The Thrillist Awards: Charleston’s Best Food & Drink of 2015
Every year the eating and drinking scene in Charleston gets better and better, and 2015 was no exception. In fact, 2016's new restaurants are going to have to open in crystal palaces with Jacuzzi seating and beer-scented menus if it wants to keep the trend going the way it is. And because so much great stuff cut the ribbon in the past 12 months, we're going to be awarding our honors across a suitably wide range of categories. Here, then, are Charleston's best of the year:
Best new food emporium
Mercantile opened in the old cigar factory as a gourmet food emporium, carrying a number of local products and homemade items you’re not likely to find anywhere else. They also offer seasonally inspired breakfast and lunch meals (like the delicious acorn squash soup), and their weekly “dinner for two” allows you to enjoy a chef-prepared meal for two at home without having to worry about messing up your kitchen.
Best new bar
When your bartenders are constantly being winning bartending and mixology competitions and being named “Bartenders of the Year,” you’re definitely onto something good. But it’s not just the bartenders that make Bar Mash (set in the same space as the aforementioned Mercantile) a place you’ll want to hang out -- there’s also an indoor bocce court, shuffleboard, Defender arcade game, and an old timey jukebox. Once you try the daquiri of the day, a fancy jello shot, or one of their other creative cocktails, you’ll be ready to start calling yourself a regular.
Best restaurant reopening
Don’t call it a comeback! Ever since a fire struck the kitchen at Anson in December 2013, Charlestonians have been waiting for them to reopen, which they did on Thanksgiving Day. The biggest change to the restaurant is in the decor. Before, the interiors were rather bland and forgettable, but the new and improved Anson is boasting murals painted by local artists, ornate chandeliers, and a number of working fireplaces (which you can bet are checked regularly). The menu features a mix of classic options, like shrimp and grits, and contemporary offerings, like the slow baked grouper.
Best new use of an old space
No one would’ve thought it possible to turn grimy old Mad River into an upscale dining establishment that people actually enjoy being at in the daylight. Walking in, you’re greeted to decor unlike any other restaurant in Charleston, complete with the entire text of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War painted on the ceiling. Come for the atmosphere, stay for the crispy pork belly.
Best new vegan spot
Although most of Charleston’s culinary scene is pretty meat-centric, we’ve recently been seeing a shift as more restaurants have been offering vegan menu items for those customers wishing to abstain from animal products. Gnome Cafe is currently the only all-vegan restaurant in the city, boasting menu items like fried seitan "chicken" sandwich that don’t sacrifice flavor for morals.
Best new Asian restaurant
It’s no surprise that Lotus Vietnamese was a hit. In addition to being owned by the same guys who own Basil Thai Downtown and in Mount Pleasant, Lotus brought some much needed vietnamese flair to Park Circle. The food they’re serving is authentic and packed full of flavor. If you’re willing to be adventurous, try the banh xeo appetizer, which is basically a vietnamese crepe filled with shrimp, pork, bean sprouts, and pickled carrots.
Best new Cuban spot
Charleston has been in dire need of a good Cuban restaurant for quite some time now, so many people (ourselves included) did a victory tango to celebrate when Cortaditos finally opened downtown. The menu features Cuban favorites like empanadas, ropa vieja, and, of course, Cuban sandwiches.
Best new global eatery
Spero could be one of the most underrated hidden gems in Charleston. The seasonally inspired menu is simple and unassuming, drawing from across the planet (Korean sandwiches, Scotch eggs, mole ragu, etc.), and the food is creative, inventive, and full of flavor. The owners/chefs are extremely passionate about producing quality food, and you can taste the difference. Try out a number of small plates or opt for one of the heartier options, like the lamb barbacao, and you’ll leave full, happy, and without a huge dent in your wallet.
Best new brunch
Stereo 8 is one of the coolest restaurants in Charleston. On a Friday night, you can sit out on the patio next to the fire pit and watch an artist setup an easel and start painting as you’re serenaded by a local musician or DJ. The brunch is where Stereo 8 truly shines. We’re talking build-your-own-mimosa bar, barbacoa & eggs, and cinnamon french toast (to name a few).
Best new fried chicken joint
Brought to you by the guys behind the ever popular Hominy Grill, Chick’s Fry House is a down-home southern fried meat and potatoes-type joint. Specializing in (you guessed it) fried chicken and hand-cut fries, Chick’s also offers a fried pork chop, fried catfish, a number of Southern-inspired sides, and a salad option (if you want to be that guy). Don’t want to wait for your food? Call ahead and pick up all that deep-fried goodness at their drive thru window without even having to get out of your car.
Best new cocktail
492 has gotten some mixed reviews from the critics about their food since they opened (think small plates, big price tags), but there’s one thing on which we can all agree: the disco sour cocktail is damn tasty. The drink -- made with pisco, velvet falernum, lemon, butterfly pea flower -- has a blue ice cube that changes the drink’s color as it melts. It’s sweet (but not overwhelmingly so) and refreshing and just plain fun to drink.
Best new BBQ place
Poogan’s Smokehouse had some pretty big shoes to fill after taking over the space formerly occupied by Charleston favorite Social, but judging by all the reviews, they met those expectations with ease. Poogan’s Smokehouse, the BBQ arm of sister property Poogan’s Porch, offers all traditional favorites (pulled pork, etc.) with some unique options to boot, like the Buffalo pork rinds topped with blue cheese and pickled celery. Throwing a party? Give them 48 hours notice and they’ll roast a whole suckling pig for you.
Best new upscale restaurant
This is probably the fanciest diner you’ve ever encountered, with things like “whole hog snapper with Persian cucumber salad” on the menu. The innovative cuisine at Westendorff is second only to its stunning interior design, which is a work of art in and of itself. For those of you wishing brunch could last all seven days, rejoice! Westendorff has a weekday brunch menu just for you.
Best new Southern restaurant
Chef Bob Carter’s latest culinary foray is probably his best. Although many people are likely to write off a restaurant-within-a-hotel, they would surely be missing out on the gem that is Barony Tavern. Yes, it’s in a hotel. Yes, the taxidermy animals and huntsman-esque vibe can be kind of creepy. But the food more than makes up for all of that. Everything -- from the food, to the cocktails, to the service -- is consistently enjoyable.
Best new hot dogs
Specializing in waffles, tater tots, hot dogs, and ice cream, Parlor Deluxe is a no-brainer when it comes to late-night eats. But these aren’t just any hot dogs you’d find at a street corner vendor; we’re talking about a beef dog loaded with toasted dried shrimp, miso mustard glaze, house kimchi, crushed peanut, and cilantro on a brioche roll.
Best new food truck
The Immortal Lobster (address and info)
We’ll admit we were hesitant at the idea of eating shellfish from a truck. But this isn’t just any truck. When ordering, choose between Maine-style lobster roll (aka chilled with mayo) or Connecticut-style (warm with drizzled butter), both served on a locally made split-top bun. Also available: lobster grilled cheese, lobster salad lettuce wraps, and lobster tacos.
Best new brewery
Another brewery? Can you really ever have too much of a good thing? When it comes to craft beer, the answer should be no. Yes, Cooper River Brewing only just opened, but they’re already shaping up to be on par with some of the big dogs in town. We can’t wait to see what they have in store for next year.
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Sydney Gallimore is a food writer in Charleston who never needs an excuse to try new restaurants.