CHARLESTON, SC – Never mind the drama that surrounded Charleston’s part in the American Revolution. Likewise, chalk up to history the tumult that surrounded Charleston during the American Civil War. Yeah, these are resilient people in a community that knows how to pull together when challenged by adversity. They did it near the turn of the 21st Century when Category 4 Hurricane Hugo slammed the city with 130 mph winds and inundated its historic downtown with tidal surge. These folks pulled on their work boots and got the city back on the map. Just this year, a clearly deranged suspect with white supremacist leanings gunned down nine African American parishioners as they sat in Bible study at the 199-year-old Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Other U.S. cities have erupted into violence after similar events. Not Charleston. Again, the community united arm-in-arm to grieve and recover.
Strength in numbers seems to be a mantra for Charleston – even among restaurateurs. The majority of the city’s most well-known restaurants are under corporate umbrellas of groups. Seven of the city’s largest restaurant management companies control 60 of Charleston’s most popular eateries. This number does not include several small management companies with only a couple of properties – but with thoughts of growth. The competition has been intense and the winners are the diners – locals and tourists – who flock to Charleston’s culinary scene in drives. For the city’s most popular dining rooms, plan on making reservations well in advance – especially if you’re dining on a weekend.
The good news is that corporate ownership hasn’t stripped chefs and individual restaurants of uniqueness. Menus ranges from casual bar food to elegant dining that is on par with city kitchens in much larger communities. Seafood plays heavy on many menus, but’s there is also thoughtful consideration given to the authentic preparation of ethnic cuisines. The city has a lively and edgy culinary scene. Here, the phrase “farm-to-table” is an expectation; chefs are in homage to Southern tradition with a flair for modern expression. It’s hard to find a serious restaurateur who is not canning their own veggies, making their own pickles and curing meats in open view of the steady stream of diners.
And then, there are the off the beaten path joints. I’ve been traveling to Charleston since 1999 – I’ve eaten plenty at McCrady’s, Husk, Slightly North of Broad, Fig and Anson’s. When I hit Charleston now, I seek comfort foods from devoted Southern kitchens’ and then seek small joints. While what I refer to as downtown Charleston, south of Decatur Street, is home to big names, a quick tour north of Decatur on King Street reveals a handful of great little spots.
My recommendations are the result of two trips to Charleston. Your mileage may vary, but these are my picks:
Biscuits to go: Callie’s Charleston Biscuits is a King Street storefront barely 8-feet wide. Guests jockey for one of 8 seats but are content to scurry away with a pair of Callie’s piping hot biscuits. Biscuits make up most of the menu, from plain to filled with sweet flavors or savory ingredients. On our visit, there was a grits bowl – but frankly, this place is all about the biscuits. Biscuits are served as a pair, and my duo of black pepper bacon biscuits was a bit of a surprise. I anticipated bacon sandwiched into a biscuit, but what I found was finely diced pepper bacon integrated into the biscuit dough. Yes! Great idea…hearty, filling and delicious.
But, what about the onion rings? Bessigner’s BBQ on busy Savannah Highway is a landmark BBQ restaurant famous for its classic South Carolina mustard-based BBQ sauce. A jumbo sandwich and order of beer-battered onion rings is enough for Ms. T.J. and I to share – and we still leave a few bites. Bessinger’s incorporated the sauce into the ‘cue – not my favorite presentation – but it’s not over sauced. Fans of Bessinger’s sauce can take some home – by the bottle or by the case.
They don’t give green stamps: The Grocery is usually only a dinner-only destination but also serves a gracious Sunday brunch. I chose chicken and biscuits with gravy, which is finished in the restaurant’s wood-fired oven. Ms. T.J.’s Green Eggs and Ham featured a pair of poached eggs rolled in herbs and seasoning, then flash fried – poof, green eggs. A perfectly crafted house-made Bloody Mary mix adds welcome zing to the ubiquitous morning cocktail. Adjoining parking makes The Grocery easily accessible. On my “To Do” list for dinner.
Funny name, fantastic destination: Edmund’s Oast is about three miles north of downtown. The large complex can accommodate more than 200 diners and has a 5-barrel brewhouse. Four 10-barrel fermenters keep beer flowing to provide a half-dozen of more hose-brewed beers. Nearly 50 taps offer a comprehensive selection of often hard-to-find craft beers – and also dispense a keg wine and a pair of keg cocktails. House cured meats are the other huge attraction at Edmund’s Oast. We shared a cured charcuterie board – and then each had beautifully built salads to round out the meal. I sampled three beers, including house-made brands including Edmund’s Oast Olde Ale – a brown ale aged in French oak barrels -- and Edmund’s Oast Bourbon Barrel aged Nameless City – a 9 ABV black wheat ale aged in Willet Bourbon barrels.
More sweet tea sweetheart?: Jestine’s Kitchen is our favorite old-school meat-and-three joint. Here, you will find classics: Collard Greens, black-eyed peas, fried chicken. These and other Southern staples are dished out with gracious service and an occasional, “Sweetie, how’s your dinner?” Everything on this menu hits the mark and arrives piping hot and in generous portions. Save room for dessert – we did – and shared a piece of Jestine’s coconut cream pie.
A dozen on ice: 167 Raw has maybe two dozen seats, which explains the line at the door. Still, this neat and tidy little raw bar moves ‘em through, serving up icy platters of oysters on the half shell. During my visit, I chose a dozen on the half shell made up of three varieties: Beausoleil from Canada, Wiley Point from Maine, Standish from Maine. Clean, briny and delicious! Accompanying mignonette was a perfect companion for the delicate oysters; a house made horseradish sauce was a picture of balanced kick. Not a raw fan? Several fried options are available and the lobs-tah roll is a taste of Maine in the heart of steamy Charleston.
Just the classics: 39 Rue de Jean is a landmark here and its Franco-centric menu is a winner. Escargot swimming in buttery garlic sauce started the meal and we were fully satisfied by our entrees. The pork tenderloin dressed with pan jus and accompanied by ratatouille was a winner. I’ll be back – and Savannah locals and visitors can soon expect their own location of 39 Rue de Jean to be open. Nice, accessible wine list, exemplary service.
That’s Italian: Monza is just a stone’s throw from 39 Rue de Jean and fit the bill for an easy, uncomplicated dinner. Our cozy window seat gave us an air-conditioned vantage point from which to watch the scurrying about on King Street. Tagliatelle with Bolognese for me; penne with vodka sauce for Ms. TJ. Some Chianti, a shared salad, a nice end to the day.
This isn’t Krispy Kreme: The legendary, air-puffed donuts of the Krispy Kreme empire are veritable Southern institutions. But Glazed Gourmet Donuts is bringing something more to fans of great donuts. Get there early, I didn’t, because these guys sell out by mid-afternoon. Gourmet flavors change daily. I suspect when the case is full it’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite to accompany a cup of piping hot Joe.
Nah, it’s open: Closed for Business is certainly an odd name for a business but it works for this nicely themed cocktail bar. Lots of hand-crafted cocktails and perpetual experimentation by the helpful barkeeps make Closed for Business a ready gathering place for after work shenanigans – or just a place to chill with friends. Wine too, and craft beer. I love the window seats.
From scratch: The Daily is one of those little joints whose humble exterior belies the greatness you find inside. The watchword here is “fresh.” Fresh cold-brewed coffee, made to order meals, breads and pastries baked in house. In fact, darned near EVERYTHING is made in house. Cool retail wine selection or BTG. The Daily is part of a complex with High Wire Distilling Co. and its sister restaurant, Butcher and Bee.
Big sis: Butcher and Bee is across the parking lot form The Daily and offers a menu on the fly. For a more substantial plate of chow than The Daily, B&B is the place. The menu changes daily based upon what’s seasonal and offers options packed with things that are good tasting and good for you. Lots and lots of vegetarian options, cool atmosphere and helpful staff make it lunch and a chill out session all in one.
The hard stuff: High Wire Distilling is between these two eateries and is a nice respite from the usual touristy stops. Enjoy a tasting and experience locally made rum, gin and, of course, whiskey – either more conventional or with the distiller’s twist. My fav for a hot Charleston night: Hat Trick botanical gin!
Where to stay
VRBO.com offers plenty of options in the Charleston area but be aware of the property location. The VRBO we chose, and like most, was out of downtown proper and may require a long walk or a drive to get to the heart of the action. We used Uber, since I was going to be drinking my way around. That worked great, but adds cost to your trip. Honestly, for the same money I could have stayed at a hotel that offered amenities and better access.
Hotels are plentiful and range from $150 a night to atmospheric rates. We loved our visit to Hampton Inn on Meeting Street. Why? First, it’s in the neighborhood for many of the places named above – and easy walk to dinner, for drinks for a gourmet donut. Second, the free breakfast is a full meal – including make-em-yourself waffles. Lastly, it’s at a CARTA trolley stop. The free shuttles run about every 20 minutes most days and are an easy way to get from Meeting Street all the way to stops on Broad Street, Waterfront Park, and several others.