These days, you can't open a magazine without an article heralding Charleston as a must-see culinary destination. Between the perennial appeal of Lowcountry staples like benne wafers, shrimp and grits, and oyster roasts and the highbrow, high-profile chefs like Sean Brock, Mike Lata, and Craig Diehl, and the Holy City is truly a culinary jewel of the South. You can easily spend your time here eating only Southern mainstays like hominy and biscuits, but you could just as readily forget you're even in the United States by stopping only at sushi bars and taco stands.
If you only have a couple days for your visit, follow along with this guide to get a feel of the variety and quality of the peninsula's finest; you'll still have time for a dip in the Atlantic and some historic house tours.
If you've done even a little Charleston restaurant research, big names like McCrady's, FIG, and Cypress have probably crossed your radar, and you should absolutely visit them if you can. But here's a more locally minded tour of some of our favorite places downtown that won't require a reservation but will still give you a great feel of what Charleston has to offer. Contrary to what many Yelp reviews will lead you to believe, it's tough to have a truly bad meal in this town, but here are our best bets for a quick trip.
Brunch: Two Boroughs Larder
If you live in the Cannonborough neighborhood, the siren song of Two Boroughs Larder's fresh sourdough, noodle bowls, and roasted okra can be almost too much to endure, but even lunch and dinner regulars aren't clued in on the low-key pleasure of dining here from 10 a.m. to mid-afternoon on Saturdays, when Josh Keeler and his crew serve up a great range of breakfast and lunch offerings at unbeatable prices. The rustic decor, friendly staff, and occasional appearance by spiritual leader Walter T. Dog set you up for a relaxing morning tooling around Charleston.
Check out their $5 breakfast sandwiches with homemade pork and cornmeal scrapple, a farm-fresh egg, and nutty cheddar cheese, which are always on the menu, but save room for the weekly specials. We've had everything from a whole fried soft-shell crab on a bed of wilted greens to coddled eggs served with spicy tomatoes and chilies to a burger topped with bacon and eggs and served alongside deeply browned skillet potatoes. Locally-roasted King Bean coffee and a local twists on mimosas and bellinis round out a filling first meal of the day. Take a moment to browse their shop on the way out the door for Charleston-made small batch Jack Rudy tonics, house-made charcuterie, and Bull's Bay sea salt to take home with you.
Afternoon Snack: Bar at Husk
Barbecued quail, melted leeks, and blistered peppers keep Husk as the restaurant you must try in Charleston, and getting a reservation can be a daunting task. If you're not interested in scheduling your vacation around an open table, there's no need to despair: the adjacent bar serves up snacks every afternoon to give you a taste of Husk for a fraction of the cost. Though the crispy fried chicken and the local cheese plates get high marks, order the kitchen's pickles-and-cheese-only take on a burger, a stave of salty pink Surreyano ham from Virginia, and the bright orange, spicy pimento cheese on benne crackers, all of which are good for sharing and plated beautifully.
As for drinks, there are scores of top-shelf, rare, and unusual bourbons and a sneakily boozy Charleston Light Dragoon Punch. Teetotalers will appreciate the Eighteenth Amendment cocktail list, too. Ask your bartender about the story of any of the beverages you're enjoying and chances are you'll get a heaping helping of local history.
Our favorite is one of a local tour guide who tracked down a recipe to a concoction glancingly mentioned in "Sons of Privilege." After a few trips to the city's archives, he unearthed the real deal in an old journal and brought it to head bartender R. H. Weaver, who recreated it measure for measure. You can't buy that kind of customer loyalty, so you know it's gotta be the tasty drinks and polished service that inspires patrons to leaf through rare books in a fireproof building.
First Course: Edmund's Oast
The much-anticipated Edmund's Oast made a splashy entrance onto the dining scene in 2014 with unusual homebrews (think peanut butter and jelly pilsners and waffle lagers, not a double IPA), but there's so much more than beer at relative newcomer Edmund's Oast. Located in a formerly industrial area on the northernmost part of the peninsula (a short drive or appetite-inducing walk from downtown), they've fast become a fixture on the dining scene, thanks to head chef Andy Henderson's California-meets-Lowcountry style and an open kitchen that invites you to pull up a chair.
They have scads of brews, wines, and local sodas on their 48 taps, as well as Jayce McConnell's fun seasonal cocktails that showcase herbs plucked from the restaurant garden, Cannonborough Beverage Company sodas, and Bittermilk mixers. Check out the minty lamb and apricot meatballs and the ricotta on rye small plates (pro tip: mix them all together), and don't miss the buttery, golden cornbread, smoky jerky, and boiled peanuts that challenge you to even think the word "slimy." A huge brewery dominates the back third of the building, so make sure to leave yourself some time to gaze upon HB[rewer]IC Cameron Read's handiwork.
Dinner: Xiao Bao Biscuit
Charleston has amazing local seafood at almost every restaurant, but Xiao Bao Biscuit, an Asian fusion place built into an old service station, is more interested in wrapping fish in lime leaves or salt-curing it than sending it through a deep fryer.
A trio of chefs from around the country helm this no-reservations joint, and they're doing the most inventive takes on the Lowcountry's bounty that you'll find anywhere on the peninsula, like homemade fish sauce and curried local catches.
Regular trips to Asia keep the ideas flowing, so anticipating their next move can be next to impossible. Chef Joshua Walker let us in on some of the tricks of his trade, which includes copious research into some of the less-celebrated Asian cuisines (Bhutanese, Laotian) and smuggling seeds back from China.
Though the menu shifts with the season and the whims of the kitchen, expect to find a whole local fish on any given night prepared with locally-grown-but-internationally-pedigreed peppers and vegetables, as well as a vegetarian take on searing mapo dofu, mild okonomyaki cabbage and kale pancakes, and cocktails featuring ginger, sake, and coconuts.
After-Dinner Drinks: Gin Joint
Joe and Marielena Raya have built a serious cocktail bar that's not just for serious cocktail drinkers; recipes here are fun and unpretentious and the environment's always friendly. The building on Bay Street that houses Gin Joint has been in Marielena's family for decades; her father ran a restaurant called Robert's there for decades before handing the keys over to her.
Whether you're a gin and tonic drinker or someone who prefers clever beverages with 15-plus ingredients, the capable, personable bartenders will make you a new favorite from a classic gin martinez to something as wild as the Odelai, a sweet and creamy cucumber/avocado blend packed with tequila, lime juice, green Chartreuse, and maraschino liqueur. If you're trusting and flexible, try the bartender's choice: pick two of twenty adjectives listed on the menu and let the master of ceremonies, Jared Lane, lead the way. We've been treated to crazy concoctions like an adventurous Scotch and St. Germaine drink called Flowers and Ashes, an easy-to-drink gin basil smash that was limey and sweet, and a bright-green Kid Charlemagne that was acidic, punchy, and fun to sip.
Not feeling like a drink? Not a problem. The kitchen turns out equally exciting offerings like an inside-out grilled cheese (instead of bread, you have browned Gruyere that oozes around bacon jam toast), a Thai-spiced take on peanuts and crackerjacks, and two-bite duck sliders that will delight you regardless of your sobriety.
Breakfast Worth Waking Up For: Wildflour Pastry
Early on Sunday mornings, join the queue outside Wildflour Pastry, a five-year-old bakeshop in Radcliffeborough. They only serve their famous sticky buns on Sunday, so get there sooner rather than later if you're hoping to secure bragging rights and a spot on their teeny veranda. They open at 8 and have been known to be out by 8:30, so spicy and honeyed are these soft cinnamon-nut wonders. Covered in pecan halves and dripping with sweet spiced cinnamon goo, it's worth getting out of bed for, and certainly the $3 price tag.
Missed the sticky buns? No worries—their sweet and savory scones, cinnamon rolls, and danishes are outstanding, too. The secret, says baker Sam Boerema, is generous quantities of local honey from a friend of the owner's, known simply as "Eli." Every morning, count on Wildflour to roll out a rotating cast of seasonal baked goods. Summer highlights include pimento cheese tomato pie with buttery, browned crusts, lemony poppy seed muffins with rich cream cheese icing, and blueberry turnovers packed with fruit that glisten with tiny granules of raw sugar, but you can always nab a doughnut-muffin or a raspberry Nutella turnover.
Soul Food Lunch: Hannibal's
The decades-old Hannibal's Restaurant on the East Side is a soul food secret kept closely guarded by locals. Almost hidden from view when you're standing on the street, it's not much to look at at first glance, but follow your nose toward the smell of hoppin' john, stewed okra, and coconut pie and you'll find the cornerstone of the culinary riches for which Charleston is famous. Though it's been at this location for at least 55 years (no one is sure), the building was once the location of another Charleston mainstay, Martha Lou's, which is now up on Morrison. Cheap domestic beers, smothered pork chops, rich and creamy mac and cheese, and whole fried whiting keep the place busy at lunch and dinner, but don't leave without sampling the shrimp and crab rice. A Gullah recipe, it's exactly what it sounds like: crab, rice, shrimp. Fancy? No. Delicious? Oh yes.
Shredded crab meat, whole shrimp, carrots, peppers, and onions rest on a bed of the Holy City's carb of choice: Carolina gold rice. "All kinds of people come here every day, all ages and nationalities," says the longtime waitress known simply as Miss Ann. "People come in Saturday night sometimes and when we feel like it, we turn up the music and get down." Truly, we've sat in the thick of a late afternoon crowd at Hannibal's shoulder to shoulder with the city commissioner, housewives, magazine editors, house painters, schoolkids, and off-duty cops, so varied is its appeal. Portions are enormous and prices are low, so expect to leave feeling fat and sassy.
A Low-Key Dinner: Chez Nous
Tiny Chez Nous is packed into the recesses of a block-long cul-de-sac, and they serve just six menu items a night, all written out in calligraphy by chef Jill Mathias. Basque-inflected French cuisine is the theme here, and the candlelit, wood paneled dining room lend a romantic, Gallic charm to a place that is situated in a block of brand-new condos. Service is attentive and knowledgeable, and you're far from the maddening crowd that can overwhelm some of Charleston's larger restaurants.
On a recent visit, we were treated to flounder and artichokes braised in white wine and butter, chilled tomato soup with sliced eggs and salty olives, and a rosemary-scented panna cotta. No promises on what you might get on any given night, but count on it thoughtfully showcasing local, sustainably-raised meats, beautiful salads, and rich desserts. Like their main menu, their wine list is also very selective, featuring both conventional and unusual vintages from Italy, Spain, and France. The waitstaff is always ready with a suggestion to complement your meal—the chefs and owners select a few choices daily that might pair well.
Dessert: The Ordinary
Between the sky-high ceilings, the second-to-none wine list, and the great Upper King people watching, there are plenty of reasons to save room for dessert and head to The Ordinary. We're partial to the short dessert menu here, which shifts with the seasons but almost always features the finest rice pudding that has ever been made by human hands.
This isn't the mushy, over-sweet, vaguely nutmeggy off-white stuff. Each grain of Anson Mills rice is distinct and clear, and the the sacrificed innards of several vanilla beans per serving give this creamy, fluffy dessert a rich backbone. Topped with seasonal fruits and a little citrus zest, it's enough to convert even a skeptic into a tithing member of the Church of Rice pudding.
Grab a seat at the bar and treat yourself to a first-rate espresso and your own personal bowl of this stuff—it's not the sort of thing you want to share. If you aren't in a sweets mood, don't think you can skip this place: the raw bar alone defies the outer limits of the bounties of the sea. Order a dozen East Coast oysters ($3 each) or some of Clammer Dave's eponymous bivalves and toss them back with a drop of the house hot sauce or mignonette. Uniformly outstanding service, a beautiful setting, and a hip soundtrack are a mic drop on your perfect weekend in Charleston.