Looking for the ultimate taste of Charleston? Well here it is. We've laid out a gluttonous buffet that includes way more than shrimp and grits and fried chicken. It's stuffed full of Southern classics, haute cuisine, pub food, and down-home fare too. So put on your eatin' pants and dig in.
Charleston dining requires a pit stop in history. Every city has its classic dishes, and lucky for us, Charleston's traditional recipes are rich and delicious. Whether you're a newbie or a veteran, you must know and love these before you can consider yourself a bona fide local.
She-Crab Soup at 82 Queen
The briny bisque was invented in these parts, and 82 Queen's is an award-winning version of the classic. A good place to start.
Roasted Oysters at Bowens Island Restaurant
Locals know the pleasure of hosting an oyster roast in their backyard during the colder months, but sometimes it's just easier to hit up Bowens Island for a shovelful of steaming hot local oysters. A signature Lowcountry experience.
available at specialty grocers
$33.90-$57.90 per 24
Some might argue that cornbread is the best Southern bread around, but Callie's Biscuits make a compelling argument otherwise. These aren't found at a restaurant but in the freezers of gourmet grocers around town. They ain't cheap, but if you want to know what a real Southern biscuit should be like, this is it.
Crab Cake at Charleston Grill
Crab cakes might be more associated with the Chesapeake Bay area, but blue crabs are prevalent in the waters around here too. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better crab cake than Michelle Weaver's at the Grill. Even in Baltimore.
Fried Chicken at the Griffon
Like any self-respecting Southern city, Charleston likes its chicken crisp and fried too. The Griffon, a humble pub near the water, puts out a damn fine greasy basket of fried chicken.
Shrimp and Grits at Hominy Grill
These days, you can find shrimp and grits everywhere, even New York City. But if you want a simple dish with no pretension, then go eat Robert Stehling's. It's pure and good.
Sweet Tea at Jestine's Kitchen
My Southern children were flabbergasted when they first traveled north and discovered you can't always get sweet tea. Luckily that's not true in Charleston. Jestine's classic Southern table wine is just right: strong and just sweet enough.
Lima Beans at Martha Lou's Kitchen
Down South, a lot of folks live on beans alone. My great-granny made it to her 90s on pintos and rice. Martha Lou offers a lesson in how Southerners turned beans into a meaty staple. It might be the food of poverty, but it's hearty and good.
Coconut Cake at Peninsula Grill
Speaking of granny, she always had a fresh coconut cake ready for our visits. It's the perfect Southern treat. Over at Peninsula Grill, their coconut cake is like grandma's but on steroids. A multilayered extravaganza, this cake is so good people pay more than $100 to have them shipped all over the country.
Sarah's Pimento Cheese with Crackers at the Glass Onion
Pimento cheese is having a moment. Everyone everywhere is discovering this lunchtime staple. Chef Louis Osteen calls it the caviar of the South. For a hearty sample, Sarah O'Kelley's can't be beat.
Frogmore Stew at Gilligan's
They may call it Gilligan's Stew, but it's the same thing as Frogmore Stew (a.k.a. Lowcountry Boil). This is a dish so simple most locals make it at home, but for a dining-out version, Gilligan's is right on the money with lots of 100 percent Wild American Shrimp (a must) with sausage, potatoes, and onions thrown in the spicy mix.
Macaroni and Cheese at Cru Cafe´
Most home cooks end up making macaroni pie, which is much different than the roux-based mac and cheese, which Chef John Zucker has mastered. His version is legendary. We've written about it before, but we don't care. It's the ultimate example of rich, gooey decadence.
Cornbread at Husk Restaurant
The smoky, meaty round of crispy cornbread at Husk isn't really a classic version, but it's so good that it's ruined boring old cornbread for a lot of us. Chef Sean Brock will always be our hero for this cornbread. May he never retire it. Amen.
Fried Green Tomatoes at Magnolias
It's fanciful, with country ham grits, local goat cheese, and tomato chutney, but Magnolias' take on fried green tomatoes is a fine introduction to what was once a humble farm dish made with tangy unripe 'maters.
Stuffed Hush Puppies at Fleet Landing
Hush puppies are classic Southern fare. A seafood platter just wouldn't be complete without them. At Fleet, they take these little cornmeal fritters to the extreme, stuffing them with a veloute of lobster, rock shrimp, leeks, and corn. Instead of ketchup, you get to dunk them in a spicy Creole tomato sauce.
Fried Shrimp at McClellanville Diner
You can get plenty of fried shrimp in Charleston, and it's all good (as long as the shrimp is local), but for a serious example of fresh shrimp plucked straight off the boat, dipped in some batter, and dunked in hot grease, take a short drive to McClellanville where they know how to do it up just right.
Hash and Rice at Bessinger's
Wise barbecue fans know better than to inquire too closely about what goes into a pitmaster's hash, but Bessinger's version of the signature Carolina barbecue side dish is as good as it gets. Choice bits of pork and pig parts are simmered with onion, potatoes, and mystery spices until they're reduced to a meaty gravy that's ladled over a pile of white rice — the perfect partner for mustard-sauced pulled pork.
Collards at Virginia's on King
The newly proclaimed state vegetable is a peculiar thing. Some folks hate them, but once you taste a savory, rich recipe like Virginia's (and douse it in some pepper vinegar), well, you'll be hooked like the rest of us.
Okra Soup at Bertha's Kitchen
Okra soup is straight out of Africa, an example of Gullah heritage. Stewed tomatoes thickened with fresh okra, seasoned with smoky bacon, and dotted with corn makes for a soulful and delicious bowl of soup. Head to Bertha's for an authentic version.
Fried Fish at Rosebank Farms Café
We like it fried here in the South, and that goes for fresh fish too. Whether it's flounder or catfish, Chef John E. Cuff at Rosebank has a deft hand when it comes to breading and frying, a skill you shouldn't underestimate, particularly with the more delicate species.