For nearly four years, Eater’s national critic Bill Addison has toured the country in search of the establishments that define dining in the United States. Each year, he releases a list of America’s 38 Essential Restaurants, and this year, two from Charleston hit the top. Welcome, Gullah staple Bertha’s Kitchen and farm-to-table fine dining spot The Grocery to the line-up. Here’s what Addison has to say about each.
Bertha’s azure-blue building pops against its surroundings, a stretch of stark, coastal flatness in industrial North Charleston. Albertha Grant founded the restaurant in the early 1980s, and many of her specialties — meaty okra stew, tomato-stained red rice, creamy lima beans, and turkey prioleau (a sustaining rice dish available only on Tuesdays) — originate from the culinary traditions of the Gullah, former slaves who established themselves in Lowcountry hamlets and the nearby islands. Grant died in 2007, and her daughters Sharon Grant Coakley, Julie Grant, and Linda Pinckney now own this community polestar.
Kevin Johnson’s bustling haven in Charleston’s Upper King Street area doesn’t pull in the same national press as big-name darlings like FIG and Husk, but over the last six years, The Grocery has steadily bloomed into one of the city’s most remarkable and welcoming restaurants. This is the circa-right-now modern American menu, Lowcountry edition: delicata squash with pomegranate and herbed tahini-yogurt sauce; smoked mackerel flanked by crackers with everything-bagel seasoning; triggerfish over cornbread puree, bacon, and pickled mushrooms. Johnson’s biggest triumph is his ace treatment of seasonal delicacies, including sublime shad roe in early spring, followed a few weeks later by soft-shell crabs precisely fried or sauteed. His take on a seafood pilau (Charleston gold rice, field peas, fried fish, shrimp, and clams) delights year-round.