Welcome to Charleston, where the culinary scene is as colourful as the pastel-painted houses that line the city’s cobbled streets. Are you looking for great places to eat in Charleston? Following our recent visit, I’ve teamed up with my fellow members of the British Guild of Travel Writers to bring you our guide to our favourite restaurants in this charming city by the sea.
The best restaurants in Charleston
From the seasonal soft-shelled crabs to the oysters plucked from the network of the Low Country’s estuaries, seafood lovers’ will be in seventh heaven in Charleston. Mind you, everyone, from carnivores to vegans, is well catered here. Gnome Cafe, for example, on President Street near MUSC (Medical University of South Carolina) is a particularly popular 100% vegan breakfast and lunch spot. While if it’s steak you are after, head to Halls Chophouse on King Street in the historic district.
Click on any image in the galleries to see them enlarged.
The most iconic Charlestonian dish, however, has to be shrimp and grits. These ground dried corn kernels are a Southern breakfast staple, an inexpensive meal that originates from First Nations’ culture. The local fishermen first started adding shrimps to their breakfast grits, and its popularity grew. Today, shrimp and grits have gone up in the world, appearing on every upscale restaurant in Charleston offering Southern cuisine. For a traditional shrimp and grits, just like grandma used to make, try Pogan’s Porch, while Magnolias offers a more refined setting for their elegant shellfish over grits, which includes scallops as well as shrimps and a lobster butter sauce. You’ll find them both in the French Quarter.
Decisions, decisions! Here’s our pick of the best restaurants in Charleston with some more of our favourite dishes.
by Nori Jemil
If you want to experience Charleston’s high end dining scene in a laid back environment, The Establishment’s where it’s at. Entering the dark, but stylishly lit interior, you’ll notice the centrally located bar just calling you over for a preprandial cocktail. Once seated, choose from chef Matt Canter’s Taste menu of appetisers. They’re served ‘family style’ for sharing and include carrots with fresh cheese, walnuts and fig vinaigrette, or an utterly addictive crab gnocchi. And while those dishes may sound simple, every single detail, from the dressing to the accompanying aeroponic lettuce leaves is delicious, well-sourced, seasonal and fresh. And when you’re fed up with sharing those heavenly starters, head to the Savor list of mains for one of your own. Charleston’s famous soft-shell, crab when in season, vies for attention alongside olive oil poached grouper or a rib-eye that’s cooked to your particular perfection. A vast wine cellar and an appropriately knowledgeable sommelier make this one stylish venue that serves up flavour, décor and relaxed hospitality in equal parts.
“Compressed in its narrow strip of land, lapped by its placid harbour, tumbled into its tiny islands, Charleston is a city of rich cultural history and architectural marvels – old ornate mansions, churches and forts – its downtown lined with gourmet restaurants.” So writes Paul Theroux in Deep South and, without meaning to, seems to capture the spirit of Circa 1886.
The wood-panelled dining room lies in the carriage house of the Wentworth Mansion, a grand pile built by a cotton and shipping magnate in 1886. The romantic restaurant is at one with this gracious heritage hotel, designed in Second Empire style. Mark Collins’ Low Country cuisine is from “the belly of South Carolina via the native tribes” (Broken Arrow venison, dandelion greens, preserved rabbit, and corn cob bouillon) to shrimp and rice grits (inspired by the African slaves) to “South Carolina today” (buttermilk fried red hen and fried green tomato salad). And there’s no escaping more history with the Huguenot torte soufflé, with green apples, pecan pie curd and ginger ice cream. Confused? Just pretend it’s 1886, but an 1886 imagined by a creative Charleston chef.
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Millers All Day
by Stuart Forster, Go Eat Do
Millers All Day is a laid-back place for food and drink at 120 King Street in the heart of downtown Charleston. Essentially an upscale modern diner where you can enjoy comfort food and zinging cocktails, Millers All Day opens at 7 am every day of the week. It’s ideal if you’re looking for a reasonably priced breakfast venue or an unfussy lunch that’ll look good on Instagram.
The menu includes traditional cuisine from South Carolina. Take your pick from the likes of biscuits and gravy (crumbled sausage in a pepper-rich, creamy sauce that’s spooned onto an American take on scones), bacon jacks as well as shrimp and grits, one of the South’s best-loved delicacies. The grits come from the small batch mill of Greg Johnsman, one of Millers’ co-owners. The cocktails pack a fruity punch and are big on flavour. If you like cake and are need a suggestion on which one to go for, try a slice of the brown coconut cream — the marshmallowy texture is the stuff of dreams.
Read more about Miller All Day on Stuart’s blog, Go Eat Do.
by Alastair McKenzie, Mech Traveller
“Oh, that’s easy! Go to Pearlz!” chorused a group of local women in a boutique clothes shop when we asked where the best place would be to get a cold early-evening drink and a bite to eat. They were SO right! Pearlz Oyster Bar on East Bay Street near the Waterfront Park is perfect after a hot day’s tourism. The trouble is, the locals know it too. But if you can’t get a table quickly, the turnover on stools at the bar is quite fast. The staff are excellent, and the food is spectacular and not slow to arrive. As the name suggests, Pearlz is all about seafood and the choice is agonising; you can’t have it all! For me Crab Cakes then Shrimp & Grits, all washed down with a couple of Pearlz IPA beers. Bliss.
Virginia’s on King
by Ferne Arfin, The View from Chelsea
There are probably as many versions of shrimp and grits as there are chefs and good home cooks in Charleston. It stands to reason since the city claims it as its own invention. Virginia’s on King, a casual eatery that specialises in “upscale Lowcountry cuisine”, cooks up traditional dishes from the owner’s family collection. Ferne managed to persuade the chef to share their treasured shrimp and grits recipe. Check out this traditional Shrimp and Grits recipe on her blog and have a go at preparing it yourself.
by Kirstie Pelling, The Family Adventure Project
Don’t let the name mislead you, there is nothing ordinary about The Ordinary, as I found out when I visited South Carolina to find out about things to do with kids in Charleston. This Southern seafood hall and oyster bar is located in an old bank on fashionable King Street. It’s all about the coastal Carolinas, and the food is as fresh as the tide. Ask for a seat upstairs where you can look down on the oyster bar as chefs prepare the dishes. One of our waiting staff appears with a welcome cocktail and follows it up with a starter plate satisfyingly stuffed with oysters, clams and shrimps. She points out three different types of oyster, giving us a little bit of background on each: “These are single ladies from Ladies Island, South Carolina. The farmer who cultivates these is one of the people you can go to for year round oysters. He also has one of the only seeding areas and produces seed for the region. These are in the waters on the east coast, and he has a very specific plot, so these are rather brackish, but they have that famous nuttiness we are known from in this area.” They go down in seconds, and when one of the diners suggests we try soft shell crab, it appears as if by magic before the mains.
by Kathryn Burrington, Travel With Kat
Established in 1778, McCrady’s Tavern, in one guise or another, has been a popular feature of Charleston’s social scene for over two centuries as one of the best restaurants in Charleston, SC. The entrance tucked away in a cobbled alleyway gives it an air of exclusivity. Stepping inside, I find a cosy yet surpassingly spacious restaurant with exposed brickwork, high ceilings, open fireplaces and soft lighting.
We are soon seated with wine in hand, as one beautifully prepared dish after another from Chef Sean Brock’s ever-changing seasonal menu appears on our table including freshly shucked oysters, a colourful beet salad and beef tartare with onion bread. A hard act to follow, but my tender and juicy filet mignon with Lyonnaise potato purée, broccolini, maitake mushrooms and a bearnaise sauce is perfect. Each dish is made from sustainable, local produce from South Carolina’s Low Country farmers and fishermen, not forgetting the restaurant’s rooftop garden. You can’t get more local or fresher than that.
by Mary Anne Evans, Mary Anne’s France
Savour that name. It smacks of centuries of tradition; of certainty in a world of changing dining habits; of wood-panelled walls and chairs large enough to accommodate the most corporate of posteriors. That’s exactly what the Charleston Grill delivers.
We dined in the small private Vintner’s Room. Proprietorial was how we felt; sipping excellent wine from large goblets, we knew we’d joined the right club. But this is Charleston, so any awkward formality was blown away by the friendly, distinctly un-snooty staff.
Chef Michelle Weaver combines a classic training with Southern inspiration producing a menu divided territorially. We ordered crab cakes and charred octopus from Waves & Marsh then from Field & Pasture superb Colorado lamb, prime beef tenderloin…and this is not for the faint-hearted, a whopping 22oz ribeye steak. Key Lime cheesecake and blueberry gateau were toyed with.
We left the restaurant to the sweet sounds of a live band playing soft jazz and walked back to the hotel through the warm Southern night, feeling a part of Charleston.
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