The Best Food and Drink in South Carolina for 2019
December 20, 2018
The Palmetto State is more than just shrimp and grits; don’t forget the she-crab soup
The Best Food and Drink in South Carolina
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 — the city has been one of North America’s important entrepôts for trans-Atlantic shipping from its founding up to the present.
Though some of this cosmopolitan history is grim — and that’s putting it lightly; the city was a major center of the slave trade until the Civil War — it 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. We’ve rounded up the best offerings available in the state today as part of our second annual guide to the best food and drink in every state.
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. 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 McCrady’s (even though he sent shockwaves through the city by leaving his restaurant group in 2018).
How did we go about choosing the best eats in South Carolina? Over the course of the past year we’ve honored everything from its best hot dogs and brunch spot to its best bar and craft beer in our comprehensive and wide-ranging lists and rankings, compiled through extensive research and with input from a wide network of site contributors, bloggers, journalists, and chefs. We’ve compiled these into individual galleries celebrating the best food and drink in every state, and you can find our South Carolina gallery ahead.
Best Airport Restaurant: DeSano Pizza Bakery (Charleston International Airport)
At DeSano Pizza Bakery, you can have traditional pizza the way it’s made in the dish’s hometown of Naples, where the art of pizza twirling was perfected. In the morning, you can wake yourself up with a frittata pizza or even a Nutella pizza among other choices, and the restaurant also offers salads and calzones. Cocktails, wines, and beers are also on the menu, as is the option for a sweet cannoli or gelato.
Best All-You-Can-Eat Deal: Captain George’s Seafood Restaurant (Myrtle Beach and Kill Devil Hills)
Captain George’s has two waterfront South Carolina locations, and they’re offering a spectacular fresh seafood feast. Alaskan snow crab legs, Dungeness crab legs, soft-shell crabs (in season), steamed shrimp and clams, mussels, crawfish, blackened mahi, broiled fish, fried oysters and scallops, oysters Rockefeller, stuffed clams, and she-crab soup are just a handful of their seafood offerings; other specialties include barbecue pork ribs, sirloin steak, mac and cheese, homemade breads, and more than 15 homemade desserts. It costs 20 bucks for kids 12 and under, and $36 for adults.
Best Bar: Proof (Charleston)
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.
Best Beer: Mexican Cake, Westbrook Brewing (Mount Pleasant)
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. Cacao 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!
Best Brunch: Magnolias (Charleston)
Magnolias has been a standard-bearer for true Lowcountry cuisine in Charleston since 1990 (it played a large role in igniting the city’s still-burgeoning culinary renaissance), and it’s one of the city’s most acclaimed Sunday brunch destinations. The brunch menu is full of down-home country dishes like house-made pimento cheese, ham cracklin biscuits, she-crab bisque, shrimp and scallops over grits with lobster butter sauce, crab cake with hoppin’ John risotto, country fried steak, and house-made biscuit with sausage gravy; but it’s also not afraid to think outside of the box: Just look at the apple fritter poppers with cinnamon cream cheese mousse, a duck confit omelette with roasted mushrooms and goat cheese, huevos rancheros with braised short ribs, and banana pudding-stuffed French toast with peanut butter syrup and bacon. This is one of those places where no matter what you order, it’s bound to be delicious.
Best Burger: Husk (Charleston)
So what’s the secret to the burger at Husk? Bacon ground right into the patty. 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.
Best Chicken and Waffles: Early Bird Diner (Charleston)
Yelp / Michael U
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.
The Best Chicken and Waffles in America
Best Chinese Restaurant: Red Orchids (Charleston)
Photo by Wendy F. via Yelp
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.
Best Chocolate Shop: Christophe Artisan Chocolatier-Patissier (Charleston)
Christophe Artisan Chocolatier-Patissier/Yelp
You could spend eternity staring at the stunning chocolates at this Charleston chocolate shop. The luxurious chocolates here are all hand-painted, resulting in bold morsels that are almost too gorgeous to eat. But, of course, you’ll want to eat these chocolates, which come in subtle flavors (Earl Grey tea, hazelnut) and outrageous (bleu cheese) alike.
Best Coffee Shop: Methodical Coffee (Greenville)
Located in Greenville, the most underrated place in South Carolina, Methodical Coffeehas been featured in multiple top publications, receiving praise from The New York Times, Vogue, Bon Appétit, and USA Today among others. In addition to their high-quality espresso and typical brews, they're also known for specialty drinks such as the tres leches or spiced honey latte.
Best Cupcakes: Cupcrazed Cakery (Fort Mill)
Photo by Pamela G. via Yelp
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.
Best Doughnuts: Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts (Charleston)
Photo by Joseph P via Yelp
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.
Best Farmers Market: Charleston Farmers Market (Charleston)
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.
Best Food Truck: Pink Bellies (Charleston)
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.
Best French Fries: Tattooed Moose (Charleston)
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.
Best Fried Chicken: Husk (Charleston)
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 two days in advance, but now the fried chicken is a staple on the daily-changing lunch menu. The secret is in the fat: The chicken is fried in a mixture of butter, chicken fat, bacon fat, and country ham fat.
Best Grocery Store: Harris Teeter
Photo by Harris Teeter via Yelp
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.
Best Hot Dog: Sandy’s (Columbia)
Founded in 1978 by Bud Sanderson, this Columbia institution serves custom-made Black Angus hot dogs in two sizes and makes all of their chili, coleslaw, and pimento cheese in-house, from scratch. Put it all together and wash it down with some Cheerwine and you’ve got a recipe for a seriously good hot dog.
Best Hotel Restaurant: The Ocean Room (Kiawah Island)
Perched atop a grand staircase on the second floor of the luxurious Sanctuary resort hotel on tony Kiawah Island, The Ocean Room is an upscale and elegant AAA 4 Diamond steakhouse, with plenty of windows overlooking the ocean, ample space between each of the roomy tables, elegant carpeting, and plenty of high-end fixtures and furnishings. The steak offerings include dry-aged bone-in strips, ribeyes, and T-bones for two (toppings include jumbo lump crab or broiled shrimp Oscar, broiled lobster tail with béarnaise, and a blue cheese crust). Non-steak offerings are equally impressive, and include braised octopus with scallop mousse agnolotti, butternut squash purée, squid ink sauce, aged feta, and frill mustard; truffle-encrusted halibut with littleneck clams, salsify, romanesco, leek, charred onion, pine nuts, and fumet blanc; and Storey Farms chicken with roasted carrots, smoked carrot purée, braised wheatberries, purple cabbage, and Madeira jus.
Best Italian Restaurant: Trattoria Lucca (Charleston)
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?
Best Lobster Roll: The Ordinary (Charleston)
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.
Best Macaroni and Cheese: Crave Kitchen & Cocktails (Mount Pleasant)
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.
Best Mexican Restaurant: Minero (Charleston)
When chef Sean Brock 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 (even though he is no longer involved with the restaurant group), the menu’s lone burrito includes hoppin’ john, and you can order Carolina Gold arroz rojo on the side.
Most Romantic Restaurant: Peninsula Grill (Charleston)
Located right in the heart of Charleston, Peninsula Grill is a renowned upscale restaurant that’s the perfect date night spot. The romance begins before you even walk through the front door: All guests walk through a garden path just to enter (garden seating is also available on nice days). Once inside, the dining room is bustling but elegant, with gray walls and large white tablecloth-topped tables, chandeliers, and portraits and equestrian paintings on the walls. Highlights from the sophisticated Southern-influenced menu include she-crab soup, roasted domestic lamb porterhouse, pan-roasted local trout, and some of the city’s finest steaks.
Best Pasta Dish: Spaghetti Chitarra, McCrady’s Tavern (Charleston)
Yelp/ Jing L.
The spaghetti chitarra served at McCrady’s Tavern is a prime example of founder and former owner Sean Brock's boundless creativity: 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.
Best Pizza: Monza Pizza (Charleston)
Photo by Caroline N. via Yelp
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.
Best Restaurant for Breakfast: Hominy Grill (Charleston)
Heather M./ Yelp
One of Charleston’s most legendary restaurants (and one of the best restaurants in America, period), James Beard Award-winner Robert Stehling’s Hominy Grill has been serving top-notch Lowcountry cuisine in two charming and comfortable dining rooms since 1996. It opens its doors at 7:30 during the week and at 9:30 on weekends, and its country breakfasts with a Lowcountry twist are simply beyond reproach. One taste of the shrimp and grits; huevos rancheros with jasmine rice; pimento cheese biscuits with sausage gravy; grit bowls topped with beef braised in Creole sauce or slow-smoked pork belly, egg, and Cheddar; buttermilk or buckwheat pancakes; bread pudding French toast; heirloom cornmeal waffle with Cajun pork cracklins; or the legendary Charleston Nasty Biscuit — a fried chicken breast and Cheddar biscuit sandwich drowned in sausage gravy — and you’ll understand why Hominy is so popular with the locals as well as a must-visit for so many tourists.
Best Restaurant: Husk (Charleston and Greenville)
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 chef Sean Brock's most beloved restaurant (even though he left his restaurant group to focus on Nashville earlier this year) 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.
Best Barbecue: Sweatman’s BBQ (Holly Hill)
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 BBQ. 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.
Best Sandwich: Charleston Nasty Biscuit, Hominy Grill (Charleston)
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.
Best Seafood Shack: Bowen's Island Restaurant (Charleston)
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.
Best Soup: She-Crab Soup at Hominy Grill (Charleston)
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.
Best Steakhouse: Oak Steakhouse (Charleston)
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.
Best Tacos: Carnitas, Carmen y Juan’s (Mt. Pleasant)
Located far from the beaten path in Mt. Pleasant, this unassuming strip mall joint is serving some seriously delicious tacos. Everything from the tortillas to the hot sauce is made from scratch (including a killer mole and a traditional long-cooked menudo), and the slow-cooked meats are deeply satisfying. Make sure you try the carnitas, big chunks of falling-apart pork marinated in orange and pineapple juice before being simmered in hot oil and tucked into a fresh tortilla with onion and cilantro. Be sure to drizzle on some of the housemade hot sauce. To learn about the best eats in other states, check out our ultimate guide to the best food and drink in every state for 2019.