Integrity, Quality and Quantity at Charleston's Best Value Restaurants
By Clare Sweeney
Charleston Local Expert
Charleston, South Carolina is known for its setting in Revolutionary and Civil War history, its genteel residential neighborhoods and its friendly and welcoming people. Perhaps best of all, Charleston has become known as the culinary epicenter of the Southeast, wowing visitors with uncommon lowcountry dishes and a seemingly endless collection of high quality restaurants. Charleston chefs and restauranteurs share a unique passion for serving the best combinations of locally sourced produce, meat, and seafood from our farms and shores. Thankfully, the the culinary scene you'll encounter here is one of much variety, with a wide range of menu prices found throughout the peninsula and beyond. Whichever meal you seek, from breakfast and brunch to lunch and dinner, you'll find Charleston restaurants serving high quality food without the high priced bill.
Do know that it may require a short venture off the beaten tourist path or even off the downtown peninsula to find these budget-friendly restaurants. Start your day with a short drive out to the Early Bird Diner for a comfort food classics like their $10 Chicken and Waffles, or simply climb onto a counter stool at Jack's for an affordable yet heaping breakfast plate of eggs, hashbrowns and biscuits. Enjoy the deeper exploration into Charleston's city neighborhoods by reserving a dinner for two at Five Loaves on Coming Street, or by visiting Pane e Vino on Warren Street for authentic Italian dishes, most priced under $20! In Charleston, a meal of good value doesn't always warrant a fine dining price tag.
10 White Duck Taco Shop
This Folly Road taco hotspot is located just over the bridge from downtown Charleston, and has been welcomed heartily by taco lovers in the area. The prices and variety you'll find among the White Duck Taco Shop taco selection is competitive with other Tex-Mex style restaurants in Charleston, with most tacos priced at $3.50, and a handful of specialty items at $6 or $7. Tacos are each served with two corn tortillas, and overflowing with fillings; the double shell allows for a larger than average taco experience (or, two tacos out of one). Inexpensive yet tasty snacks such as the house-made chips and salsa trio or the watermelon feta salad compliment the casual menu and take-a-number setting. White Duck Taco Shop does not take reservations, but it's not likely that you'll need them; this multilevel warehouse restaurant offers more than enough seating, including an outdoor patio with shaded picnic tables. (843-640-3008)
9 Sunrise Bistro Xpress
Located on Spring Street between Rutledge and Ashley Avenues, this small streetside cafe serves a big menu of breakfast and lunch favorites, all at a great value of prices and portions. Expect a hefty serving when visiting Sunrise Bistro Xpress for breakfast, and prices that are much more affordable than other nearby breakfast and brunch alternatives. Try the Morning Sandwich, meat, egg and cheese on bagel or bread, for just $4, the Breakfast Burrito with meat, eggs, potatoes, onions, peppers and cheese for $7, or a shareable Open Faced Omelet, ranging from just $6 - $9. Sunrise Bistro lunch offerings are just as wallet-friendly, and come in the form of soups and salads, sandwiches, quesadillas and daily specials. Most lunch options are priced from $7 - $11. Head to Sunrise Bistro by bike or foot if possible, as parking is limited to metered street spots in the surrounding residential area. (843-297-4509)
8 Cru Cafe
Cru Cafe, located on Pinkney Street, is the working restaurant branch of the popular Cru Catering. Opened due to high demand in 2002, Cru Cafe is housed in what was once a traditional home near the Market Street historic district. Here in this cottage style restaurant, you'll find gourmet comfort food with a focus on fresh produce and local seafood, as well as creative daily lunch and dinner specials. Cool off inside at Cru Cafe during the sweltering summer months, or enjoy the outdoor patio on a cool evening. Cru's crew serves up lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. with affordable salads, soups and sandwiches making for the perfect light midday meal. The historic charm of Cru's Charleston style setting makes for a great low key date night. Dinner at Cru Cafe is the traditional Southern supper with a modern twist, with entree prices topping off just under $25. (843-534-2434, 843-534-2433)
7 The Early Bird Diner
In need of a filling meal of comfort food classics, or even a brunch-time hangover cure? Head to Early Bird Diner in West Ashley for a meal that delivers more than your money's worth of breakfast, lunch, dinner and even late night eats - they're open til 4am on weekends! Nearly every made-from-scratch menu item offers fantastic flavors and hefty servings. Comfort food can be much more than familiar and filling. The Early Bird Diner takes classic dishes and upgrades them to near-gourmet status, while keeping prices low. Take the famed $10 Chicken & Waffles plate for example. This dish is a popular one in the Southeast, but many regulars agree that the details - pecan breading and honey mustard drizzle - are what make the Early Bird difference. Other highlights include the Shrimp & Grits ($11), Country Fried Steak ($12) and the BBQ Meatloaf Melt ($8.50), alongside daily specials. (843-277-2353)
6 Butcher & Bee
When in search of food-fuel in downtown Charleston, you'll find that there is no shortage of sandwich-serving options at hand. If you're a little more selective in your cravings, and would like to sample local specialties rather than chain restaurants, Butcher & Bee is your destination. The chefs at Butcher & Bee are in the business of "hand-held comfort food" and artistry in the form of sandwiches and plates that appeal to all preferences and budgets (vegetarians welcomed). Open for weekday lunch and late night service on weekend nights (til 3am Friday and Saturday), this comfortable, communal style restaurant shares their daily menu via social media (check their Facebook and Twitter before going). While the menu changes daily, you can count on a filling lunch at Butcher & Bee to round out at $13 or less, while dinner and late night items fall within the range of $6 - $16. (843-619-0202)
5 Persimmon Cafe
You might be surprised to find that one of Charleston's best sandwich joints is housed in a laundromat! It's true: Persimmon Cafe, located at 226 Calhoun Street, shares its deli counter and eat-in seating with several dozen washing machines. Don't pass up the chance to visit this creative cafe for a gourmet panini, like their Curry Chicken Salad ($7.50), Zucchini with pistachio pistou ($6.75) or the Adult Grilled Cheese with prosciutto and green apple ($6.75). During the chillier months, Persimmon's soup plus grilled cheese combo warming and satisfying. It's not just the regular menu items that are responsible for Persimmon's growing crowd of regulars. Daily specials (posted to their Facebook and Twitter pages) like the Cubano, Grilled Butternut Squash, and Spanish Fly are also popular. $1.50 sides of Peanut Butter and Ginger Slaw and desserts like the Nutella and (tableside) Toasted Marshmallow Custard act as perfect compliments to any sandwich. (843-937-5399)
4 Gaulart & Maliclet's Fast & French
Step off of iconic Broad Street and into the small yet charming interior of Gaulart & Maliclet's Fast & French, a traditional bistro living up to its quirky name. Come to Fast & French for your Battery Park picnic supplies of French cheeses, meats and breads, or stay awhile, enjoying the always lively company in the cozy interior of this Broad Street bistro. Start your day off with a cup of coffee and croissant for just $4.25, or come at lunchtime for a sandwich or salad with a glass of house wine for under $10. For a sampling of Fast & French offerings, try the combination of French cheeses and paté for $12.75, or the Fondu Du Jour for $16. Dinner entrees are thoughtfully prepared and presented in a casual yet undeniably beautiful French style; each is served with soup or salad, rice or couscous, and bread. Thursday night is fondue night, with a choice of beef, seafood, Swiss and Blue Cheese. (843-577-9797)
3 Pane e Vino
This charming, unmarked Italian restaurant is tucked just off of Upper King Street onto quiet, residential Warren Street, within walking distance of many hotels and shops. At Pane e Vino, you'll enjoy a cozy, authentic Italian fine dining experience, for a fraction of the cost you'd expect to go along with your meal. Pane e Vino owner Alfredo Temelini is very dedicated to his Italian family's traditions of cooking and attentive service, and it shows in the beautiful presentation of each dish. Most entrees at Pane e Vino range from $14.50 - $23, a modest request for items such as the Ravioli Alla Casalinga with spinach and ricotta fillings ($18), Cioppino seafood stew ($25), or Penne Alla Maremnana with spicy sausage and wild mushrooms ($16). The charcuterie boards, daily dessert specials and a carefully selected Italian wine list at Pane e Vino make for a well-rounded and romantic evening out. (843-853-5955)
2 Jack's Cafe
It says it right on the menu: "Good Home Style Cooking, Reasonable Prices." Jack's Cafe is arguably the best deal in town for an inexpensive yet belly-busting breakfast or lunch. Take a seat at the counter for a direct view of Jack himself tending to the griddle and fryers. The Jack's lunch menu certainly offers some popular classics, such as the 1/4 lb. Cheeseburger for just $3.95 (double $5.95). It's their a la carte breakfast menu, however, that contains Jack's better known deals. Design your own combination of biscuits ($2.45), 3-egg omelets ($4.30-$5.80), hash browns ($1.55), and bacon ($2.35) for a more than satisfying meal under $10. Enjoy free refills here, an example of the easy-going staff and caring service. When you eat at Jack's, you're supporting a beloved member of the Charleston community. Jack and his comfortable, welcoming diner have served Charleston residents and visitors for over four decades! ((843) 723-5237)
1 Five Loaves Cafe
This humble and inviting corner cafe is located on the corner of Cannon and Coming Streets, and beloved by regulars and first-time visitors alike. Any choice from the Five Loaves lunch or dinner menus is likely a great value, with modestly priced yet artfully intricate soups, sandwiches and entrees. Menus provide a variety of vegetarian options, with popular soup/salad/sandwich combinations a popular option. Five Loaves salads are served with house-made dressings, and sandwiches feature meats from local Charleston area farms. Soup, dinner and dessert specials change daily, and the creative menu is organized by Herbivores, Carnivores, Between the Bread, and of course, Soups (check the chalkboard inside for daily selections). Five Loaves is ideal for an affordable lunch break or wallet-friendly date night; lunch items max out at $9, dinner prices range from $9 - $17. Expect hearty sandwiches, impressive salad plates, and large entree portions. (843-937-4303)
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.