Cream of the Crop: Charleston's Best Restaurants Honor Their Environment, Heritage
By Clare Sweeney
Charleston Local Expert
Charleston, South Carolina—a colonial city known best for its historic buildings and friendly people—is now adored for its standout culinary scene. The "Holy City" has long since arrived as a must-see (and taste) destination of the South, and restaurants here must be special in order to thrive alongside the current Charleston talent. Expect a unique atmosphere from each spot in town and a loving dedication to local ingredients and farms.
Local Charlestonians and visitors alike enjoy the local food movement that's woven into the lowcountry's celebrity chefs and nationally recognized restaurants. Take, for example, the genuine pride with which The Ordinary presents each oyster, or the chalkboard menu at Husk that changes twice daily to reflect what's available locally.
Some of Charleston's best restaurants are found slightly off the main course—tucked into downtown neighborhoods among residential homes. Five Loaves Cafe is a longtime staple, serving vegetarian and gluten-free menus in humble environs for such a stellar variety of soups. R Kitchen, a newcomer in comparison, wows Charleston visitors with its 5 courses for $25, alongside wisely chosen wine pairings and a spontaneous atmosphere.
It would be remiss to collect a list of Charleston's best restaurants without mention of those honoring French and Italian cuisine with lowcountry ingredients. Chez Nous, "Our Home," is at home on a semi-hidden street downtown, snapping and sharing photos of the unique offerings of the day each morning. Meanwhile, Trattoria Lucca artfully serves up the best pasta you've ever had—handmade fresh daily.
Five Loaves Cafe
From loaded salads and stacked deli-style sandwiches to impressively flavorful soups, curry, fish, and chicken dishes, Five Loaves satisfies every party and taste. Ask any Five Loaves regular for their perfect meal, and they'll likely recommend a unique set of choices--not to mention the fantastic daily specials. We humbly recommend the Eggplant-Wrapped Goat Cheese to start, followed by the Tri-Color Cheese Tortellini or the Pumpkin Seed-Encrusted Salmon. Looking for a quick lunch? Go half and half with your choice of soup-salad, soup-sandwich, or salad-sandwich. Beyond just palette, Five Loaves takes care of those with dietary restrictions or food allergies, and offering clearly marked menu options during both lunch and dinner service. (843-937-4303)
This tiny but mighty restaurant packs in a crowd each day of the week (except Sundays when R Kitchen is closed for business). Chef and owner Ross Web heads a small team of assistant chefs in his venture here on Rutledge Ave--to bring affordable fine dining to downtown Charleston in a comfortable, open, and inviting environment. While they're at it, R Kitchen offers much more to its small group of guests at each of three nightly seatings: a $25, 5-course meal that emphasizes local, seasonal ingredients and a menu that's crafted to meet the needs and tastes of each guest in attendance that evening. Call ahead for reservations (nightly reservations here are in high demand) and be sure to disclose any dietary needs or preferences. Chef Ross will take care of your party, and you'll be able to watch each step taken to prepare and serve your dinner. (843-789-4342)
Chez Nous, meaning "Our Home" in French, is as cozy inside as you would expect from the name. But don't let that fool you--the team at Chez Nous serves up a three course menu (two options for app, entree, and dessert) each day that commands the attention of locals and visitors alike. The presentation of each dish is lovely, guaranteeing a top-notch experience before you've even take your first bite. The owner-chef couple of Chez Nous know what they're doing, and offer an impressive variety of traditional, authentic French (and sometimes Spanish) dishes from day to day. Each day means a different menu, with some recurring items: a bread basket of croissant and baguette, tartine du jour, fish, and quail. No reservations are accepted as this little side street hotspot, so be sure to plan ahead for your Chez Nous meal. (843-579-3060)
Housed in a grand old bank building on Upper King, this downtown oyster bar and seafood restaurant serves only the highest quality fish and shellfish, sourcing locally and sustainably. The Ordinary also offers a few 'exotic' (or at least adventurous) items on a daily basis, too, including Razor Clams, Spanish Octopus, among others. The freshness of the ingredients and the artistic nature of the presentation, is evidence of the care and leadership of head chef Mike Lata (also at FIG). Speaking of presentation, do you take your seafood in tower form? Bring a group shellfish lovers to The Ordinary, and mark the occasion with a double--or triple--Shellfish Tower. (843-414-7060)
McCrady's plates each dish as though it was an art form, and the benefits abound in it's stellar reviews and reputation in town (and across the country). Located just a few steps back from bustling East Bay Street, McCrady's serves a creative menu focusing on what's fresh, seasonal, and local to the Charleston area. The setting is elegant and inviting, complete with fireplaces and purple booth seating, making for the ideal celebratory meal or date night dinner before a show. Don't skip the bar during your visit to McCrady's--many argue that their cocktail program is as strong, if not even better, than their food. (843-577-0025)
Chef Ken Vedrinksi, also chef at Coda Del Pesce on Isle of Palms, knows exactly what he's doing when preparing Italian food. We're just thankful he's chosen to bring is talents for authentic Italian to the city of Charleston, serving world-class pasta dishes from a Bogard Street corner at Trattoria Lucca. This casual, comfortable, and semi-subdued restaurant is warm and cozy inside, and the smells alone are enough to sell you on a long night of taste-testing. The Trattoria Lucca menu features daily specials that are worth noting, while menu regulars include the standout the Golden Beets and Octopus appetizer, Bucatini with browned goat butter, and the Fusilli Bucati with housemade duck sausage. (843-973-3323)
Both longtime locals and first time visitors to Charleston quickly become aware of Hall's Chophouse on Upper King, and it's glowing reputation for high-quality steaks, "chops," and seafood. The elegant, old-world steakhouse interior of Halls, and the ever-present owner of this family business, only serve to add to the charming ambiance of this fine dining establishment. While Halls may be known for it's Filet Minion and Wagyu Filet, its Sunday Gospel Brunch is not so quietly gaining a dedicated following. That's because the Gospel Brunch at Halls is unlike any other in Charleston, or perhaps the entire Southeast. Expect full, flavorful, gut-busting plates of Shrimp & Grits, Crab Cake Eggs Benedict, and Southern Sweet Potato Pancakes to pair perfectly with their open bar, and the joyous chorus of a local gospel group from 10am - 3pm each Sunday. Come hungry, leave very, very happy. (8437270090)
Make the reservation, come inside, and immediately you feel at home here. Edmund's Oast was designed with great attention to detail, made for long and relaxed meals, and comfortable space to enjoy good food with good company. The restaurant itself evokes another time much like a feudal age, and holds 130 inside. Edmund's Oast also serves an alternative menu for its covered outdoor space, The Bowery, a truly perfect setting for a fall or springtime beer and bite. Each dish--especially the charcuterie and cheese boards--are presented in a beautiful yet approachable way. Expect a fine dining level of quality with respect shown to local ingredients. The service is top-notch, and each server and bartender is an expert in their field. (843 727 1145)
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)
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 ingredients complements the time he spent working in French kitchens, and the FIG website boldly quotes him: "When you eat at FIG, you taste produce grown in the Lowcountry's distinctly sandy soil, fish caught in our briny waters, and livestock raised on our pastures..." That's a creed still serving the FIG restaurant's mission today since their opening in 2003. 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)
About Clare Sweeney
A South Carolina native and avid locavore, Clare also ventured abroad to Spain and north to Boston before returning to Charleston and her beloved Lowcountry.
Clare works and plays in downtown Charleston, spending her days enjoying the city’s perpetually sunny weather, nearby beaches and ever-growing food and craft beer scene. Follow Clare on Twitter @LocalExpertCHS for the latest in local happenings!
Read more about Clare Sweeney here.