp, but most of her dishes are vegetable-focused, including okra fried rice and zingy, spicy lima bean soup that gets depth from a drizzle of sesame oil instead of bacon. alluettes.com
Despite its location next to a defunct auto-body shop and dinerlike vibe, the Glass Onion is one of Charleston’s best places to see classically trained chefs update Southern dishes. Chefs and co-owners Chris Stewart and Sarah O’Kelley’s buttermilk-fry South Carolina quail, stuff an omelet with pimento cheese and make an exemplary version of the local field pea stew known as Hoppin’ John. Locals pack the place on Tuesday nights, the only time the Glass Onion offers its incredible fried chicken (reservations are required). ilovetheglassonion.com
Charleston Restaurants: Bakeries & Coffee Bars
Graphic designer John Vergel de Dios moved to Charleston from New York City to open this café, located in a renovated circa-1885 home. The café uses only single-origin Stumptown and Intelligentsia beans and makes each cup to order in the pour-over method, which results in delicate, fruity-tasting brews. The stellar pastries are from nearby Sugar Bakeshop. hopeandunioncoffee.comPhoto © Bill Bowick.
A pretty cream–and–blue green bakery, Sugar specializes in old-fashioned cookies (chocolate chip, ginger molasses) as well as glamorous spins on Southern classics. Offered only on Thursdays: a cupcake version of the Lady Baltimore, sherry-soaked figs and raisins on a light almond cake topped with a seven-minute frosting. sugarbake.com
A new tradition on Spring Street: lining up on Sunday mornings for one of Wildflour Pastry’s warm-from-the-oven pecan-coated sticky buns. Since Wildflour only bakes around 200 buns, customers start arriving well in advance of the 1 p.m. cut-off. During the rest of the week, Lauren Mitterer turns out excellent flaky raspberry scones and pecan-studded coffee cake muffins. The bright, cheerful café only has a few seats, so most cutomers grab their pastries to go and eat in the lush courtyard. wildflourpastrycharleston.com
Chef Ken Vedrinski’s tiny, chic wine bar opened in 2010 with salvaged pine wood ceilings and custom marble-topped tables. The menu includes beers like Menabrea from Piedmont, a rotating selection of Italian cheeses procured by local cheesemonger Manoli Davani and a selection of about 40 Italian wines, about a quarter of which are available by the glass on any given night. (843) 577-0028
Co-owner Joe Raya’s ambitious, pre-Prohibition-style cocktails are made with three kinds of ice, house-made mixers that include obscure ingredients like crystallized acacia sap, and his own version of cola. Wife and co-owner MariElena prepares high-brow bar snacks like “pad Thai popcorn” (flavored with fish sauce, lime and palm sugar) and a short menu of larger plates like bourbon-barrel-smoked duck. theginjoint.com