I’ve long considered Charleston, South Carolina to be the best city to eat in America.
Shrimp ‘n grits, buttermilk biscuits, and fresh oysters are nowhere so abundant and delicious as in this beautiful colonial Southern city.
It’s only in more recent years that the New York Times culinary critics and other big-city “foodie” elites have come to the same discovery.
This isn’t necessarily a good thing because only a Yankee could mess up good, simple Southern cooking.
I mean it’s not like there’s some secret organic ingredient that makes Poogan’s Porch and their world famous biscuits so life-changing. I’m pretty sure it’s simply the massive amounts of pure lard that would make even your cardiologist blush.
Delicious Southern cooking has never been about complicated ingredients or culinary degrees from prestigious culinary institutes. But big-city foodies and celebrity chefs are all about complicated.
Afterall, you don’t gain celebrity status in the Food section of the New York Times through simplicity.
Therefore, I was curious but somewhat skeptical about trying some of Charleston’s newest restaurants—many of them boasting rave reviews, chefs with five diamond pedigrees, and accolades from the elite culinary tastemakers stationed in Yankee territory.
Of course I couldn’t abandon my longtime favorites. No trip to Charleston could be considered complete without at least one plate of crispy flounder and apricot chutney.
So what follows is a mix of old and new, traditional and innovative, longtime favorites and hot new trendsetters.
What they all have in common is unforgettable food, Southern charm, and an only-in-Charleston experience.
185 E. Bay St.
Southern cooking was traditionally a humble and modest fare—abundant local ingredients stretched out to feed the greatest number of mouths.
Magnolias is one of the Charleston institutions that elevated Southern cuisine to a gourmet, high-end dining occasion.
Pro-tip: If you want to avoid sticker shock when the waiter presents your check, come for lunch when the same overflowing portions are offered at a lesser price.
Start with their perfectly fried local oysters drizzled in a tangy aioli sauce and nestled on a bed of sweet brussel sprout slaw.
For your entrée, you can’t go wrong with the fried green tomato BLT—it comes piled high with thick bacon and Magnolia’s signature deep fried ‘maters.
But for me, the highlight of their lunch menu was the bouillabaisse—a spicy French seafood stew with a Southern twist. This bowl came brimming with corn, potato, okra, shrimp, mussels, flounder, and scallops in a tangy tomato broth. Apparently it was their lunch portion, but was as filling as any dinner entrée, and at half the price.
The waiter told me he served a man from France the day before who said it was the best bouillabaisse he’d ever had.
See? Even the French come to Charleston to eat.
72 Queen St.
No trip to Charleston, no matter how brief, is complete without a meal at Poogan’s Porch. And in a city full of fun and delicious places beckoning visitors’ precious stomach vacancy, that my friends, is saying a mouthful.
Part of what makes Poogan’s so great is that it is quintessential Charleston –Southern to its core. A renovated 1888 Victorian home on a quiet side street in Charleston’s historic district, eating at Poogan’s Porch is literally like dining in someone’s home.
The place is named after a beloved neighborhood dog whose favorite resting place –
like any self-respecting Southern hound – was the front porch.
Poogan passed on to canine heaven a few years after the restaurant opened, but the owners honored him by not only naming their restaurant after him, but by burying him in the garden out front.
At Poogan’s, every meal starts out with a basket of soft, decadently delicious buttermilk biscuits made from scratch and served with a side of sweet honey butter that instantly melts into the steamy dough.
I overhead a waiter saying that Poogan’s famous biscuit baker has been making them the same way for over three decades. Millions and millions of them.
One bite and you’ll know why Poogan’s biscuits are considered one of the top tourist attractions in all of Charleston.
4 Cannon St.
I’ll admit to being a bit skeptical before trying The Grocery, a hip newish place on Upper King St. opened seven years ago by James Beard Award recipient, Chef Kevin Johnson.
It’s received glowing reviews in all the fancy Yankee publications up north like the New York Times and Eater—whose uber-sophisticated food critic recently named The Grocery one of America’s 38 “Most Essential” restaurants…whatever “essential” is supposed to mean.
Thus, I feared all the “foodie” accolades translated into a modern and minimalist culinary experience.
I was delighted to be wrong.
The food at The Grocery is both Southern traditional and generous — not to mention delicious.
Every meal starts with a ramekin of bacon-infused butter and warm multigrain bread with a sweet, crunchy crust.
I personally recommend starting with their perfectly fried local oysters drizzled in a sweet mustardy aioli.
Their must-try entrée is the pilau— a traditional Low Country dish that is hard to find on most Charleston menus.
African in origin, this dish has been handed down through the generations since the first African slaves were brought to Charleston 400 years ago.
At The Grocery, rice cooked with saffron and other exotic African spices comes loaded with clams, mussels, shrimp and the most crispy fried flounder that’s ever graced my taste buds.
The atmosphere is trendy, yet casual, with shelves of pickled vegetables evoking an old-fashioned grocery store.
The Grocery is proof that Charleston’s hip and trendy can also be traditional and good.
76 Queen St.
Husk is the most popular restaurant in Charleston, winning world-renowned accolades from all the foodie elites since the day it opened in 2010.
You need to book reservations weeks — if not months — in advance if you have any hope of sampling celebrity Chef Sean Brock’s Southern cuisine served with a creative twist.
Somehow I managed to score a last minute 9:30pm reservation on a weeknight in March, curious to see if Husk lived up to all the hype.
Unfortunately, I can’t say it does.
Husk is sandwiched between two of Charleston’s best traditional Southern restaurants on Queen St.—Poogan’s Porch and 82 Queen. Stuck in the middle of traditional, Husk aspires to be different and creative with its high-end Low Country cuisine.
But sometimes creative ends up being different just for the sake of being different – which isn’t always an improvement.
The first thing to greet you when you walk up the steps is a blackboard listing every ingredient and its source — both supplier and location. No need to ask your waiter if the fish is fresh or the shrimp is local. You already know the estuary from which it was caught before you’re even seated.
The most creative dish I tried was my wife’s pork patty of belly and shoulder meat fused together with a delicious mild pepper sauce and a vegetable and cabbage medley. Creative, different, and tasty.
But I suffered a bit of entrée envy because my catfish with pilau paled in comparison to the pilau I had at The Grocery. While the flounder at The Grocery miraculously kept its crunch throughout the meal, Huck’s inferior catfish became mushy under the assault of moist rice.
Most perplexing of all was dessert, lemon meringue “pie”.
I guess I should have noticed that “pie” was in quotation marks.
It’s hard to improve upon the delicious simplicity of a good pie. Alas, pie is much too mundane for an innovative destination like Husk.
No, at Husk, lemon meringue “pie” means elements of lemon meringue pie deconstructed artistically — and separately — onto a small plate.
Sometimes there is a fine line between creative and just weird.
12 Anson St.
Take a break from the trendy nouveau Charleston restaurants with celebrity chefs hailing from New York and San Francisco.
Anson is traditional old-school Charleston to the core.
A longtime favorite for tourists and locals seeking comforting Southern cuisine, a visit to Anson never disappoints.
Begin your meal with a pair of Low Country classics—she-crab soup and fried green tomatoes.
Our waiter insisted that the she-crab soup (which, as the name implies, traditionally contains a touch of the orange crab roe from a female crab) was made with local crabmeat.
I was skeptical because fresh American crabmeat has become almost extinct. Not because there are a lack of local crabs, but because there is a lack of local crab-pickers willing to do the meticulous work of pulling the meat from the shells.
Barack Obama transferred people with manual labor jobs like crab-picking from the workforce to the welfare rolls.
Donald Trump has blocked immigrant labor from taking their place.
The result? Plenty of crabs, no one to pick them.
As something of a self-proclaimed crab connoisseur, I can tell the difference between fresh crab and pasteurized canned crab from China. I’m happy to validate that Anson serves the real deal.
And their fried green tomatoes must be heaven sent because no mere mortal could create such a decedent, delicious appetizer.
Green tomatoes fried to a crisp and swimming in a pool of savory remoulade, then topped with Anson’s signature “bacon jam” and pimento cheese, these are the FGTs of your dreams.
The bacon jam isn’t just a garnish either. The sweet brown sugar-coated chunks of thick smoky bacon smothers the tomatoes. The bacon-to-tomato ratio would send any misguided vegetarian screaming into the Charleston night.
But save room for the entrée—which you only need to know two words about.
Anson claims to have invented this classic comfort dish found on menus all throughout the Low Country.
Here, you get an entire plate-sized flounder that’s been lightly fried (and scored diagonally into diamond nuggets of succulent tender bites of fish that peel away from the bone with the lightest touch of your fork) and lightly brushed in a Southern-sweet apricot glaze that complements the flounder perfectly.
Just when you think you’ve pried away every morsel of meat, the waiter will remind you to flip the flounder over.
Eureka! There’s an entire filet of flounder on the other side that’s been slowly marinating in apricot chutney.
Crispy flounder is the type of simple, unsophisticated Southern comfort food the New York Times culinary critics scoff at — which explains why the rest of us scoff at the New York Times.
106 Haddrell St.
Mount Pleasant, SC
Appropriately named, The Wreck is essentially a trailer down by the river with a porch. No sign and no air conditioning.
Forget your GPS. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll never find it—
an oyster shell parking lot crammed between boat yards with a flag pole out front waving the American flag.
Like the lyrics of a Jimmy Buffett song, next to “the shrimp boats tied up to the pilings,” The Wreck sits right on Shem Creek’s waterfront in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, just across the river from Charleston’s historic district.
As you walk up the wooden steps—that have thankfully never seen an OSHA or ADA inspector—and open the front door, you find yourself in the kitchen.
The cook is plying mounds of fried oysters, shrimp, crab cakes, and fish out of bubbling vats of hot oil. The sweat dripping from his brow no doubt adds to the flavor of the steaming seafood platters pouring out of the kitchen.
Did I mention this place has no air conditioning? Not to worry though.
Pass through the kitchen and onto the back porch. The breeze coming off Shem Creek and the gentle purr of old ceiling fans will keep you cool while you sip ice-cold bottled beer.
As you glance around the dining area, you can tell this place is completely devoid of tourists.
Nope, only locals found ‘round these parts.
Heck, the owner never bothered to replace their sign when it blew down in a hurricane 30 years ago—you think he’s going to advertise in the ubiquitous in-room hotel magazines?
Nope again. South Carolinians know exactly where it is.
Of course these seven restaurants are just a sampling of the many great places to eat in the Holy City. Whether you choose to go old-school, new-school, or both, you certainly won’t go hungry.
Please tell us about your favorite Charleston dining spots in the comments below.