Before you start critiquing this list, know this: yes, there are more than 19 outstanding restaurants in Charleston. In fact, this town’s food scene is pretty much an embarrassment of riches. But all of the great spots that’ve cut the ribbon lately owe a debt to the game-changers that came before them -- these restaurants might not be the best, or trendiest, or oldest, but they are the most important. These are the restaurants that’ve had the greatest impact on the city. These are the restaurants that make Charleston, Charleston.
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King St Historic District
It seems rare that in a city with so many solid dining choices that any single restaurant would be such a go-to for locals, but if they are looking to celebrate, or push the boat out a little, Charleston Grill is often where they do it. Chef Michelle Weaver’s dishes are delicious, layered, and subtle, but they still speak to the Lowcountry’s bounty and rotate seasonally. Additionally, good, smooth jazz music is a fixture here, and the acoustics are surprisingly good, along with an exceptional wine list to enjoy with all of it.
Locals may bemoan the loss of the original “seasoned building” that burned down in 2012, but they still flock to this little spot between James Island and Folly Beach in order to sample local seafood preps and watch an idyllic sunset view, all at the end of a gravel road. A popular place for reunions, parties, and yes, even the occasional wedding reception, this restaurant provides an authentic oyster roast experience -- something that is close to impossible to find outside of family gatherings, fundraisers, and backyard parties, but is one of the great culinary pleasures of the Lowcountry.
Park Circle/North Charleston
EVO is so important to the Charleston food scene because 1) it chose Park Circle as home 10 years ago, and at that same time made a commitment to local sourcing that it follows to this day, and 2) it consistently cranks out some of the best pizza in the South. And that’s not to mention it got Charlestonians to drive to North Charleston for dinner. What makes it so good is the combination of a chewy, crispy, wood-fired crust, creative and seasonal topping combinations, and the feeling that just by walking in, you’ve already upped your cool quotient.
Most restaurants have to put more weight on something to get the edge: food, décor, the drinks program, or even brewing their own beer on site. Edmund’s Oast does it all -- and with finesse. House-made charcuterie from its open kitchen is some of the best in town (a town that's already home to charcuterie superstar Craig Deihl, no less), the beer brewed in-house is delicious, the cocktails inventive, and it’s hard to decide where the best seat in the house is: facing the open kitchen, outside in the bower, or at the bar.
If there is a father figure in Charleston food, it must be Chef Frank Lee. A mentor to so many chefs that have gone on to helm their own kitchens, Frank Lee's influence is spread far and wide across town. SNOB (as it is affectionately abbreviated) may have been open for over two decades, but Lee’s buttery, light fried oysters, decadent shrimp and grits, and cold lobster salad couldn’t be fresher.
This may not be the hottest place in town... but it holds a special place in the hearts of the local restaurant crowd. Fast & French has been an after-art walk, before-theatre, or lunch-with-wine stop for more than 30 years. It feels bustling, French, and vibrant. The soup and cheese are delicious, the wine is reasonably priced, and on a cold & rainy day there's very little better than a French press coffee at your table with a croissant.
Upper King St
Everybody has an opinion about Halls, even if they have never dined there. It’s a steakhouse in the classic sense: dark paneling, expensive cuts of meat, power players at the bar and in private dining rooms, and plenty of expensive cars pulling up to valet. Whether you’re into that or you aren’t, you can’t talk about steak in Charleston without Halls being part of the conversation.
Pull up to the unassuming façade of Red Orchid with someone who hasn’t been and you’re likely to hear, “Really, are you sure?” Yes, be sure. It’s hard to choose favorites because the menu is large, and there are so many solid dishes, but make sure to save a little room for dessert. The house-made ice cream is so good that it’s developed into an artisanal product business of its own. Bonus points if you can get Tony to make you one of his cocktail specials.
Double James Beard Award-winner Chef Sean Brock’s playhouse gets enough press to keep the crowds flooding in -- and flood they do, eating some of the best cornbread found outside of an Appalachian ma-maw’s kitchen, and one of the finest burgers in the nation. If you’re a tourist and score a last-minute reservation, you’re likely to hear the angels sing, but make sure to keep the rapturous music flowing next door with an after-dinner drink at The Bar, which is in a building all its own.
While we are on the subject of Chef Sean Brock, McCrady’s is an experience, with chef de cuisine Daniel Heinze also adding a deft touch. The food is a big contrast from Husk old fashioned approach -- often featuring foams, reductions, or deconstructed elements -- but it is still satisfying and local. The space itself (set in one of the area's oldest buildings) deftly mixes traditional & modern touches to beautifully accompany the food.
If you are looking for old-school Charleston, this is ground zero, with its 11 galleries for seating (you’ll do none better than the courtyard if it’s not raining), Sunday brunch buffet, and plenty of tourists. The real standout, though, is the she crab soup; grab a bowl with a crisp glass of white wine while you’re seated in the shade of a palm as a salty breeze from the harbor wafts past your table -- you'll see why it's has been a Charleston mainstay for more than a century.
This place is huge. The restaurant boasts multiple kitchens, two floors of seating, and an upstairs bar that's the place to be on Mondays for burger night. Chef Craig Deihl has been at the helm since its opening, and he has perfected his butchery, charcuterie, and cooking skills to the tune of numerous accolades, and a hefty Instagram following who likes his steady and specific meat-centric process shots (as well as new sandwich/butcher shop, Artisan Meat Share).
This brand-spanking-new project in the restored Cigar Factory is already one of the most important spots in Charleston because it’s our first food hall, NYC’s Eataly style. Although there is no formal dinner service, this is already one of the best places to go simply because the amount of talent gathered under its roof (and that's not to mention the selection of 100 whiskies).
Everyone from Anthony Bourdain to Anthony Hopkins has enjoyed a meal in this restored Charleston single house because its menu is filled with iconic Southern classics -- fried okra to sausage gravy -- prepared fresh and well. There is always a wait, and there always was, even when this neighborhood wasn’t nearly as bonny as it is now. James Beard Award-winning chef Robert Stehling has built a landmark, complete with a mural that (rightly) says, “Grits are Good For You.”
Started by Chef Mike Lata and his partner Adam Nemirow, excellent ingredients parked with inventive execution is the FIG (Food is Good) signature. Now helmed by James Beard Award winner Chef Jason Stanhope, it continues to be one of the favorite and the most influential kitchens in the city, not just for the beautifully elegant food, but for the talent that is grown and tended behind the line.
Upper King St
This is Nemirow’s and Lata’s most recent project, and most nights you will find the chef in the kitchen, and if you’re lucky, bringing oysters to your table and educating you about their merroir (a French term he's popularizing, which refers to how characteristics of the sea imprint on the flavor of the bivalve). With its high ceilings and lightness, Ordinary far away from the gritty beginnings of the humble oyster as a working man’s food. Lata is one of the stars of the city, and this is his crown jewel.
If Fat Hen proved that a fine restaurant could thrive on rural (but rapidly changing) Johns Island, then Wild Olive established that driving to Johns Island for dinner is now pretty much a requirement. The staff are educated and friendly, and the interpretation of Italian classics with Lowcountry ingredients makes for some of the most soul-satisfying plates in the city. Bonus: no searching for a parking space.
Any place that can elevate cabbage to cult status deserves a spot on this list, and XBB accomplished that with the okonomiyaki -- on any given day inside the restaurant you’ll see at least a couple on the tables around you. The owners call their menu “Asian soul food,” which hails from a continent, not to a specific country. This is illustrative of the general creativity and whimsy on display here, from the converted gas station setting, to the inventive cocktails, to a rotating list of specials that keep regularly coming back, many times a week.
No real website, no PR team, and no pretense. This is on the short list for the best fried chicken in the state, and one of the best “not-so-secrets” in the city. A lot of people might go to another soul food restaurant named for another woman, and that’s fine, but the line at Bertha’s is always long, and it is important because it doesn’t need anything but word-of-mouth to make it one of the best.
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