Trying to traverse the waters of local seafood can be just as confusing as trying to navigate Charleston’s bus routes. Some restaurants will pass off other fish as grouper, serve imported shrimp, make scallops out of other seafood, and generally do some pretty uncool hoodwinks when it comes to serving up samples from the sea. (We are not naming any names; we just hear things.)
According to the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, the seafood industry contributes more than $39 million to the state’s economy every year. Purchasing local seafood keeps that money in the community here, which strengthens the infrastructure of the industry and keeps it going in the Lowcountry. Lowcountry seafood tastes damn good, too.
So in order to enjoy a “real” Charleston meal, your seafood choices need to be local. We’ve got you covered when it comes to local flavor. First, here are four tips to always keep in mind when it comes to Charleston seafood:
- If you’re ordering salmon, you’re not ordering local. We agree, salmon is delicious, but “it ain’t from around here, y’all.” Salmon doesn’t swim here, so to stay local, skip it.
- Red snapper is also never local. It has been illegal to harvest red snapper commercially or recreationally for the last few years. However, vermilion snapper, another species, is fished here. Similar hue, different fish. Vocab words are important.
- If you visit in the summer, the oysters aren’t local. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources monitors oyster beds, and when the water temps get above a certain degree, they close them. They are usually closed well into the fall.
- Always ask your server. You, the guest, have amazing power to keep the community strong where you are dining. It always starts with a question: where do you get your seafood? If your server doesn’t know, it’s a good sign it’s not going to be local.
Although they aren’t the only places in town doing their part, these eight restaurants are spot-on in their support of local seafood, and they are some of our favorites. Reserve a table here, and you’ll have no reservations about ordering local.
Head to this beloved and essential Charleston restaurant and, depending on the day, you can get grilled hogfish or their famous fish stew with squid and mussels. The waitstaff is ultra-informed about each seafood offering and can even tell you the difference between black grouper and snowy grouper. Don’t worry, there won’t be a test after your meal... but there could be peach leaf ice cream or a dark chocolate tart.
Chef Mike Lata loves local seafood so much that he coined a new word for it: merroir. It’s fun to use it in a sentence, but it’s even more fun to eat the food from his kitchen, which is so reverent about quality seafood that it feels a bit like a spiritual experience. That could be the high ceilings, the oyster sliders, or the Mai Tai talking, but anyway, this is our home base for the best seafood.
Isle of Palms
The Boathouse is a consistent local seafood supporter, and the view of Breach Inlet ain’t half-bad either. Come early and sidle up to the bar to drink it all in, then settle into a nice dinner of the Parmesan-crusted local catch as the sun sets over the creek. Depending on the season, you might be able to get sweet local shrimp too, so make sure and ask your server.
Husk has got the goods on all things Southern, and that includes the best and freshest South Carolina seafood. Whether you choose in-season shrimp & grits, grouper, or tilefish, you’ll know your farmer and fisherman because it’s printed on the menu. Husk is important because we like our food to be excellent and support our community -- the hype may be thick, but so is that slice of cornbread.
The Macintosh is one of our favorite places to grab a cocktail because it’s not only comfortably elegant, with dark woods and expansive seating, but after a few drinks, it’s the perfect place to stay for dinner. Local shrimp is easy to find here (when it’s in season), and always listen to the specials, as they might include a local fish. Whatever you do, don’t forget to order the bone marrow pudding.
If you can pull yourself away from the bar snacks and beer, local seafood shines on the menu. In season, soft-shell crabs grace the Softie Sandwich, and other times you might see grouper collars on the menu (both of which might go very well with a house-brewed beer -- we can’t help it). We also like Edmund’s Oast for brunch, where you can find Littleneck clams and pickled shrimp.
The location may be new, but the commitment to serving local is the same. Sure, it has one of the best burgers in town, but it's also dishing up local fish with grits and shishito peppers. We’re hoping that tonight’s special might be wahoo or grouper or tilefish, but whatever it is, we trust “the Bee” to do it justice.
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1. FIG232 Meeting St, Charleston
2. The Ordinary544 King St, Charleston
3. The Boathouse at Breach Inlet101 Palm Blvd, Isle of Palms
4. Husk76 Queen St, Charleston
5. The Macintosh479 King St, Charleston
6. Red Drum Restaurant803 Coleman Blvd, Mount Pleasant
7. Edmund's Oast1081 Morrison Dr, Charleston
8. Butcher & Bee654 King St, Charleston
FIG: Food Is Good. And, by our estimation, this restaurant does not tell a lie. Come here for high-brow dishes designed by Chef Jason Stanhope, enjoyed in a relaxed environment. Stanhope’s elegant approach to Lowcountry ingredients highlights his skills learned under mentor chef Mike Lata. The menu highlights ingredients from local farmers and purveyors that change seasonally, and FIG features a "100 under $100" wines list ranging from intriguing newcomers to Old World classics.
Situated inside an old bank, this seafood hall and oyster bar is full of creative and tasty Southern twists on classic ocean fare, offering both large and small plates. It is the sister restaurant to FIG and maintains equal focus on seasonal and local ingredients to create delicious and fresh dishes every day. Some menu items, however, are so lauded that they have become mainstays, like the oyster sliders.
Located between Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms, the Boathouse at Breach Inlet offers fresh and tasty seafood with some breathtaking views overlooking the marsh and the Cooper River Bridge. A cozy neighborhood joint, the Boathouse has survived almost 20 years worth of hurricanes and tourist frenzies to bring you the best in Lowcountry seafood. You can dine in the bright and airy dining room, on the waterfront patio, or up on the roof where the best views are to be had. Beer, wine, and specialty cocktails with local liquors and house-made mixers are also available.
Headed by two-time James Beard award-winning chef Sean Brock, Husk's menu is unique not only because of its interesting takes on Southern favorites, but also because the menu changes twice a day. Housed in an historic 1800s Charleston mansion, the environs themselves are enough to make you lick your lips: the interior reads more like a stately residential home than a restaurant serving honey-lacquered duck with pickled blueberries and rabbit-pimento loafs. Long waits can be avoided at the adjacent and more casual The Bar at Husk, standing apart in a brick warehouse. In addition to a stunning list of some 50 bourbons, including its own barrel of the coveted Pappy Van Winkle, a seat at the more casual bar increases your odds of scoring the must-order, iconic Husk burger: two 100% chuck patties infused with Benton’s bacon, and griddled with onions shaved onto the patty before being topped with American cheese, bread & butter pickles, and Brock's own special sauce.
This upscale American eatery features low country flavors in comfortable, warm setting. The homegrown, farm-to-table eatery cuisine uses seasonal produce from local farmers and fishermen. Two of the menu’s most famous items are the bone marrow bread pudding and the staple Orange Ghost Pepper, a tequila cocktail. The bar area makes up about half of the restaurant, and the other half is for dining. It’s located downstairs from its sister lounge, The Cocktail Club.
Chef/Owner Ben Berryhill brings top-notch Texan cuisine to Charleston at Red Drum, a chic gastropub serving wood-grilled steak and fresh seafood. It is named after a prized local fish, after all. The menu offers dishes like Breach Inlet clams atop pasta, local pickled shrimp in a Hot Shrimp & Chorizo Toast, and a market fish special that never disappoints. The cozy, friendly feel draws in plenty of locals, especially around the buzzy bar, and with none of the parking woes of downtown, you might find yourself a local here after a while, too.
This modern warehouse/barnhouse/beer hall hybrid tucked inconspicuously amongst North Charleston's office parks and empty lots serves New American fare, beer brewed on-site and craft cocktails. Cult-ish domestic crafts like Coast, Evil Twin, and Prairie Artisan Ales are posted next to hard-to-find imports (De Struise, Nøgne ø, J.W. Lees...), all available alongside house-made jerky, charcuterie, and other indulgent bar snacks. Snag a seat on the patio for a relaxed dinner and stay out late with a young-professional crowd.
The Cannonborough/Elliotborough outpost of Butcher & Bee was the answer to locals' prayers when they could barely find the hidden Upper King original. Now, there's no wild goose chase necessary to settle into this expanded, country-chic spot that's considered the master of sandwiches in Charleston. The chalkboard menu is constantly changing based on farm-fresh regional offerings, but you'll always find inventive options with global and local influences. Chicken shawarma is served in gyro form with spicy yogurt and Israeli relish, while squash gets the barbecue treatment and is loaded onto a sourdough hoagie. The classic cheeseburger is a fan-favorite, too, made with two patties, American cheese, and secret sauce.