There are certain requirements you want from a beachside dining experience. Ideally, you want to hear, see, and/or smell the water, which means an outdoor deck or patio is preferable. You want it to be casual, because you'll probably have sand on your feet and a bathing suit on under your clothes. Cold beer and tasty mixed drinks (painkillers, margaritas, mai tais) need a prominent place on the menu. And the food should feature lots of fresh, locally caught seafood (that last one is always a challenge).
On Folly Beach, the vibe is decidedly casual, and a lot of places on Center Street fit the bill, serving up baskets of fried seafood, big burgers, and cold beer. You could duck into Taco Boy (15 Center St. 843-588-9761) for cold margaritas, good guacamole, and decent fish tacos. Across the street, Rita's (2 Center St. 843-588-2525) has a vast selection of beefy burgers with plenty of seafood options to satisfy your cravings. If you're looking for breakfast fare, hit the Lost Dog Café (106 W. Huron Ave. 843-588-9669) for quaint dishes or the buffet at Blu Restaurant in the Tides hotel (1 Center St., 843-588-6658), where you'll get the best beachfront setting and a classic spread. The quirkiest place out there has to be Tokyo Crepes (110 E. Ashley Ave.), a roadside stand that serves things like nutella-filled crepes and yummy ice cream. It's a unique little attraction.
The best place for seafood in the area is Bowens Island Restaurant (1870 Bowens Island Road 843-795-2757). You might have to get in the car or hop on a bike to get there, but this is a certified James Beard American Classic that serves fried seafood, Lowcountry boil, and classic Charleston-style roasted oysters that are harvested from the nearby waters. The experience is as authentic as the food.
Sullivan's Island is one of the most expensive zip codes in the nation, which means that it's not quite as casual as Folly. You might have to put on a silk Hawaiian shirt before heading to Atlanticville (2063 Middle St. 843-883-9452) for dinner or Sunday brunch. The menu is heavy on seafood, and the atmosphere embodies the upscale beach vibe perfectly. It's a favorite among locals and tourists, as are most of the joints on Sullivan's. Poe's Tavern (2210 Middle St. 843-883-0083) has long been beloved for both its fish tacos and its burgers. Whatever you choose, the setting is perfect with picnic tables out front, a bar that opens onto the porch on one side and the dining room on the other, and a spooky Edgar Allan Poe theme. If you came to the beach unprepared for picnicking, you can duck into Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ, and they'll be happy to pack you up a feast fit for a Southern beach (think sweet tea, barbecued brisket, and mac and cheese).
For those who just won't be happy unless they eat at a quintessential seafood shack, try to find the Wreck of the Richard and Charlene. This dockside restaurant is located on Shem Creek in Mt. Pleasant (106 Haddrell St. 843-884-0052) and serves up seafood either fried or grilled with plenty of fresh options and local specialties.
Drive across Breach Inlet to Isle of Palms, and the neighborhood feel of Sullivan's transforms into a more seaside resort vibe. Here, there are two rooftop beach shacks that will serve you and your crowd well (Banana Cabana, Coconut Joe's), particularly if you are in need of cold drinks and casual nibbles like peel-and-eat shrimp, fried fish, crab cakes, and the like. Breakfast options are limited, but a longtime favorite is the Sea Biscuit Café (21 JC Long Blvd. 843-886-4079).
The most upscale dining in the area comes courtesy of the Boathouse on Breach Inlet (101 Palm Blvd. 843-886-8000). The restaurant is perched on a beautiful waterfront location and offers expansive views and a great menu of fresh, local seafood. It's pricey, but the experience has been reliably good for more than a decade. If you're looking for a more countryfied seafood experience, get in the car and head out on the IOP connector, hang a right on Hwy. 17 N. and drive to Awendaw's SeeWee Restaurant (4808 Hwy 17 N. 843-928-3609). Sure, it's 10 miles away, but SeeWee does Southern seafood right with fried baskets, platters, super sweet tea, and lots of classic sides. And chances are, you'll get a chance to hear some live bluegrass music while you eat on the screened porch.
Downtown Charleston might not have a beach, but it does have some restaurants that deliver a classic seafood experience. While tourist-centric places like Hyman's and Bubba Gump's serve up perfectly fine fare, we prefer to head out to Fleet Landing, the most amazing waterfront dining setting downtown. The menu ranges from buckets of oysters and piles of peel-and-eat shrimp to grilled local swordfish and fried Southern flounder.
A more upscale choice is Hank's Seafood Restaurant, which has ice cold seafood towers of raw shellfish and fancy plates of tuna tartare. If you're dying to find a seafood shack type place on the peninsula, your best bet might just be the Marina Variety Store (17 Lockwood Drive 843-723-6325) at the City Marina. It's not fancy here, indeed it's somewhat of a relic from a simpler time, but it's got a menu of seafood platters with standards like shrimp and grits, bacon-wrapped shrimp, okra soup, and fried oyster sandwiches. It's where the old salts, the nearby residents, and the college kids stop by to eat.