This time around, we decided to do something a little different with the Dish dining guide. For years, the guide has been organized by price, starting with Upscale Fine Dining and working its way down to Cheap Eats. But that arrangement just doesn't quite work any more.
For starters, as the list got bigger, the categories became pretty crowded — more than 100 restaurants in the "Neighborhood Favorites," for instance, where entrees fall in the moderate $10-$20 range.
It's not that we weren't trying to be selective. To make the cut, a restaurant has always had to be deemed "Dish-worthy." We've argued a lot about what that means, but ultimately it has come down to this: if friends ask whether they should go eat there, would you say "yes"?
That criteria works just as well for greasy spoons as it does for upscale bistros, as long as you qualify it: "If one is in the mood for a quick pizza lunch, where are the best places to go?" It has helped trim out a lot of the marginal places where there's nothing really wrong with the offerings, but you just wouldn't recommend it to a friend because there are too many better options in the same category.
As more and more good restaurants of every size, price, and genre have opened their doors, "Would you recommend it?" has become an increasingly high bar to cross. But the dining guide has still kept growing, and as the count edged up over 200 restaurants, the old format became increasingly unwieldy.
There was something else slightly discordant about it. Implied in the grouped-by-price arrangement was that the most expensive restaurants were the really good ones, and that quality declined as entree prices fell.
With each passing issue, it seemed that more and more of the city's most impressive new restaurants were debuting in the second-tier "Casual Fine Dining" category. That group even included Husk, the establishment that Bon Appétit named Best New Restaurant in the entire country in 2011. Before long, lots of buzzy, heat-map-making spots started popping up in the Neighborhood Favorites, too. And their food was really, really good.
Price, ultimately, is a lousy proxy for whether a restaurant is one of the city's best, and this year we've decided to finally recognize that by restructuring the entire guide.
For starters, we've put on our flak jackets and created a section of restaurants that our food writers consider to be the Top 50 restaurants in the Charleston area.
They might be downtown or out in the 'burbs, and they might serve trendy haute cuisine or fried chicken on styrofoam plates, but one thing unites these picks: they're great places to eat. Places that visitors to Charleston shouldn't miss. Places we would heartily recommend to our friends and families (selected in-laws excluded).
Or at least most of us would. A majority of the Top 50 were selected by unanimous consent, but we wrangled pretty hard over the final ten spots. As we did, a curious phenomenon emerged. There was definitely a split in opinion among the panel about certain restaurants that were old local mainstays.
"You have to include that one," someone would say. "It's a Charleston institution."
"When was the last time you went?" someone else would fire back. "The food is boring and mediocre at best!"
In part, it seems to depend upon when one first started dining at the restaurant in question. At one time, it was novel enough to just find an Italian place where they made fresh pasta or a sit-down restaurant offering the bold, fresh flavors of Thailand. But as our city's dining scene evolved, some of our old standbys have managed to stay fresh and relevant while others have sagged and faded.
In the end, after much logrolling, horse-trading, and gnashing of teeth, we finalized the list. Some old favorites made the cut; others were cast reluctantly aside. But we had our 50.
Of course, greater Charleston has far more than 50 good restaurants. There are many places you might not recommend that someone drive all the way across town to try, but the folks who live close by may well make them regular haunts. We've grouped these by neighborhood to help you find good eats near you.
And then there are times when you are in the mood for a particular type of food — pizza, perhaps, or maybe just an excellent cocktail with some decent snacks. So those are broken out in their own sections, too.
Ultimately, this collection represents a snapshot of where we like to eat — the restaurants that are relevant and top-notch and have consistently pleased us. This is our guide to our dining scene, not motivated by snootiness or hype but simply by our desire to dine well and enjoy great hospitality. So, without further ado, let's eat.