Southern soul food. For many, it is synonymous with butter cascading off pillowy biscuits, shrimp and grits drowning in cheese and salt, she-crab soup saturated with heavy cream, greasy fried chicken, fried okra and fried green tomatoes; however, the Charleston culinary scene proves there’s more to good country cookin’ than bacon and adding more butta’. You can indulge in Southern food without clogging your arteries with lard and insta-cavities from overly sugared sweet tea. A descent into gluttony may be the siren call of touristy restaurants near Market Street, but high-quality and authentic Charleston cuisine doesn’t require thousands of calories.
Finding good-for-you “feel-good food” isn’t a foreign concept to the city. Charleston chefs have utilized local ingredients before farm-to-table became popular. The New Southern movement encourages cooks to find creative ways to feature hyper-fresh seafood and locally grown produce, while playing with traditional preparation methods.
When it comes to the Charleston’s best bites, it’s impossible to pick just a few. The city has the highest concentration of James Beard (“the Oscar of the food world”) awarded chefs of anywhere in America. New York Times said Charleston, whose permanent population is about 126,000, has “a concentration of world-class dining normally seen in cities five times its size.” Residents love to share their rich culinary history, but traditional meat and fish-centric dishes may appear to exclude vegetarians. With a little bit of sleuthing, the city can accommodate vegetarians looking for satisfying, authentic Southern dishes.
The following guide will help navigate Charleston’s sometimes overwhelming culinary scene by providing historical background, followed by suggestions for five vegetarian-friendly Charleston restaurants. These establishments feature fresh, local ingredients, spanning the spectrum from traditional to more innovative Southern cooking so you can waltz out of the city instead of waddle.
History Of Charleston Cuisine
Charleston’s southern coastal location contributes to its reputation for “low-country classics” such as she-crab soup, fried green tomatoes and benne wafers. These dishes feature fresh shrimp, fish, crab and oysters from nearby estuaries and rice, which grows well in South Carolina’s marshlands. The smorgsboard of dishes feature cultural influences from waves of settlers that arrived at Charleston’s ports.
In the 17th century, English settlers fully utilized pigs left behind by the Spanish, and pork remains a central protein to this day. These settlers would utilize as much of the pig as possible, a tradition that continued in the Antebellum South where the slave owners would eat the choicest parts, letting their slaves get creative with cooking the nose, snouts and ears. The chef at Larder continues this “nose-to-tail” use of the whole hog when he creates Gullah-inspired, tapas-like dishes. Native Americans taught the settlers to plant and cook with corn, sierra beans, and squash, crops that would thrive in the alligator-infested swamps. Charleston’s chefs began to draw attention by daring to serve causal dishes like grits and cornbread on fine dining menus, such as at downtown S.NO.B. (which actually stands for “Slightly North of Broad” Street).
In the 18th century, Charleston’s pledge of religious tolerance– which contributes to its Holy City nickname– drew a wave of French Huguenots. French charcuterie and cassoulets increased the area’s pork consumption and they introduced their fine desserts. If you’re seeking a taste of Paris in the South, wander around the French Quarter, taste traditional brassiere cuisine at 39 Rue de Jean and grab dessert at Cristophe Artisan Chocolatier-Patissier or the Macaroon Boutique.
As the northern point of a pan-Caribbean trade, Charleston’s strong interconnected with Barbados, Jamaica and even Cuba brought an array of spices and citrus to the city. Pre-dinner cocktails became rum-based and Charleston learned to enjoy Madeira, a Portuguese wine prepared with an aged and heated style, reminiscent of West Indie boat trips. Check out Caribbean dishes and drinks at Fuel Cantina, a converted gas station with an outdoor patio and bocce court.
As the center of the slave trade in the 18th century — three out of four enslaved Africans arrived in America through the city’s port — there’s a noticeable Gullah influence on low country cuisine. Slaves introduced new ingredients and cooking practices, specifically rice, okra, collard greens, aubergines and peanuts. Today, you can find dishes like gumbos and rice dishes that originated as “slave food” at white table-cloth restaurants, including Gullah Cuisine.
1. Hominy Grill
For quintessential low-country cuisine, everyone first suggests the Hominy Grill, which locals and press proclaim as the “place where Charleston cuisine lives.” Housed in a renovated barbershop, you’ll instantly feel at home in this cozy and comfortable space. James Beard Award winning chef/owner Robert Stehling serves up hearty country meals that feature Low Country flavors in a reasonably priced, home-cooked style. Famous for its first-come-first-serve breakfasts, tourists and savvy regulars line up before the restaurant opens to enjoy pancakes, eggs, stone-ground grits, and (famous) house-made sausage. Hominy Grill’s legendary “Big Nasty” biscuit features a massive fried chicken breast smothered in cheese and covered with a cascade of sausage gravy. Vegetarians can try their Grilled Eggplant Sandwich on sunflower toast or their house granola. At lunch and dinner, cornbread served with an ever-rotating selection of Southern veggies can make for a satisfying meal. Carnivores can try the slow-smoked St. Louis ribs in a molasses barbeque sauce or cornmeal-fried Catfish Creole.
Details: 207 Rutledge Ave. Charleston, SC 29403. Breakfast dishes for $5.50-10. Dinner dishes from $7.50-$20.
2. The Grocery
With an atmosphere reminiscent of a small-town grocery, the recently James Beard-nominated executive chef and owner Kevin Johnson showcases seasonal ingredients. Local and regional farmers and fishermen stock the kitchen for house-made charcuteries and seafood dishes on his urban agrarian menu. The cordial atmosphere accents a neutral interior with colorful jars of vegetables and condiments. These products of the in-house canning program testify to the restaurant’s mission to celebrate artisanal producers year-round by preserving fresh produce for the menu. Hierarchically ranked from “snacks” to “plates,” chose from internationally inspired dishes featuring regional ingredients. Snack on chicken liver mousse with delicious persimmon jam or, for a meal, chose the golden tilefish with parsnip puree in Vermouth broth with a pine nut relish. Vegetarians can try their pig skin pad thai, which surprisingly features crispy tofu, or their wood-roasted carrot salad, topped with a pistachio crumble with dates, Greek yogurt and feta. Wash your meal down with lively specialty cocktails, such as the Dirty Green Tomato Martini brightened with green tomato pickle juice.
Details: 4 Cannon Street, Charleston, SC, 29403. Dinner dishes from $9-24.
For vegetable-centric, organic Southern food close to what native Charlestonians eat on a regular basis, try the hospitable Alluette’s Café. You’ll find “holistic soul food” staples like fish stew and fried chicken, while vegetarians will be right at home with an always-on-the-menu vegan tofu stir-fry. Alluette’s Café is a “Fresh on the Menu Certified SC Grown” restaurant with daily deliveries of organic produce and local seafood. The preparation of its food and beverage does not include sugar. Don’t come here if you’re in a rush, since chef and owner, Alluette Jones-Smalls prepares all the dishes by hand. You can see her personal touch in its irregularly cut French fries and taste how her home-cooked quality makes simple dishes extraordinary. As you wait, enjoy the warmth of a hospitable and colorful place. Check out local art adorning the salmon colored walls and the flowering plants and herbs that encircle the patio. The café also hosts performances of music, poetry and theater that give your other senses a taste of local southern culture.
Details: 80 A Reid Street , Charleston, SC 29403. Dinner dishes from $10-19.
4. Glass Onion
Strong advocates of eating seasonally, locally and naturally, the Glass Onion’s regularly changing menu features midscale Southern comfort food prepared with local ingredients. The minimalist, stripped-down lunch counter style of the restaurant puts the focus on what you’re eating and the chalkboard contains a rundown of where the ingredients come from. You’ll find favorites like deviled eggs and gumbo as well as more exotic dishes like chicken marsala with mushrooms and hand-cut pasta or Buffalo James River oyster frittata with buttermilk blue cheese. Vegetarians can make a meal out of sides, try a grilled pimento cheese sandwich or chose from creative salads, like a Parmesan buttermilk pea tendril salad. On Mondays, enjoy half-priced sustainable, organic or biodynamic wines as you listed to live music. Beer lovers will delight in a relaxed atmosphere and a varied assortment of local beer. The West Ashley restaurant isn’t downtown but that doesn’t stop people from flocking for their Fried Chicken Tuesday. You better call ahead if you want a table on this popular night.
Details: 1219 Savannah Hwy, Charleston, SC 29407. Dinner from $9-13.
5. Prohibition Bar and Restaurant
For late night drinks and dancing, check out the 1920s-themed Prohibition Bar and Restaurant. This new establishment captures the essence of the Great Gatsby era, with walls cladded in 180-year-old, weather barn wood, accented with chain-links from shipyards, WWI table legs and tables from German beer halls. They plan to host Wednesday dance lessons where you can learn the Southern shag, lindy hop and Charleston. Nights and weekends will feature live blues and jazz where you can practice your new moves to the sounds of female lounge singers, Dixieland jazz bands and Cuban big bands. If you need liquid motivation to dance, sip on Prohibition-era cocktails crafted by the New York City bartender, Jim McCourt. Try the bacon-maple old-fashioned or the King street cobbler with blackberry liqueur, lemon, sugar and local berries. Chose from appetizers such as the Bootlegger wings, served with maple bourbon or garlic hotsauce, duck confit quesadilla with a black bean corn salsa or the vegetarian-friendly mushroom focaccia with garlic-infused goat cheese and oyster mushrooms.
Details: 547 King Street, Charleston, SC. Appetizers around $9. Cocktails for $9-11.
Other ways to sample the local food scene:
Is your stomach rumbling yet? You’re in luck since Charleston Food and Wine festival, one of America’s top five food and wine festivals according to Forbes Traveler, is just around the corner. From March 6-9, 2014, guests can meet and get a taste of some of the country’s best chefs, authors and wine professionals during the 100+ events. For a wonderful opportunity to sample various dishes anytime of year, join Charleston Culinary Tours for an informative culinary adventure that can accommodate vegetarians with advanced notice.