The Palmetto State — in particular its Lowcountry coast and its oldest city, Charleston — is known for its rich food traditions. These stem from the state’s access to the sea and the bounteous hinterlands of the Piedmont and Upstate, as well as Charleston’s long history of international commerce. This cosmopolitan history has given birth to a diverse present, with traditional Lowcountry and Southern cuisine standing alongside other delicacies from around the world to enliven the culinary landscape of modern-day South Carolina.
Though the Charleston area is home to only 761,000 of the state’s nearly 5 million people, the city’s longstanding status as a cultural center has concentrated much of the culinary spotlight; all but two of the entries in our list are from the city or from nearby Mount Pleasant, leaving the Piedmont and Upstate, including important metropolitan centers like Columbia and the Greenville-Spartanburg area, unrepresented. Charleston seems to have everything from the state’s best pizza (Monza) to the best lobster roll (The Ordinary), and it’s hard to ignore the gravitational pull of chef Sean Brock’s wildly successful restaurants, such as Husk, McCrady’s, and Minero.
Craig Nelson’s Proof is an intimate craft cocktail bar with an extensive wine-by-the-glass list and a beer list full of pilsners, lagers, stouts, sours, and ciders. But the real attractions are the creative concoctions like the Pink Rabbit (Ancho Reyes liqueur, Hendrick’s gin, Proof’s house-made strawberry “quick,” and mole bitters); Knuckle Ball (Old Grand-Dad 114 bourbon, Mexican Coca-Cola reduction, orange bitters, and pickled boiled peanuts); and the Charleston Buck (Woodford Reserve bourbon, Tuaca, citrus, egg white, Proof’s ginger beer, and blood orange bitters). Since our list was published last year, Proof has added 19 more cocktails to its menu. There is also a daily changing menu of small plates scribbled on the bar’s chalkboard.
Yelp / Scotty C.
South Carolina’s Westbrook Brewing cooked up their Mexican Cake as a first anniversary celebration for themselves, but beer fans are really the ones who have something to celebrate with this imperial stout. Cocoa nibs and vanilla beans give this beer a rich, sweet flavor and the Mexican influence comes into play perfectly with hints of cinnamon and habanero pepper. Happy birthday, indeed!
So what’s the secret to the burger at Husk, Sean Brock’s Charleston landmark? Bacon ground right into the patty. Brock has been on a personal quest to perfect the burger, and after eating his cheeseburger you’ll most likely agree that he’s achieved his goal. House-made buns are steamed, sliced, toasted, and smeared with butter and beef fat. The two patties are a blend of chuck and hickory-smoked Benton’s bacon, seared on a ripping-hot nonstick griddle and scraped off to retain their crust. The toppings? Three slices of American cheese, shaved white onions in between the patties, bread-and-butter pickles, a "special sauce" that closely resembles the one at In-N-Out, and lettuce and tomato only when they’re in season. Sean Brock: in relentless pursuit of burger perfection. You: lucky. Find more details on Husk here.
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It’s all about the little details at this Charleston institution. For example, the chicken in their chicken and waffles is double-breaded with a combination of ground pecans and flour, so it takes on a nutty flavor. The waffle batter is spiked with a small amount of cinnamon, and honey mustard sauce served on the side (along with maple syrup) is a no-brainer. With so much thought given to every single component, there’s no way that these chicken and waffles wouldn’t be legendary.
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Charlestonians flock to this inviting West Ashley gem for its unique spins on traditional Chinese classics. You’ll find well-prepared dumplings, lo mein, fried rice, and kung pao chicken here, but the real stars of the menu are the house specialties, which include fried red snapper, mapo tofu, five spiced lamb chops, and tea smoked duck. For dessert, don’t miss the banana spring rolls with homemade ice cream. Find more details on Red Orchids here.
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If genius can be disguised as madness, well, bring on the crazy! This incredible cupcakery embraces the sugared insanity and churns out unique and artful cupcakes in the process. “Crazy” cupcake flavors are posted every day at 10 a.m. (recent selections include a caramel cupcake topped with bacon and a tiny pancake), but be sure to call ahead — they often sell out quickly. They also sell more traditional flavors like red velvet and double chocolate if you’re not in the mood to be adventurous. Click here to try this recipe for Not Just Chocolate Cupcakes.
Left: Megan H./Yelp ; Right:Foursquare
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Opened by Allison Smith, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of Charleston, this doughnut shop takes its eccentric flavors wonderfully seriously. Let your taste buds guide your decision-making, but if you want our opinion, we really recommend the tiramisu or the lemon meringue pie. For more information on Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts, click here.
Ken Bowman Photography
In historic downtown Charleston’s Marion Square, the Charleston Farmers Market thrives with food, art, and entertainment. There are fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs, as well as artisan foods like flavored pecans and prepared foods, from authentic French crêpes to shrimp and grits, from more than 100 vendors. The market is open every Saturday, April to November, and every Saturday and Sunday in December.
Pink Bellies serves Vietnamese favorites like phở and bánh mì to the good people of Charleston, and they love it. The menu options rotate, but here are the kinds of things to expect: pulled pork with mayo, blueberry jam, chiles, pickled carrots, pickled red onions, and cilantro; “The Realest” bánh mì with pâté, pork belly, loin ham, roast pork, chiles, cucumber, pickled carrots, cilantro, and spring onions; or the house lo mein with red roast pork, tofu, shrimp, yu choy, Chinese celery, vegetables, and chile satay. Pair it with a Vietnamese iced coffee or toasted sweet iced tea (matcha green tea, ginger, toasted rice), and your belly will be happy.
The Tattooed Moose
This laid-back Charleston dive bar is one funky joint (so much so that it inspired a visit from Guy Fieri for an episode of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives), and sandwiches like the duck club and Lowcountry Cuban keep locals coming back for more. But no visit is complete without a big, overflowing basket of the signature duck-fat fries. Thin-cut for maximum crispiness and fried in a bubbling cauldron of duck fat, these really are a thing of beauty.
Yelp/ John B.
The original Charleston location of Husk is located in a stunning Victorian-style house, and the fried chicken is equally picturesque. Once upon a time, diners had to call ahead and place an order with the chef himself, James Beard Award-winning Sean Brock, two days in advance, but now the fried chicken is a staple on the daily-changing lunch menus of both locations. The secret is fat: The chicken is fried in butter, chicken fat, bacon fat, and country ham fat.
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The Charleston area has many options for grocery shoppers but the Harris Teeter on Bay Street is considered the ultimate go-to for many locals. “I love this store. Everything is always great, clean, fresh, amazing staff, great options available. CHEAP ORGANICS!!” Tabitha Dery said in a Google review.
This beloved local spot in Charleston’s Elliotborough neighborhood is a winner all around. Chef-owner Ken Vedrinski was nominated for the James Beard Award in 2011, and he changes his menu daily based on what he finds at the farmers market and what local fisherman bring to his kitchen door. Pastas are handmade and cheese and salumi are imported from Italy. It’s tough to predict exactly what you’ll find on the menu, but recent standouts include house-made porchetta with arugula, pecorino, and apple mostarda; tagliolini with blue crab, anchovy, lemon, and bread crumbs; local doormat flounder with rye crust, cider, bacon, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts; and veal scallopini Milanese with trumpet mushroom caponata, spicy provolone, and Barolo vinegar. Hungry yet?
The lobster roll served as weekly special at chef Mike Lata’s Charleston seafood mecca is slightly out of the ordinary (ha), but still insanely delicious. Lobsters are brought in straight from Maine, and they’re given the royal treatment: A half-pound of lobster meat goes into each roll, mixed with a bright combination of mayo, Tabasco, lemon, mustard, garlic, celery, chives, shallots, and Old Bay. Find more details on The Ordinary here.
The “secret ingredient” in Crave executive chef Landen Ganstrom’s legendary macaroni and cheese may be a mystery, but the creamy, tangy, gooey result of a combination of ten year-aged California Cheddar, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and mozzarella is insanely delicious, helped along by the genius decision to replace macaroni with chewy corkscrew-shaped cavatappi. You can top your mac with your choice of pulled pork, lobster, bacon, broccoli, chicken, scallops, shrimp, or short ribs, but we suggest keeping it unadorned.
When chef Sean Brock (of Husk fame) decides to turn his attention to casual Mexican fare, you know the end result is going to be spectacular. And at Minero, it is. Queso fundido, tacos al pastor, pork carnitas with salsa verde and seasonal carnitas, roasted shrimp tacos with cucumber-jicama slaw and salsa morita — no matter what you order, you can’t go wrong. And just to remind you that this is a Sean Brock restaurant, the menu’s lone burrito includes hoppin’ john, and you can order Carolina Gold arroz rojo on the side.
Chef Sean Brock is a Charleston legend, and he recently divided his acclaimed McCrady’s into two different restaurants: the casual (but still pricey) McCrady’s Tavern, and a high-end tasting counter named McCrady’s. The 22-seat restaurant is the best way to experience the inner workings of Brock’s mind, but it’ll cost you $115 to $125 for the privilege, depending on the menu.
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Chef Sean Brock can truly do no wrong. The mastermind behind Husk and a self-proclaimed savior of indigenous Southern ingredients, his skill extends even to pasta. The spaghetti chitarra served at his newish McCrady’s Tavern is a prime example: It’s not just great; it’s the best pasta dish in the state. The thick strands of house-made spaghetti are partnered with local shrimp, chile, cherry tomatoes, olive oil, and a big dollup of fresh burrata, and all the flavors work so well together you’ll completely forget that Italians tend to shun combining cheese and seafood. Hey, when it tastes good it tastes good. Find more details on McCrady’s Tavern here.
The Italian town of Monza houses an historic speedway where every year since 1922, owners of the finest cars, from Alfa Romeo to Ferrari, take the curves of the 6.25-mile track. Monza in Charleston feeds off the history of its namesake city to offer handcrafted pies.
Monza uses imported San Felice wheat flour, Neapolitan yeast, and filtered and pH-balanced water to develop their version of the most traditional-style pizza possible. The pies are baked in the wood oven at a sweltering 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing for a thin and crispy crust, and are topped with mozzarella with fresh and usually regional ingredients.
The Daily Meal’s 2014 American Chef of the Year, Sean Brock, very well might be the ruling king of Southern cuisine, which makes his Charleston restaurant Husk his throne. Named 2011’s Best New Restaurant in America by Bon Appétit, Husk, located right in the heart of Charleston’s beautiful historic downtown , celebrates heirloom indigenous Southern products like no other restaurant can: If it’s not Southern, they won’t cook with it, not even olive oil. But that strict rule doesn’t hinder the restaurant at all; in fact, it’s the best thing about it. The market-driven menu changes daily, but if they’re available, try the slow-smoked sweet-and-sour Tennessee pork ribs; Cheddar pimento cheese with house-made benne (sesame) crackers and crispy country ham; Southern-fried chicken skins with hot sauce, honey, and scallions; and Kentuckyaki pig’s ear lettuce wraps, and you’ll agree. If you come during lunch, make sure you try the burger. And if it’s more convenient, a second Husk outpost opened in Nashville in 2013.
Mr. and Mrs. Harold Sweatman opened their first barbecue place in Holly Hill in 1959. After closing, they continued to cook for family and friends, but it wasn't until 1977 that they re-opened Sweatman's Bar-B-Que. Today they continue to cook their whole hogs over hot coals for up to 14 hours, while oak, hickory, and pecan trees are used for the wood burned in the cooking process. Known for traditional South Carolina barbecue, their secret mustard-based sauce is continually slathered on the meat until it’s fully smoked.
At Charleston’s Hominy Grill, chef-owner Robert Stehling has landed upon the perfect formula: comforting Lowcountry cuisine made with the highest-quality ingredients. The perfect expression of that philosophy is the Charleston Nasty Biscuit (formerly known as the Big Nasty): a light and flaky high-rise biscuit, cut in half and filled with a huge piece of golden-brown fried chicken breast, topped with melted cheese and a giant ladle of creamy sausage gravy. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime sandwich, but if you have the opportunity to eat it even once, you’ll be very fortunate.
Set among the marshes at the tip of a small, 13-acre island, Bowen’s was recognized by the James Beard House as an “American Classic.” This legendary restaurant — where customers are encouraged to write on the walls — is famous for its fried shrimp and roasted oysters. Bowen’s first opened in 1946, and through the decades has made a name for itself in the world of seafood shacks, even after a devastating fire in 2006.
Yelp/ Mike C.
Chef Robert Stehling’s low-key Hominy Grill is a Charleston legend, a must-visit for locals and visitors alike. His menu of down-home country staples is essentially flawless, and every item on the menu, be it biscuits and gravy or fried chicken, is nothing short of a definitive version. The same goes for his version of she-crab soup, a Lowcountry staple: It’s thick and creamy, loaded with local blue crab, fish stock, cream, and just enough dry sherry to tie it all together.
Oak Steakhouse/ Facebook
Chef Jeremiah Bacon, who’s spent time in kitchens including New York’s Le Bernardin and Per Se, might have a porky last name, but beef is the star of the show at his Charleston steakhouse. The dry-aged Certified Angus steaks come sizzling on a hot platter (with local shrimp compound butter on top). While the steak, including a prime bone-in rib-eye and a New York strip, is certainly the menu’s centerpiece, Bacon brings a farm-to-table approach to the entire menu with standout dishes like house-made charcuterie, pan-seared sea scallops with smoked grapefruit purée, and a daily rotating seafood selection depending on what’s available at the market that morning. Find more details on Oak Steakhouse here.
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Credited as a cornerstone of the up-and-coming Mixson District, Básico is known for its quietly beautiful setting and food — it’s a great place for locals to decompress with first-rate margaritas and coconut mojitos. We suggest ordering the buttermilk-fried chicken tacos to accompany your cocktail. With cilantro, pickled jicama, spicy aïoli, and queso fresco, they’re a great example of American Southern-Mexican fusion done just right. For more states, check out our ultimate guide to the best food and drink in every state for 2018.