Eater asked local chefs and restaurant owners the question, "What is the most "classic" Charleston dish to you?" and received some really interesting answers. From crustaceans to Carolina Gold Rice, here's what they said.
"Oyster Stew is the most classic Charleston dish to me." — Graham Dailey, Chef, Peninsula Grill
"For me, the first thing that comes to mind is steamed oysters. Having spent most of my life going to the Gulf I thought I had eaten oysters every way imaginable. It wasn't until I moved here that I had my first oyster roast experience. One slurp of that salty, briny goodness is like tasting everything Charleston." — Michelle Weaver, Chef, Charleston Grill
"Oyster roasts in the fall. Cold beer, saltines, hot sauce, and plump juicy oysters! Don’t forget the bottle of Bourbon ;)" — Michael Perez, Chef, Indaco
I've seen many variations offered throughout the year in iconic restaurants ...
"After stewing on your question for a while, I resourced one of my favorite Charleston books 200 Years of Charleston Cooking. There are many classic Charleston dishes, yet "Oyster Stew With Mace" has great history and is one of my favorite to cook and enjoy. I've seen many variations offered throughout the year in iconic restaurants such as Husk and Peninsula Grill. Please reference the attached image for the full story dating back to 1737." — Nathan Thurston, Chef, Thurston Southern
"When I moved to Charleston I was delighted to find oyster roasts everywhere. Now I buy oysters whenever I can. There is nothing more pure, sweet, salty and clean tasting than a delicious raw oyster. Oysters make a terrific bed for all kinds of marvelous sauces such as cocktail and mignonette. I bought my husband a beautifully crafted, locally made oyster knife for Christmas. Whether roasted or raw oysters are so indigenous to the area, the community and local business." — Marilyn Markel, Culinary Director, Southern Season Charleston
"Shrimp and grits. Local. Grits and shrimp. It's obvious!" — Andy Henderson, Chef, Edmund's Oast
"Everyone has their own version of shrimp and grits. As long as the shrimp on the grits are from our local waters!" — Bob Waggoner, Chef/Owner, Cooking With Bob Waggoner
"When I hear classic Charleston: Shrimp and Grits to me is the obvious answer. I think it is probably on more menus in Charleston than anything else, other than maybe fried green tomatoes." — Brannon Florie, Chef/Owner, The Rarebit, Falyn's On Forty-One, The Granary
"Shrimp & Grits" — Don Drake, Chef, Magnolias
"Shrimp & Grits, Lowcountry boil, whole Crispy Fried Flounder, large domestic shrimp and our Frogmore Stew" — David Dean, Operating Partner, Coosaw Creek Crab Shack
"Lowcountry Boil. I grew up shrimping with my Dad, and cooking with my Memaw. Pretty much every family function included what we call Frogmore Stew!" — Nick Ingram, Chef, 82 Queen
"Shrimp & Grits" - David Clark, Owner/Operator, SOL Southwest Kitchen and Bar
Shrimp. It's so accessible on the creeks ...
"Shrimp. It's so accessible on the creeks with a cast net. Pickled shrimp, fried shrimp, boiled in Lowcountry boil." — Jeremiah Bacon, Chef, The Macintosh and Oak Steakhouse
"Shrimp & Grits, for sure." — Ken Vendrinski, Chef/Owner, Trattoria Lucca and Coda del Pesce
"I would have to say a shrimp pilau comes to my mind. Both Carolina rice and local seafood played such a huge part in Charleston’s history (culinary and otherwise) — it’s the Lowcountry in a bowl." — Chari Skinner, Chef, Union Provisions
"Shrimp & Grits" — Landen Ganstrom, Chef, Crave Kitchen and Cocktails
"Shrimp and grits would have to be the most Charleston dish. A close second would be She-crab soup, and raw oysters. I've also heard of a 'bog chicken' which is a curry type of chicken dish, though I'm not familiar with its construction." — Josh Reeves, Chef, Ms. Rose's Fine Food & Cocktails
"I still think that every time someone brings up Charleston they instantly think of Shrimp n' Grits first and She-crab soup second, so I would have to concur with those items myself." — Marc Collins, Chef, Circa 1886
OTHERS FROM THE SEA
"My 'classic' Charleston dish comes from more recent history, before the city became the serious culinary destination it is today… When I was working at Anson, there was a small handful of restaurants in the 'elite' category (Anson was one of them), and I inherited a dish: 'Crispy Flounder with Apricot Shallot Sauce.' I think the dish was invented at Anson's sister restaurant, Garibaldi's, in the mid-late 1980s under chef Danny Kim, but the dish was made famous at Anson. And it was a dish that was replicated throughout town and was very iconic, and if you went to rural restaurants and more casual joints, you'd see versions of this dish on those menus, too.
... Crispy Flounder with Apricot Shallot Sauce ...
The sauce was a classic sweet and sour – made with chilis, vinegar, ginger, garlic, cilantro, etc, along with jarred apricot preserves. At the time, it was the end all be all. We'd take a whole flounder, diamond score both sides and then dredge it in seasoned flour and "flash sear" it… technically, it was 'deep fried' but the owners deemed this phrase not very appetizing, and insisted we call it a 'flash sear'… Well, this terminology became iconic, too, and you started to see flash sear preparations on menus around town.
The popularity of the crispy flounder made Anson a destination restaurant. I don't necessarily agree with the dish and its preparation or amount of sugar and preserves, but there was no denying it was tasty. When the company expanded to Savannah and Columbia, the crispy flounder became as equally popular in those cities, too." — Mike Lata, Chef/Owner, FIG and The Ordinary
"It's seasonal, but soft shell crabs, every March and April. I like a simple preparation, like the soft shell crab fried with a nice peppery salad with good vinaigrette. Maybe some blanched spring vegetables that are crisp and bright. And every year, the softies take over the town and it just screams, 'Fresh, local, Charleston.'" — Russ Moore, Chef, Slightly North of Broad
... I remain hopelessly addicted.
"My mind always jumps to the first time I worked with soft shell crabs (which was in Charleston). Being from Western New York, 'softies' were completely foreign to me. At the time I was convinced the senior cooks were messing with me. I thought to myself, 'So they want me to take these live crabs, dip them in beer batter, then place these soaking wet crabs in a 375°F deep fryer ... then I'm supposed to eat the whole thing shell and all!' To say the least, I was highly skeptical. That is until I tasted it ... it was a rare whoa moment in my life, and to this day I remain hopelessly addicted." — Nate Whiting, Chef, 492
FROM THE LAND
"Carolina Gold Rice and Sea Island Red Pea Hop-n-John with Smoked Pork Neck. There’s lots of great history there." — Travis Grimes, Chef, Husk
"Hoppin' John and collards." — Patrick Owens, Chef, Langdon’s/Opal
... it is the rice dishes that define 'classic' Charleston for me.
"Harder question than it looks. I would go with Purloo and it's cousin Bog. Shrimp and grits is more modern classic. Though shrimp are important, it is the rice dishes that define 'classic' Charleston for me." — Robert Stehling, Chef/Owner, Hominy Grill
"Red rice. Red rice is a Charleston dish. Okra soup, because other places call it gumbo, but here it’s okra soup. Stuff I grew up eating." — Kenyatta McNeil, Chef/Owner, Nana's Seafood & Soul
"For me, Bertha's Kitchen okra. I love her vegetable preparations, and it was one of the first places I sought out when I moved to town six years ago." — Brooks Reitz, Owner, Leon's and Saint Alban
"Okra soup, which is our version of gumbo without the roux." — Benjamin Dennis, Personal Chef
"I would say boiled peanuts, or curried crabs (blue crabs boiled and tossed with curry and butter)." — Joe Dimaio, Chef, Stars Restaurant
"Certainly a lot of people will say the standards, She-crab soup, shrimp and grits, and crab-stuffed flounder, but for me, it more depends on the season. And again, it's not just in Charleston — it's in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina. There's a wonderful prevalence of field peas and okra and rice. Certainly Charleston Gold Rice could be something of significance to Charleston, but it almost disappeared, so for decades, it wasn't served. I'm thinking that any rice oriented dish works, because it really was one of the crops that put Charleston on the map in colonial days. The combination of rice and these wonderful field peas are so married in their types. And okra. All these things were brought over from Africa, by the unwilling workers from there — the slaves from Africa.
All these things were brought over from Africa ...
Another dish that could be of a real significance to Charleston could be Country Captain, which is a curried chicken dish brought over from the East Indies, Portugal, Venice, with the connection to the spice routes through Arabia and China and India. Sea captains were bringing these incongruous combinations of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, cardamom, cumin, and things you make curry out of. That's pretty unique to Charleston.
I think of things that have historic significance: rice, field peas, okra, and then in a more modern sense, it's the dishes like the blue crab stuffed flounder or the She-crab, or the shrimp and grits.
Then these ubiquitous stone-ground grits made a comeback.
Quality grits disappeared for several decades, until people like Louis Osteen and Donald Barickman started finding old stone-ground grits from the few surviving mills. Then these ubiquitous stone-ground grits made a comeback. Same thing with Charleston Gold Rice. In the 50s, 60s, 70s, you didn't have good grits or good rice in Charleston.
It's kind of an ebb and flow of culture and history. It's more ingredients driven than cuisine driven. There's so much going on now with what's been rediscovered and interpreted by the different chefs and their input, it's just marvelous and amazing. — Frank Lee, Chef/Vice President of Culinary Development, Maverick Southern Kitchens
"1.) Pimento Cheese anything 2.) Oyster sliders" — Karalee Fallert, Co-Owner, The Park Cafe, Lee Lee's Hot Kitchen, The Royal American
"Fried Green Tomatoes, Shrimp & Grits, Pimiento Cheese" — Kelly Franz, Chef, Magnolias
"Shrimp & Grits, She-crab Soup, Cream cheese with pepper jelly, collard greens" — Craig Deihl, Chef, Cypress and Artisan Meat Share
"Pecan Pie, Lowcountry Boil, Pimento Cheese, Fried Chicken" — Andrea Upchurch, Executive Pastry Chef, HMGI Restaurants
"Chicken Bog, Perlou, Hoppin' John, She-Crab Soup, Red Rice, Frogmore or Bufford Stew, SHRIMP AND GRITS!!!!!!" — Chad Billings, Chef, The Southerly