10 Best Restaurants: Ten Top Places To Eat In Charleston
By M. Linda Lee
Food & Wine Expert
Southern food may be on fire these days, but chefs in The Holy City have been cooking with Carolina Gold rice, field peas, fried okra and Benne (sesame seeds) since the slaves who were brought over from Africa introduced these items to South Carolina centuries ago. Today, Charleston chefs like Mike Lata (FIG), Sean Brock (McCrady’s and Husk), Robert Stehling (Hominy Grill) and Frank Lee (Slightly North of Broad)—all of whom helped fuel the farm-to-table movement in the Lowcountry long before it became a hot trend—are redefining Southern cuisine. All add their own touches to kick humble Southern dishes up to new heights.
While you’re in Charleston, be sure to sample Lowcountry specialties like shrimp and grits, and hoppin’ John, a mixture of rice and peas traditionally eaten by Southerners on New Year’s day to insure good fortune (the peas represent coins). And dive into a Lowcountry boil (aka Frogmore stew, for its origin in the Frogmore community on St. Helena Island, near Beaufort), a one-pot dish containing fresh Carolina coast shrimp, cobs of yellow corn, chunks of potato and rounds of smoked sausage. Eat Lowcountry boil as the locals do, on a newspaper-covered table filled with family and friends.
10 Slightly North of Broad
Native Charlestonians immediately understand the pun behind the restaurant's name. Historically, Charleston's well-to-do lived south of Broad Street, so it's a jab at the city's socialites that the acronym for this eatery located in the less-coveted area north of Broad is S.N.O.B. This is a great place for lunch, when prices are lower and the Express Lunch, served with soup or salad and your choice of beverage rings up at just under $11. And you can't go wrong with the Chef Frank Lee's award-winning shrimp and grits, made with both country ham and smoky andouille sausage. It's easy to pick out Chef Frank in the kitchen here; he's the one in the chile-pepper-print baseball cap. (843-723-3424)
9 Hank's Seafood Restaurant
Voted the "Best Seafood Restaurant" in Charleston 13 years in a row, Hank's on the corner of Hayne and Church street serves up fresh seafood entrees and raw bar items for dinner 7 days a week. Hugely popular with locals and visitors alike, Hank's elegant, sophisticated atmosphere compliments top-notch entrees like the Lowcountry Bouillabaisse, Rare Seared Tuna, and Roast Grouper with Lobster Risotto. Appetizers include Fish & Shellfish Ceviche, Tuna Tartare, and Oyster Stew, while the Raw Bar serves up classic items such as Gulf Oysters, Peel 'n Eat Shrimp, and Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail. When in Hank's stick to seafood entrees, and ask about nightly fish and shellfish specials! (843-723-3474)
8 Pearlz Oyster and Raw Bar
Pearlz is self-described as, "Charleston's eclectic little oyster bar," and does it's best to live up to the title. A fresh seafood, raw bar, and late night menu are offered, starring starters like the Crispy Ahi Tuna Roll, and Crab Bruschetta, and such entree options as Shrimp, Mahi, or Tuna Tacos, and a Daily Fresh Fish Catch, served any way you like it. Pearlz Raw Bar serves up classic oysters raw or steamed, southern-fried, and baked Rockefeller style. Pearlz atmosphere is trendy and up beat; the perfect beginnings to your night on the town! (843-577-5755)
Opened in 1990 as part of Charleston's culinary renaissance, this dining dowager has earned the respect of both residents and visitors over the years. "Uptown Down South" is the restaurant's motto, and Magnolias puts the South in your mouth at lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. In this pleasant space with its pastel walls and wood-beamed ceiling, house-made pimiento cheese and blue crab bisque make a fitting prelude to a buttermilk fried chicken breast or a bourbon-glazed Porterhouse pork chop. Like what you taste? Before you leave, pick up a copy of Magnolias Authentic Southern Cuisine Cookbook by founding chef Donald Barickman, and try your hand at some of these dishes at home. (843-577-7771)
6 The Macintosh
This laid-back neighborhood spot on upper King Street wows diners with Chef Jeremiah Bacon's takes on American fare. A native of John's Island, South Carolina, Bacon honed his skills at Carolina's and Oak Steakhouse before opening The Macintosh. The seasons and local markets dictate what is available on any given night, but The Mac, the popular 8-ounce house-ground burger served with pecorino truffle fries, is always on the menu. A lardo vinaigrette enhances the richness of a starter of crispy pork belly, while dashi broth echoes the taste of the sea in an entr--e of grilled wild-caught cobia. Sides balance between the adventurous (bone marrow bread pudding) and the tried and true (Mac potatoes). ((843) 789-4299)
5 Peninsula Grill
The Peninsula Grill, a AAA Four Diamond Restaurant, is known as one of the best fine dining spots in the Charleston. Expect exceptionally knowledgeable service while you enjoy local ingredients and some of the finest fresh seafood around. Attached to the Planter's Inn, the velvet-lined walls create an intimate feel, and a hidden courtyard for outdoor dining makes Peninsula Grill the ideal choice for special occasions. Oysters and caviar whet your appetite for main courses such as the Pan Roasted SC Rainbow Trout, or the Pepper-Seared Angus NY Strip. A 'Sweet Endings' menu offers decadent dessert course options. (843-723-0700)
4 Cypress Lowcountry Grille
The two-story wine wall is bound to wow you when you walk into Cypress. Housed here are some 4,500 bottles, representing varietals from around the globe. The well-chosen wine list is on the pricy side, and some of the rare vintages here will set you back hundreds of dollars. Still, you can find plenty of bottles under $100 to pair with the likes of smoked salmon Wellington, braised beef short ribs, and pickle-brined fried chicken. Start with the charcuterie plate, which lays out a selection of three of the more than 80 types of meats cured in-house here, including Genoa and Milano salami, as well as "cypressata," Chef Craig Diehl's interpretation of Italian soppressata. (843-727-0111)
3 Charleston Grill
As second-in-command under award-winning chef Bob Waggoner for 11 years, Michelle Weaver has earned her stripes in the kitchen. After Waggoner left in 2009 to develop a television cooking show, Weaver took the helm at the Charleston Place hotel's renowned restaurant. Contemporary Southern is how Weaver classifies her menu, which is divided up into four sections: Southern, Pure, Lush, and Cosmopolitan. Frogmore stew typifies Southern fare, while Lush celebrates the rich mouth feel of foie gras and Maine lobster. Pure lets ingredients like a simple grilled wild salmon shine, and Cosmopolitan plays up exotic combinations that indulge the chef's penchant for Asian cuisine. (843-577-4522)
Distilling the essence of each season is what FIG is all about. True to its acronym, which stands for Food Is Good, FIG delivers big taste in a lively dining room, where the walls are decorated with serene scenes of the Lowcountry. Chef/partner Mike Lata has long been a champion of local farmers and fishermen. His commitment to local products complements the time he spent working in French kitchens in the likes of Keegan-Filion Farms chicken liver p--t-- and a jumbo flounder Grenobloise with fall vegetables. And though the menu changes nightly, the flavorful fish stew, served in a cast-iron cocotte, has been a menu staple since the restaurant opened. (843-805-5900)
Chef Sean Brock pays homage to solely Southern ingredients in an 1893 house on Queen Street. Casually elegant d--cor showcases the Lowcounty in soft, neutral tones and details such as dried okra pods as table centerpieces. It's for good reason that Husk has received so many accolades, including a coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast in 2010. Brock has done his homework in terms of Southern heirloom produce and heritage meats, and he aims to reintroduce many of these ingredients. He puts his innovative, contemporary spin on traditional Southern dishes incorporating local products such as Benne seeds, house-cured country ham, and Geechie Boys grits. Before or after your meal, stop by Husk's cozy bar next door for a crafted cocktail or one of the Kentucky-made quaffs on the amazing bourbon list. (843-577-2500)
About M. Linda Lee
As Senior Editor for Michelin Travel Publications for 17 years, Linda worked on many North American travel guides, as well as the Michelin Guide (the acclaimed red guide to restaurants and hotels). She has been a contributing editor to G Magazine, and is now a regular contributor to TOWN. Her passion for writing about food and travel can be seen in her restaurant reviews in TOWN and articles in publications such as Edible Upcountry, Southwest Spirit, US Airways Magazine and AAA GO. She also promotes "good, clean and fair" food practices through her volunteer work as Co-Chair of Slow Food Upstate.
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