Charleston: Come to Eat, Stay for the Charm
If food tourism is your jam, put Charleston on your must-visit list. This Southern belle has culinary chops that rival bigger cities, plus small-town friendliness. What is the recipe for Charleston’s gastronomic success?
1. Geography. Charleston is perched along crab, shrimp, and oyster-laden waters and beside bountiful farms that benefit from a 10-month growing season. Many chefs work intimately with local purveyors, so those shrimp on your grits could have been plucked from the Shem Creek docks just hours beforehand.
2. History. Lowcountry cuisine is a delicious melting pot of the South’s rich diversity, with Anglican (barbecue), French (technique), African (peanuts, okra, spices), and Native American (more spices) influences. Before farm-to-table became a trend, Lowcountry cooking celebrated regional ingredients, like Carolina Gold rice and Anson Mills grits.
3. People. The stalwarts (see: chefs Sean Brock and Mike Lata) are ever-expanding as a new wave of young guns (see: chefs Joshua Walker and Josh Keeler) open up shop. Combined with a Portland-like blend of brewers, bakers, distillers, and roasters, Charleston’s food scene is buzzing. Like their Pacific Northwest counterpart, Charleston lures food and beverage folk from near and far.
Charleston’s culinary praise keeps piling up. The 2015 James Beard Foundation just named FIG’s Jason Stanhope Best Chef: Southeast, while Sean Brock (Husk, Minero), himself the 2013 winner, took home the Best Cookbook Award for Heritage, his personal tome on preserving and reinterpreting American heritage foods.
Thankfully, all these accolades have not gone to Charlestonians’ heads. The Holy City still bursts with Southern charm, showering visitors with a hospitable hug. You’ll experience that geniality as you explore town, a must to balance the eat-and-drink-a-thon. Charleston is a wonderfully walkable city, with gorgeous architecture, palmetto-lined streets, and air that is sweetly scented with jasmine blossoms. To navigate the city’s many delights, here’s our handy guide to Chucktown.
Lay of the Land
Charleston’s historic downtown sits on a peninsula between two rivers: the Ashley and the Cooper. The main drag, King Street, teems with shops, bars, and eateries. Head south on King past Broad, and you’ll find Charleston’s cotillion crowd. The colorful, cobblestoned French Quarter lies to the West. North of the downtown, across the crosstown expressway, find Charleston’s hipster ‘hoods, North Central, NoMo, and Uptown, home to a tasty bunch of new restaurants.
Venture beyond Charleston’s signature shrimp and grits at Mike Lata’s The Ordinary. Housed in a stunning 1920s former bank, this “fancy seafood oyster hall” serves their shrimp New Orleans-style, bathed in a Worcestershire, lemon, garlic, and Cajun-spiced sauce. These finger-lickin’ shrimp are served with a warning by the waitstaff: You will get dirty.
Like the South’s famous sweet tea, Charleston’s cityscape is steeped in history. Thanks to strict preservation laws, which include height restrictions and prevent buildings over 75 years old from being torn down, colorful, antebellum architecture remains. While you wander, notice the Charleston single house, the narrow homes that have porches on the side instead of the front. Certain buildings have black circular plaques by the door. This Carolopolis award marks well-preserved and restored buildings.
Black Tap Coffee has the minimalist cool of big city roasters with small-town sociability. The coffee, roasted just five miles across the river on James Island, is Charleston’s finest. Enjoy with a blueberry lemon scone from nearby WildFlour Pastry or grab a bag to bring home.
Get Your Guide On
Bulldog Tours offers personalized tours that are anything but touristy. The guides are as knowledgeable as they are funny. Stroll Downtown offers an excellent overview, foodies will savor the Culinary Tour, and you can explore the blasphemous brothels and crimes of the Holy City with the Dark Side of Charleston.
Brown’s Court Bakery is hidden off King Street in a nineteenth century home. There, gobble up freshly baked pastries, cookies, and breads. Come early, before peach cobbler muffins and chocolate and peanut butter croissants sell out. Those that are left are sold at a discount at the carb-tastic Happy Hour from 5 to 7 p.m.
Shepard Fairey, the artist known for his Obey Giant series and Obama posters, grew up in downtown Charleston. In 2014, the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art hosted Fairey’s first hometown exhibit, which included large-scale street art. Find these magnificent murals across from High Wire Distilling, in the parking lot next to Groucho’s Deli on King Street, and on the front of the College Lodge dorm on Calhoun Street.
Cypress chef Craig Deihl is the OG of Charleston charcuterie. Since 2001, he’s been transforming scraps from whole butchered pigs into cured meat magic. The rotating offerings include coppa made from heirloom Tamworth hogs and ‘nduja spiced with local hot sauce mash. Deihl’s just-opened Artisan Meat Share sells charcuterie and sandwiches to go. For porcine pics, follow @cdeihl on Instagram.
Erin Connelly and Kelly Clark Speake believe that beautiful housewares make your life better. Their store The Commons offers American-made products designed with care, skill, and love. Find a nautical rope doormat from local Sailor Knot Company and elegant copper spoons from Detroit’s Smith Company.
Beer Me Up
With eight breweries slated to open within the year, Charleston is on track to double its brewery count. The newest brewery on the block, Revelry, is into experimental suds; their American IPA, the sour Funkmaster Brett, is delicious, and the hoppy Furious lives up to its name. Next door at Edmund’s Oast, a modern brewpub run by owners of the Craft Beer Exchange, the 48-tap wall pours local and house-brewed drafts, like the sour Voodoo Child. Save room for their gourmet grub.
Charleston’s first distillery since Prohibition, High Wire Distilling Co. is owned by former baker Scott Blackwell and his wife, Ann Marshall. Blackwell translates his grain know-how from the oven to the still, putting an emphasis on local ingredients, like red corn and sugar cane, from neighboring farms. Sample his tasty results, like the Barrel-Aged Hat Trick Gin, at the in-depth distillery tours on Thursday through Sunday.
In early March, taste Charleston in a four-day feeding frenzy at the Charleston Food and Wine Festival, a yearly bacchanalia benefitting local charities. Later each spring, the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. captivates Charleston with its impressive lineup of performing artists. For the first time since starting in 2008, the Charleston International Film Festival will take place in November; chase away the winter blues with their creative lineup of movies, workshops, and events.
Where to Snooze
Cook where you sleep at Zero George, a chic boutique hotel with an in-house cooking school. Check in to the Renaissance Historic District Hotel and check out Barony Tavern, their brand-new eatery. Run by Charleston vet Bob Carter, Barony serves upscale Southern fare in a clubby (aka taxidermy-filled) setting.
An innovative startup called Scoop offers free rides downtown. The friendly drivers work on tips only; they’re happy to give local tips in exchange. Charleston’s flat terrain is terrific for bikes. If your hotel doesn’t have them on hand, try Affordabike. Their $20 rentals are the best deals in town.