Saturday, March 04, 2006

Dining in Charleston, SC

Updated 4/13/2010

This is a completely personal, eminently biased guide to dining in Charleston, S.C.

Over the past two decades, Charleston has not only become a major tourist destination but has also earned a national reputation as one of America's up-and-coming culinary cities. Gourmet magazine, for instance, recently called us "a lovely port city that’s fast on its way to becoming a serious food capital."

I would argue that we arrived several years ago.

The restaurants included on this site are my (current) favorites in town. There are tons of restaurants not on this list, many of which I suppose are pretty good, but for some reason or another I just haven't found them appealing enough to make them regular haunts. I draw no particular line between high and low: you'll find both roadside hot dog stands and high-end restaurants that rival the best that NYC or San Francisco have to offer.

The hardest part is that new restaurants keep opening all the time--just about the time you think you've finally caught up on your list of "must-trys", six new places crop up. But, that's a good problem to have.

Here are my current list of highly recommended establishments, 

Low-to-Medium Prices, Kid Friendly
Higher End
Markets and Other Food Related Destinations

Low-to-Medium Prices, Kid Friendly

Andolini's Pizza
US17 (West Ashley), Downtown, North Charleston, and Mt. Pleasant locations

A great independent pizzaria. Makes New York-style thin crust pies. You can get two slices of cheese pizza and a draft PBR for six bucks.

Bessinger's Barbecue
1602 Savannah Highway/US 17 (West Ashley

Though they are a barbecue joint and have great barbecue, my wife and I usually end up getting cheeseburgers because, without a doubt, Bessingers has the best cheeseburgers in town, hands down. If you're from out of town, though, I would recommend trying their barbecue. You can get a good cheeseburger almost anywhere; Bessinger's is an exceptional example of the mustard-based style, a variety unique to South Carolina. I also recommend getting one of the plates with hash and rice, for hash is the uniquely South Carolina side item. It's pork and various pork parts (don't ask--you're better off not knowing) minced up fine with a lot of spices and served like a very thin stew over rice: fantastic.

Bessinger's Barbecue on Highway 17

A heaping plate of mustard-based barbecue with hash from Bessinger's

Charleston's best cheeseburger

G&M Fast French
98 Broad Street, Downtown
The real name of this little spot is "Gaulart and Maliclet Cafe", but no one in Charleston seems to be able to remember and/or pronounce that name, so most people just call it "Fast French". I love to stop in for a croissant and coffee on Saturday mornings.

Dixie Supply Bakery & Cafe
62 State St.
(843) 722-5650

Not to be missed. An unassuming looking little spot next to the Little Cricket on State St. They cook up some of the best biscuits, croissants, patty melts, and meat-n-three grub in town. Perfect for breakfast, and not bad for lunch or just some mid-morning snacks, either. Dixie is a gem.

More: My CP review of Dixie Supply.

The Glass Onion
1219 Savannah Hwy., West Ashley
(843) 225-1717

The Glass Onion serves up good, solid Southern cooking with a slow-food sensibility. Top-quality items like Anson Mills grits and Benton's bacon are regulars on the menu. From the authentic New Orleans-style po-boys to the massive braised Pork Shank, you won't be dissapointed.

Hominy Grill
207 Rutledge Ave., Downtown
(843) 937-0930

Robert Stehling's top-notch "neighborhood restaurant," which features classic southern recipes cooked from scratch with fresh local ingredients. This may well be the best Southern cooking in the world. Stehling took home the 2008 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast.

Iacofano's Italian Bar & Grill
626 Coleman Blvd.
Mt. Pleasant
(843) 881-2313

I'm a huge fan of John Iacofano's low key Italian deli and restaurant. The meatballs--whether served up on a hoagie or sliced in the middle of their cra-za-zy lasagne--are sublime, and everything is done up with just a little extra touch of quality, even as the restaurant remains calm and unassuming. Definitely a favorite haunt.

More: My CP Review of Iacofano's.

Jack's Cosmic Dogs
2805 Highway 17 North, Mount Pleasant, SC
Open 7 days a week, 11 am to 8 pm.

Jack's Cosmic Dogs is a Lowcountry joint that was created as a throwback to the old roadside hotdog stands of earlier years. The building is retro-cool, with cinder block walls painted bright yellow outside and bright red inside. The 1960s-style tables come with mismatched metal and vinyl chairs, and you order at a stainless steel-fronted counter with wooden top. An old-school ice bin offers Sundrop and RC Cola in real glass bottles, and there's a Galaga machine in the corner. It even has a screen door.

The hot dogs are sizzled up fresh on a flattop griddle and served not on a plain old bun but on a big seeded roll For a classic chili dog, try the Atomic dog--chili, onions, spicy mustard (pictured below). If you're more adventurous, there are several dogs with a great blue cheese coleslaw on them, including the Cosmic dog with the slaw and Jack's homemade sweet potato mustard. The french fries are hand-cut from fresh potatoes, which is the only way fries should be made.

Long Point Grill
479 Long Point Rd, Mount Pleasant

The Mustard Seed
1036 Chuck Dawley Blvd, Mount Pleasant

I'm cutting corners grouping these two together, but they are both operations run by Mount Pleasant's Sal Parco, and both offer similarly solid but sophisticated fare for reasonable prices. From risotto and polenta to fried chicken and burgers, the hardest part of eating at Long Point Grill and The Mustard Seed is trying to choose from a menu crowded with intriguing options that always seem to pay off. Both server dinner, but they are great spots for lunch, too.

Moose's Famous BBQ
1440 South Live Oak Drive (Hwy. 17-A)
Moncks Corner
(843) 899-4999

With barbecue chicken, pulled pork, and hands-down the best beef brisket to be found in the Lowcountry, Moose's is a carnival of eating. Pay as you enter, cash only, the buffet is not only loaded with tasty smoked meats but some damn good side items, too. Wear your eatin' pants with the extra-elastic waist. You'll need 'em.

More: My City Paper review of Moose's

Poe's Tavern
2210 Middle St.
Sullivan's Island
(843) 883-0083

When I have friends in from out of town, Poe's is an old standby for lunch. Their burgers--hand-ground on premises, cooked to order, and served with fresh-cut fries--are out of this world, and with a zillion great beers on tap it's a perfect place to while away a beach afternoon. When I think Sullivan's Island, I think Poe's.

More: my CP blurb on the Hop Frog Burger.

Sunflower Cafe
2366 Ashley River Road/Highway 61 (West Ashley)

Don't understimate this small, unassuming looking restaurant in the corner of an shopping plaza off Ashley River Road. It looks like it would be a standard pancake-breakfast, meat-and-three lunch kind of place. But, the food is really fantastic.

The breakfast menu boasts a series of eggs benedict variations (including crab cakes and fried-green tomatoes), rich omlets, beignets, and french toast. For lunch, there's steak sandwiches made not with some cheap cut but tender filet(!), plus chicken and crabcake croissants, and a range of fresh salads.

The Sunflower is off the beaten path--way down Highway 61 past I-526. But, if you are heading out to Drayton Hall or Middleton Place, drop in and give it a try for breakfast or lunch (they close at 2:30 PM). It's one of my West Ashley favorite.

The Wreck of the Richard and Charlene
106 Haddrell St, Mount Pleasant--off Shem Creek.
(843) 884-0052

Definitely call and get directions--you'll never find it on your own, since they don't even have a sign. A complete dive, with plastic lawn tables and chairs and canned beer. And also the best, freshest mounds of fresh shrimp and scallops you'll ever eat. Not really high-end, but not cheap either. Takes cash only, so be sure to bring a pile of it.

Higher End

39 Rue de Jean:
39 John St., Downtown
(843) 722-8881

French-style brasserie. Great atmosphere, great mussels, and really good food. There's nothing particularly Charleston about Rue de Jean, but I don't care. There's such a relaxed, European feel about the place that I just enjoy sitting inside the place, watching all the people and action going on around me. A great bar, too, if you just want to stop in for drinks and appetizers.

Al Di La
25 Magnolia Road. West Ashley.
A great trattoria-style Italian restaurant with fresh pasta, homemade bread, and slow-cooked meats. Located in the West Ashley's funky Avondale district. Open for dinner Tuesday - Saturday.

976 Houston Northcutt Blvd.
Mt. Pleasant
(843) 884-6969

This is a Mt. Pleasant gem. If the roasted olives and housemade mozzarella aren't enough to make you swoon, the gnocchi will finish the job. And, for such good, authentic Italian food, it's very reasonably priced.

232 Meeting Street, Downtown

The home of Mike Lata, one of Charleston's celebrity chefs, FIG is a delightful bistro-style spot in the heart of downtown. Lata is a devotee of fresh, seasonal food, and all the dishes on the menu are uncomplicated and focus on the quality of the ingredients. The menu varies by season, but entrees include a range of fresh local fish along with meat selections such as roasted chicken, flat-iron steak, and veal sweetbreads. The stylish interior and friendly, well-informed wait staff make it a great spot to enjoy a really good meal.

La Fourchette
432 King St.
(843) 722-6261
Serving Dinner, Mon-Sat

La Fourchette is unapologetically French and doesn't care if you like it or not. But, with pomme frites double fried in duck fat, old-school French favorites like cassoulet and coquille St. Jacques, and the best French wine list this side of Paris, you're bound to like it.

More: read about La Fourchette's fries

2 Unity Alley (just off of East Bay Street), downtown
(843) 577-0025

The atmosphere is a mix of old-Charleston and new-restaurateur-slickness: a couple of old buildings dating back to the 18th Century, linked together with the old brick and hardwoods preserved and a lot of fancy features like soaring skylights added. Altogether, they are nice rooms to eat in. The food is excellent, too: try the venison.

Markets and Other Food Related Destinations

Marion Square Farmers Market: (Corner of King and Calhoun Sts., downtown) This is a must visit. Every Saturday morning from the months of April until December, local growers, artists, and food vendors set up shop under tents in Marion Square Park. Like most farmers markets, some of the vendors are simply reselling produce from all over that they bought at wholesale markets. But, many of the stands specialize in fresh, locally-grown vegetables, herbs, and other foods--including my favorite, where Celeste and George Albers from Green Grocer Farms on John's Island sell shrimp caught the previous day from their own boat along with a a small selection of rotating items grown on their farm, such as fingerling potatoes and sweet onions.

There's plenty of ready-made food for a late breakfast or early lunch (I'm particularly partial to the homemade pretzels and lemonnade), and entertainment for the kids as well. For locals the market is a perfect start to the day--seeking out the fresh ingredients for the evening's dinner; for tourists, it offers not only a fine sampling of Lowcountry food but also a great place to pick up local-themed artwork and souveneirs. (8:00 am through 1:00 PM from April to December)

Mount Pleasant Farmers Market: (Moultrie Middle School on Coleman Blvd., Mount Pleasant). If you miss the Marion Square market on Saturday, you can always catch the Mount Pleasant version on Tuesday nights. Located in front of the Moultrie Middle School, the Mount Pleasnat market features many of the same vendors as the Marion Square version, and it's an equally good spot to pick up fresh local produce. Starts at 4:00 PM and runs through dark, April through October.

This posting is a work in progress and is regularly updated.


daniel said...

Bowen's Island is a classic, but dining there comes in three seasons: Oyster (must sit in Oyster Room); Deck and Dock (fried seafood and canned beer consumed outside -- bring bug repellent); and Too Hot To Consider Going. Plan accordingly.

Other Charleston finds you might enjoy:

Moe's Crosstown Tavern (Rutledge Avenue) still does a great Sunday brunch.

Basil on Upper King Street.

Boulevard Diner on Coleman Blvd. in Mt. P.

Skoogies on Coleman Blvd. has real Chicago hotdogs... Jack's Cosmic Dogs has a blue cheese hotdog ... at The Joe, try The Riverdog (slaw, bbq sauce and pickled okra).

Fleet Landing (on the water, just above Waterfront Park) is standard seafood fare for around here, but there are reasons to bump it up the list: great space, great location, great view and ON SITE PARKING.

Meeting Street Piggly Wiggly: Swear to Gawd. Great soul food line for lunch. Fried chicken, etc.

Nirlep. Lunch buffet at this Indian restaurant added 10 pounds to my frame in about two months. Across from Coberg Cow.

Windemere Earthfare. The hot food line is pay-by-the-pound, and it's expensive as hell. But it's the only viable vegetarian spot I know about, and when you're in the mood for tofu, it's where you go.

Anonymous said...

Good thoughts. I hear you about being busy, but you really should drop everything and go to Basil and Al Di La IMMEDIATELY. I think Fleet Landing sucks. Also, Johnny's, La Fourchette and Amuse are all at least excellent. Ditto with Raval on King. Mia's is good, but I wouldn't make a special trip all the way out there to go (besides, you'd have to drive by Al Di La to get out there, and that would just not make sense!).
Don't forget Oak, Charleston Grill and Peninsula Grill - they are easily three of the best in town as well.

Anonymous said...

Nobody mentioned Cru Cafe downtown. Best local spot in downtown Charleston with remarkably fresh food at a great price......

Anonymous said...

Cru is incredible, and please don't forget Seewee Rest. on HWY17 in Awendaw. They have an awesome lunch and dinner.

Robert said...

Thanks for all these suggestions. My list of places to visit keeps growing longer, and longer . . .

Paul said...

I grew up eating the best hash in the world in Union,South Carolina in the upstate and it is SO GOOD. Bessingers does a good job with it too.

John Reed said...

Some good leads here, but where's Hominy Grill? Robert Stehling runs not just my favorite restaurant in Charleston but one of my favorites, period. And it's not pretentious/expensive either. Try the buttermilk pie.

Pam said...

I agree with Daniel - Basil, Moe's, Nirlep (there's also one in Mt P, near Belle Hall), Boulevard Diner, Mt P/Windemere Earthfare has great lunch buffet - there's also the SeWee out at my side of the world, and Jack's Cosmic Dog on Highway 17 near Highway 41. Oh - Al di La is great (asparagus risotto), and may I recommend a bottle of wine from the Barboursville VA Winery? Gotta love any place that offers good Italian AND Virginia wines...Fleet Landing is a great spot (totally agree with the on-site parking thing) but the food is average to below average. Bowen's Island has great fried shrimp.

Anonymous said...

Pino Y Vino (French), La Fourchette (French), Fulton Five (Italian), Rue de Jean (a mixture of French, American and has great Sushi), Al Di La (Northern Italian), Poogans Porch (Southern food), Wasabi (Sushi) are the BEST dinner restaurants in Charleston!!! High Cotton has the best Sunday brunch. Hominy Grill and Jestines are good, too. Wickliffe House and Fast and French are good places to eat for lunch.

Former South Carolinian said...

Could you do a segment on Fried Green Tomatoes? Every time I come down to South Carolina, I'm amazed that something that was rarely on *any* (rich man, poor man-they all have it) menu is now on them all. I seem to remember that fried green tomatoes were something that appeared on the menu at a certain time at certain "low end" (typically a meat, three and tea) restaurants, but only when the tomatoes were in season. Now I see them on the menus in the finest restaurants and almost every upper crust restaurant has fried green tomatoes on the menu.
So much for the movies. (the movie did get one thing right - the secret is in the sauce when it comes to many barbecue eateries)
But this little change of pace in southern cooking tradition just bothers me greatly. Who says Hollywood doesn't influence popular culture?

One other thing. Pickled green tomatoes-the sweet as well as the "picklish" kind are truly a southern tradition. I don't care for either, but they used to be much more ubiquitous, at least compared to the movie inspired versions that you see today.

Robert said...

Thanks for the great suggestion, Former SCian. You've inspired me to look more closely into fried green tomatoes. I think your hunch is right that they are a johnny-come-lately to the SC food scene--and, by the way, I think the same thing could be said for shrimp-and-grits. Watch for an update soon!

Anonymous said...

Osaka in WA is the best sushi in town.

Anonymous said...

Ray's BBQ on Coleman in Mt Pleasant, don't waste your money or appetite. "Ray" is arrogant and trashes the competition openly and then the meat is very fatty. Sides are good but the prices are steep for what you get.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree with the comments on Ray's BBQ. He had the nerve to trash Bessinger's claiming his was superior. Bull loney it was a dry,crumbly PORK with not much if any flavor.(overpriced) I like to see the comparison of his revenue report next to good ole' Bessingers a SC institution. Don't come here trashin my South Carolina BBQ. Go back to GA.

steve said...

You are right about Phillys in Summerville.Very good the real deal.hard to find but you will love it.

Anonymous said...

Hominy Grill may be the most OVER-Rated restaurant (next to the Sea Biscuit on IOP) in Charleston. The food is simply, Not That Good. The Sea Biscuit is just down right terrible, I make better breakfast with a raging hangover.

Hominy is a tourist trap.

foodlover said...

Those restaurants sound excellent! Thanks for all the suggestions and I will definitely have to try them out. Also, I heard that there's a new restaurant in town called the Buccaneer. I think it's opening on December 1 and it's a seafood restaurant. It's operated by the Neighborhood Dining Group who runs McCrady's and Queen Anne's Revenge so Buccaneer should also be really good. Also, they practice sustainability and they are the first from South Carolina to be a member of the Green Restaurant Association so I think they merit a visit in my book. I don't know of many seafood restaurants that practice sustainability so I'm excited to try it out.

Anonymous said...

yes u r correct the sea biscuit at iop and homily grill serve average food at crazy prices.If u are wiln to drive to mt pleasant billy`s old back home is priced for the valve.Come on people it only breakfast pretty easy to screw it up ie seabiscuit homily grill

Anonymous said...

Re: fried green tomatoes and shrimp n grits. These are much-loved staples of Lowcountry family meals. I recall casting for shrimp fresh out the creek to go with Na's sauce on coarse-ground grits on a Saturday morning. Yum!! The only thing "come-lately" about them is the way restaurants have taken to them as a sellable local dish-and some do it quite well.

Anonymous said...

funny, every year City Paper votes Andolinis best NY style pizza, but I grew up in NY and never saw pizza like theirs. and the last time I was in both the Downtown and W Ashley joints they were FILTHY. Try Michaelangelo's on Sam Rit for real NY pizza made by a real New Yorker. Try the antipasto their also, and they've got an amazing cannoli.

Lester Bergeron said...

Great list of "must-trys." I will have to keep this in mind whenever I am in South Carolina. Thank you for the insight.

Lester Bergeron said...

Great list of "must-trys." I will have to keep this in mind whenever I am in South Carolina. Thank you for the insight. LR Bergeron

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