Charleston celebrates, and almost worships, the bounty of its surroundings: from freshly-caught blue crabs to grains milled on nearby Edisto Island. The city by the sea sits below the Sandhills, the original coastline of the ancient seas across the Carolinas, and is therefore often referred to as the "Lowcountry." So when you hear those words, you'll know you're in the midst of a culinary landscape like no other. Use this guide to seek out the best Charleston has to offer.
Welcome to the Lowcountry
A variety of influences from Europe, West Africa, and the West Indies combine to create the Lowcountry flavor that permeates this quaint, history-steeped Southern city. Local recipes undisputedly owe a debt of gratitude to the influence of enslaved Africans forced into the kitchens and rice fields early in the city's history. These families worked with products from the marshlands and sea to create a taste that remains uniquely Charleston, punctuated by a richness of spices from kitchen gardens and colonial trade. Dishes may have slightly evolved over time, but standard ingredients like oysters, rice, okra, crabs, and grits are still as prevalent as they were centuries ago. Today, the Holy City tries to balance the past with the present. A few old-school Southern haunts meet an excitement of newcomers.
When visiting Charleston, know that seafood is a must. The view from many rooftop bars will give you a front-row seat to the famous pink-hued sunsets. And oysters should start as many meals as possible — with a few cocktails too, of course.
As far as single food items go: try okra soup from Bertha's Kitchen, chicken liver pate from FIG, roasted oysters from Bowen's Island, raw oysters from the Ordinary, fried shrimp from Dave’s Carry-Out, a caviar sandwich from Chubby Fish, whole hog from Rodney Scott’s BBQ, and brisket from Lewis Barbecue.
Where to Start: Eater Carolina's Best Maps
Eater puts out tons of maps detailing the top places and things to eat and drink in Charleston. Below, we pull the top one or two points on the most popular maps to help time-starved eaters prioritize which spots to visit.
Essential Restaurant: If you need to narrow down the Essential 18, reserve a coveted spot at FIG and taste a farm-to-table Lowcountry trailblazer. Also, save a meal for Hannibal's to sample traditional Gullah Geechee dishes.
Brunch: The volume of champagne bottles popping on Sundays could almost drown out all the church bells. Locals love their mimosas, bloodies, and brunch.
Shrimp and Grits: Choosing a favorite shrimp and grits place is a bit like choosing a favorite child — no one comes out happy. On the fancy end, you have Husk, and on the more humble end, you have Marina Variety Store. Both offer exemplary versions of this signature Charleston dish.
Oysters: Bowen's Island makes for the ultimate oyster roast experience, while the Ordinary is hard to beat for towers of raw mollusks with perfect mignonettes. If a good deal is more important, check this map.
Food Neighborhoods to Know
These are the key areas of the city every self-proclaimed food person needs to get acquainted with — complete with what to eat and drink in each.
Downtown Charleston measures about four miles from top to bottom, so while there are plenty of great eating pockets in each neighborhood, we've divided the peninsula into groups that are within easy traveling distance from one another.
South of Calhoun
These are the well-traveled, historic neighborhoods of Charleston where carriage tours roam: French Quarter, Harleston Village, South of Broad, Ansonborough, and Lower King. You'll spot some of the oldest architecture here. Take time to walk by The Battery in between meals and gawk at some of the biggest mansions in the Holy City along the water and around White Point Garden.
Start your day with a crepe from Queen Street Grocery. If it's nice enough to sit outside, you can observe the carriage tours and learn a little history. Delight in fresh oysters, lobster rolls, and rosé for lunch after a stroll to 167 Raw. During dinner, go Italian at Le Farfalle. If you're still standing, end the night at longtime dive the Griffon for a round of darts and chef sightings. If beer bars aren't your thing, head over to the Gin Joint for a sophisticated cocktail.
North of Calhoun
With affordable rents in the early aughts, Upper King quickly became a hot spot for local entrepreneurs to try out newfangled restaurant ideas and for rising chefs to have their own space finally. The real estate market rose quickly, and the restaurants spread into the nearby neighborhoods of Cannonborough/Elliotborough, Radcliffeborough, Mazyck-Wraggborough, and Eastside.
In the morning, visit quaint cafe Babas on Cannon for pastries or a breakfast taco. Lunch is a tough decision: for Asian soul food, hit up Xiao Bao Biscuit; for hip diner food visit the Rarebit; for fried fish goodness stop by Dave's Carry-Out. Be sure to book a seat at Vietnamese spot Pink Bellies if you have a group. Or try for the hot newcomer Vern’s (tables are released two weeks in advance). If you didn't make reservations on Upper King for dinner, veer from the foot traffic into Stella’s for a Greek fare. Or try Chez Nous to see if there’s a seat available. Fun seafood spot Chubby Fish doesn’t take reservations, so there might be a chance if you go early enough (like, 4:30 p.m.). Looking for a late-night spot? Stumble over to Sugey’s for the only heavy metal bar in Charleston.
Above The Crosstown
In the past three years, this region of the city has emerged as another frontier of innovation due to cheaper rents. If you're staying downtown, you could possibly walk to spots in North Central and Wagener Terrace, but NoMo is a trudge. If it's hot and you'd rather not risk crossing a multi-lane highway on foot, grab a bike or fire up a ride-sharing app.
Avocado toast and coffee at the Daily make for a good way to start the day. For lunch, relax with a plate of chargrilled oysters and fried chicken on Leon's patio. During happy hour, allow the fine staff at Edmund's Oast to pour you a creative cocktail or a hard-to-find beer from its massive collection. Have a few snacks at Edmund's, like the charcuterie plate, and then check out Santi’s for tacos and margaritas. If you’re in a meaty mood, check out Rodney Scott’s BBQ for pulled pork, and then head to Lewis Barbecue for brisket.
North Charleston may not have the scenic landscape of downtown Charleston, but it's a must-visit for its diversity of cuisines. It can be overwhelming to traverse the chain restaurants, but mom-and-pop places can be found in between. The burgeoning neighborhood of Park Circle is an easy start, but the best way to explore North Charleston is to check out this map of places to hit between downtown and the CHS Airport. Amazing tacos and Vietnamese fare await. If you're not on the way to catch a flight, put your name in for a table at EVO Pizzeria and wait across the street at hip wine bar Stems & Skins for a few glasses from the esoteric labels and interesting small plates. Once your table is ready at EVO, be sure to order the Pork Trifecta.
Mount Pleasant is suburbia. Yoga moms hang out at Whole Foods, and everyone drives SUVs — ok, not really, but you'll see a lot of that here. Stop by H&R Sweet Shop in the Old Village for lunch — with $4.75 burgers and dollar hot dogs, it's an experience from another decade. Grab a few cocktails at Tavern & Table to watch the sunset, and then head Kanpai for some of the best sushi in the Lowcountry.
Due to its proximity to Mount Pleasant, Sullivan's Island is a preppy, family-friendly version of a Southern beach. If you're coming off the beach at Sullivan's, stop by Home Team BBQ for smoked wings and a frozen Gamechanger. If you've cleaned all the sand off yourself, pop in the Obstinate Daughter for seafood-heavy Italian fare.
Full of traffic and strip malls, at first look, West Ashley may leave a bit to be desired, but if you know how to navigate the highway, there are some gems. Early Bird Diner meets your morning needs for home-cooking. Boxcar Betty's will feed you one of the best fried chicken sandwiches around for lunch. Glass Onion serves local, Southern staples for dinner.
Tattooed bohemians with a penchant for surfing will feel welcome at Folly Beach. You're bound to get hungry after some time in the ocean. At Folly, you'll find intriguing menus far from the traditional hot dogs and crab cracks. Stop by Jack of Cups for a rotating menu from locations all across the globe (the current offerings are Hungarian) or Chico Feo for curry goat. Folly knows how to keep it interesting.
Johns Island/James Island/Kiawah
How far would you like to stray from downtown? Definitely give Bar George a try for fun cocktails and Peruvian roasted chicken, or go across the street to Kwei Fei for loud music and spicy Sichuan fare. Visit whiskey-centric cocktail bar Seanachai before hitting Wild Olive for dinner. If you're looking to drop some major coin, keep driving to Kiawah for fine dining at the Ocean Room.
Reservations to Make in Advance
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