A food itinerary for Charleston, SC will undoubtedly involve checking the box on regional specialties like shrimp and grits, biscuits, she-crab soup and other Southern comfort foods. These are hearty dishes with punchy flavors and a lot of eye-catching creamy sauces and butter. While it may be tempting to gorge on one gut-bomb spectacle after another–because when else will you get to eat a Charleston Nasty fried chicken sandwich??–you should save some room for more low-key but no less delicious restaurants. Charleston is good at all types of food, and some of your best meals will be eating a really solid sandwich or a plate of meatballs, which may be something you can get anywhere, but they probably won’t make ’em as good as they do here.
I only had two days in Charleston, which was nowhere enough time to even scratch the surface of all the city has to offer. And I also didn’t have a car, so I was limited to restaurants within reasonable walking distance of downtown Charleston. But the small dent that I made in the Charleston restaurant scene was time well spent. I was able to hit up the tourist-flocked institutions like Hominy Grill and Husk, as well as local gems like FIG and Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit. I also had a late night slice of coconut cake at Peninsula Grill, which should be an essential pit stop on every visitor’s list. I wish I had more time to try the shrimp and grits at Slightly North of Broad, the Lowcounty soul food at Martha Lou’s and the oysters at Leon’s, but my stomach can only hold so much. Hopefully if you find yourself in Charleston you will have more than two days, but if that’s all you got, then read below for an itinerary that will let you do the essentials.
FIG // 232 Meeting St, Charleston, SC 29401 // (843) 805-5900
The talent at FIG is almost too big for its modest neighborhood restaurant demeanor. Executive chef Jason Stanhope won the 2015 James Beard award for Best Chef: Southeast, but his cooking could definitely hold its own against that of major food cities like San Francisco and Chicago. The menu is seasonally-driven and draws upon various cultural influences, with French, Italian and American being the most prominent. You’re not going to get a traditional “Southern” meal here, but you will get elevated food with clean flavors that are common in other high quality greenmarket kitchens around the world. FIG books up pretty quickly, but they do reserve bar seats and a communal table for walk-ins, and they serve the full menu there. If you get there early, it should be a reasonable 30ish minute wait.
We ordered the chicken pate, the chicken meatballs, the ricotta gnocchi and lamb bolognese and the fish stew provencal. I would order any one of these again in a heartbeat. The pate was so smooth and elegant, I was comfortable spreading it over the brioche like I would some Nutella. The chicken meatballs were served in this amazing pumpkin bechamel sauce that was unlike anything I’ve ever had. The gnocchi was very light and billowy, and the tomato sauce, despite the lamb bolognese, was very mild. These were three very generously sized appetizers, so real estate was tight for the fish stew provencal, but you can always make room for fresh seafood and excellent broth. But there wasn’t enough room for dessert.
Hominy Grill // 207 Rutledge Ave, Charleston, SC 29403 // (843) 937-0930
The breakfast scene at Hominy Grill is nuts. The restaurant has been featured on TV shows like Man vs. Food and Food Network’s Best Thing I Ever Ate, which explains the intimidating lines, but they actually move a lot faster than you would think. We put our names down at 10:30 am on a Saturday and waited 25 minutes for a table. You have to get the Charleston Nasty Biscuit sandwich, a perfect meme for the phrase “This is why you’re fat”. A biscuit bun precariously stacked with an outsize fried chicken breast patty and overflowing with sausage gravy sauce. There’s no way to eat it cleanly, either get your hands dirty or use a fork and knife. I was surprised by how ungreasy the fried chicken and biscuit were, but I was reeling from all the heavy gravy. I was glad to have tried it though.
A sleeper hit was the humble cornmeal pancakes, which came with this insanely good peach yogurt butter. Our server admonished me for forgetting to use some of the house blueberry apple jam, which was certainly a glaring oversight and made the dish taste even better. We probably could have done without the she-crab soup, which weighed us down with additional cream and not necessarily with any new flavors.
Artisan Meat Share // 33 Spring St, Charleston, SC 29403 // (843) 641-7299
At first I thought, do I really need to go to a deli in Charleston? NYC has plenty of those. I should be getting some regional specialty like a fried chicken plate or shrimp and grits for lunch! But I needed a break from all the butter and cream and just wanted a simple sandwich, which turned out to be the best decision ever. The sandwiches here are really good, like Alidoro good. The Italian sandwich was outstanding and reminded me of the Pinocchio from Alidoro. The cured meats were excellent and the sub sauce was vinegary and magical. They are also massive and should be shared between two people. If this were in New York, I would order from here at least once a week.
Bin 152 // 152 King St, Charleston, SC 29401 // (843) 577-7359
The staff at FIG recommended that we stop by Bin 152 for some high quality snacks and glasses of wine before our dinner at Husk. Bin 152 has over 130 wines by the bottle and offers 30 different wines by the glass, so it really is a oenophile’s dream. The ambience, however, is very laid back and friendly, accommodating all sorts of wine lovers, not just the discriminating snobs. The food menu, while limited, is delicious, and we loved pairing our wines with the pate.
Husk // 76 Queen St, Charleston, SC 29401 // (843) 577-2500
Chef Sean Brock is a legend who put Charleston on the map with his passion for reviving heritage Southern grains and vegetables as well as traditional cooking methods. I heard him speak at Taste Talks Brooklyn this year, and it was clear that this man was obsessed with high quality Southern foods and techniques. Of course a visit at his restaurant Husk was the first one on my agenda. Reservations were not available when I looked online, so we put our names down on the walk-in list, which opens up at 5:15, and got seated at 8:30.
While Husk only serves indigenous ingredients on the menu, they aren’t necessarily prepared in the most traditional fashion. Things like Asian-inspired oysters with chili miso butter and General Tso’s Glazed Pig’s Ear lettuce wraps are served alongside more traditional Broadbent country ham and slow smoked ribs. I had such high expectations for Brock’s restaurant, but ultimately I was let down by the unevenness of the execution. Our ribs were tough and dry, nowhere near the fall-off-the-bone quality that we somewhat expect from ribs. The chili miso butter sauce was so thick and clunky and totally overwhelmed the oysters. This was offset by the success of the General Tso’s pig ear and the charred broccoli, but I expected consistency from such a rockstar chef. Maybe Sunday isn’t the best day to go here.
The coconut cake at Peninsula Grill // Planters Inn, 112 N Market St, Charleston, SC 29401 // (843) 723-0700
Peninsula Grill is a proper fine dining restaurant in Charleston, but its famous coconut cake is the real draw. The cake is tall, multi-layered and gorgeous, fit to grace the pages of Bon Appetit or Martha Stewart Living Magazine, and no surprise, Martha Stewart herself is a fan of the dessert. Our bartender served us a gigantic slice, which we paired with some bourbon and champagne, since that is what goes well with a light, fluffy cake covered in an incredibly addicting cream cheese frosting.
Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit // 476 King St, Charleston, SC 29403 // (843) 737-5159
Some cities are into toast, others into English muffins, but in Charleston, they’re all about the biscuit. Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit is a small and cute little eatery on King St that serves some of the best biscuits in town. They are fresh and hand-made, and come with all sorts of toppings to suit whatever sort of sweet or savory mood you are in. For the indecisive, Callie’s lets you order three biscuits of any kind for only $5. These buttery biscuits may be tiny but they are dense and will fill you up. I ordered the country ham, the blackberry and the cinnamon. My goal was to just eat a tiny piece of each but that wasn’t possible, especially with the cinnamon, which I devoured. Three biscuits, along with the leftover cake from Peninsula, consisted of my last breakfast in Charleston.