Have You Been to Charleston Lately, Because There's So Much Going On
Things are changing—let's get you caught up
Charleston’s Hominy Grill will serve its last bowl of she-crab soup on April 28th, when the restaurant closes for good, marking nearly a quarter century of service not only to its hometown, but to America. From the beginning, long before Robert Stehling’s labor of love became the place you queued up for breakfasts of fried chicken biscuit sandwiches swimming in gravy, Hominy Grill was a thoughtful, tireless ambassador for the Lowcountry, pushing a relatively underappreciated sub-genre forward, at a time when other parts of the country were really only just warming up to the idea of Southern cooking in general.
If you have spent much time in Charleston, lately, the idea of the city going forward without an icon like Hominy Grill will seem slightly less than challenging; while it is never nice when a well-loved restaurant clocks out for the last time, the Charleston of today is not the Charleston of twenty-five years ago, it is not even the Charleston of ten years ago, perhaps less than that—like so many other Southern cities, the city has evolved, it continues to evolve, there are all these other things going on now, and after a week spent on the ground in January, I couldn't help but remark that Charleston didn’t really feel like Charleston, anymore, in some respects—there was so much that was different.
One of the best meals I ate, during the entire trip, was barbecue from a drive-thru, and not just any barbecue—Rodney Scott’s James Beard Foundation award-winning whole hog, served up, incidentally, around the corner from some of the best Texas brisket you could ever hope to find on Carolina soil, at Lewis Barbecue. There was a memorable lunch hour, on a sunny winter day, in the courtyard at Workshop, Charleston's first food hall, way up in the old industrial part of town, there were mornings hanging around at one of the nicest coffee shops in the Southeast, Second State, there was the popular restaurant—Tu—that had quite suddenly announced a pivot to Indian cooking, while the recent opening nearly everybody was talking about, Renzo, was drawing in locals for pizzas and natural wines.
There will always be (one hopes) mountains of seafood, oysters all day and soft shell crab in season, there will always be the sort of cooking that you come here looking for, from crab breakfasts at Hannibal’s Soul Kitchen, to beautiful dinners at Mike Lata’s tried-and-true FIG, up for another big award this year, and there certainly will be no shortage of shrimp and grits, anywhere, but there’s so much else, too, and if you have not seen or experienced Charleston in recent years, it is high time we get you caught up. Here are ten new and recent additions to the scene.
For a good while now, Mike Lata’s The Ordinary—an unfailingly smart seafood spot, known for its very good oyster happy hour—has been a Charleston go-to; recent word that its chef was moving on to open his very own place, a modern French bistro, specifically, was not small news, to say the least. Now, it's here. The beautiful room, a rotating menu to keep it fresh, but also the things you like—pate de campagne, steak frites—bring a little bit of Paris to town, and the way most everybody has responded to the opening, this is a good thing.
Right off the bat, there’s one thing that’s extremely authentic about this Spring Street tapas bar—it’s actually quite small. Recently the home of one of those new wave butcher shops, this Spanish restaurant and mini-market is making waves not only for the tapas menu, but also the controversial decision to preemptively bar a local food critic from entering the premises. For this reason—and for the food—this is the restaurant everyone’s talking about, at the moment.
If you know Charleston, you know there’s only so much space—it has been fascinating to watch, in recent years, as the action moves northward, bringing along with it some of the most interesting new restaurants the city has to offer. A side street near the leafy expanse of Hampton Park, considerably far off the main tourist circuit, is the setting for one of the most popular restaurants in 2018—think wood-fired pizzas, and natural wines, with creative sides and imaginative ice creams for dessert. (There’s brunch on Saturdays, too.)
A couple of years back, there was all this buzz on a little spot called Xiao Bao Biscuit, where you went (and can still go) for creative Asian-inspired dishes and cocktails, served up in a former gas station—Tu was the crew’s second effort, and after about a year in business with a freewheeling menu that allowed itself to be inspired by the entire world, Tu has decided to make one particular region its forever home—since January, this has been Charleston’s most unique Indian restaurant.
You can’t throw a discarded half-shell around here without hitting an oyster bar, seems like, but this one, close to most downtown hotels but just far enough away to feel a little bit like a secret, is a fine place to begin. Not that the good times begin and ends with oysters—there’s a worthy, seafood-focused menu (of course), as well.
Until quite recently, Scott’s BBQ was just a place by the roadside in the town of Hemingway, which for most people, requires a significant detour from wherever it was they were going, until they learned about the whole hog barbecue that has been served there, by the Scott family, for the longest time now—this recent and invaluable addition to the Charleston scene might vibe significantly more modern than the Hemingway original, but don’t even worry about it, because this (specifically, the whole hog) is not only some of the best barbecue in the Carolinas, but the country, as well. Still hungry? Walk over to the nearby Lewis Barbecue, where they do a bang-up job of bringing a taste of Central Texas to the last place you'd normally have gone looking.
This modern Italian restaurant is a cheerful, all grown-up spot that never seems to take itself too seriously, drawing on both old world and new world influences for an appealing menu of pastas, pizzas and salads.
In case the antique mill in the front window didn’t give it away, this relatively new address for classic greats like shrimp and grits, Hoppin’ John, and livermush with spicy mustard, is serious about their grains—the co-owner operates a well-known mill on nearby Edisto Island. A lifesaver on lower King Street for people who didn’t wake up in time for breakfast.
Sichuan cooking—no peppercorn left behind—in the Charleston suburbs? Yes, and finally—it feels like the city has been waiting forever for something like this, and now not only is it here, it’s good, too. What began as a pop-up in town has now found a home on James Island; if you’re driving out to Kiawah, or if you’re just looking for a quick break from town (and a bowl of pretty fine mapo tofu, when it's on the menu), you’re just a little more than five minutes from the nearest bridge, here—head on over.
Like most cities of any size these days, Charleston now has its very own food hall—here, however, you’ll have to venture pretty far from the action (it's a great stop on the way to or from the airport), to an architecturally-appealing mixed-use complex that includes not only offices and the like, but also Charleston’s favorite brewery, Edmunds Oast. There are six rotating kitchens, and the rather remote location raises more than a few questions, specifically regarding longevity and viability, but Workshop is here for now, and on a beautiful day, lunch in the courtyard is an absolute winner.