I know! This post is a long time coming! First, allow me to be the millionth person to tell you that Charleston, South Carolina is now one of the biggest restaurant destinations in America. As most of you know by now, we are New Yorkers who spend a week or two a year on Kiawah Island, about 25 miles outside of Charleston, and we have been visiting the area long enough to remember when Charleston was all about Lowcountry classics like hush puppies, shrimp and grits, and the mile-high coconut cake at velvet-walled, white-linened tabled Peninsula Grill. Flash forward to last week, when we decided to wing it with dinner plans — should we do Mexican? Seafood? Asian Soul? Oysters? Classic Tavern? — and, at the considerably pre-peak hour of 6:00, ended up hearing the same thing from well-meaning hosts over and over: The wait will be at least an hour. To help you avoid a similar fate, and to help you make the most of your next visit, I’ve finally gotten my act together to round up our favorite spots. If you plan on going in the near future, book your tables soon. Like now.
Hominy Grill This review is from Abby, who is an HG fangirl of the highest order and demanded it go first: “Charleston these days seems like the trendy restaurant capital of the world. Every time I come down here, there’s at least three new restaurants my Mom wants to drag us to. And they’re all good, but none of them can compete with Hominy Grill. I’ve been coming to Charleston since I was two months old, and from the moment I could enjoy mac and cheese, Hominy Grill became my favorite restaurant in THE ENTIRE WORLD. Never has any picnic platter of pimento cheese and pickled okra, or Mac and cheese, or fried green tomatoes (shown) compared to Hominy Grill’s. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to go here if you find yourself in Charleston. It’s a perfect welcome to Southern food, from the boiled peanuts to start to the hummingbird pie for dessert. If you are in Charleston for one meal, go to Hominy; you won’t regret it.” Editor’s note: Hominy used to be open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but has recently rebranded itself as the breakfast and brunch place only. (Which we found out the hard way in an empty parking lot last Wednesday night.) As such you will no longer find the hummingbird cake or the picnic platter, but nor will you find a dearth of their mouthwatering classics like dirty biscuits, shrimp and grits, hush puppies, and cornbread. You will also still find their legendary lines, so prepare to wait.
Leon’s Oyster Shop When we can tear the girls away from Hominy, this is usually the next in the pecking order. One of the many new-wave Charleston hot spots (in a transformed auto shop) run by man-about-town Brooks Reitz, it’s Brooklyn meets Lowcountry, and the vibe is magic. So is the Siam Salad, the Oyster selection, and the Crispy Fried Chicken Sandwich that solidified an obsession in our house. This is great for families and big parties not afraid of noise. (Maybe don’t take the grandparents.)
The Ordinary Located on Upper King Street in a renovated old bank, The Ordinary is a seafood heaven that manages to be both casual and elegant at once. The menu might as well say “Made Expressly for Jenny,” across the top…
…Oyster sliders, Lump Crab toasts, iconic triple-layered shellfish towers with a selection of raw and cooked seafood. Everything fresh and local. It’s expensive, but feels right for just about any occasion: a birthday dinner, a vacation dinner, or even just a solo dinner at the excellent bar, as my friend Bonnie discovered last time she went.
Husk Most claim this is the place that kicked off Charleston’s restaurant renaissance and for good reason: Sean Brock, the chef who has won every accolade there is to win, was one of the first to redefine local Southern as something other than Shrimp and Grits, and Fried Chicken. The menu is a love letter to southern heirloom ingredients — Brock grew up in rural Virginia growing and preserving all his own food — and changes constantly. We went a lot when it first opened but haven’t been in a few years, something we should remedy soon because it’s really something special. (For first-time Charleston visitors, it should be the first reservation you book.) What I remember most: the pig ear sliders, peanut topped ribs, country ham…basically pork, pork, and more pork. In other words, come hungry.
Fat Hen Technically in Johns Island, about 10 miles outside of Charleston, we stopped here last week on our way to Kiawah from the airport. (It was a late flight.) The food is classic French (not our jam) and can be somewhat rich, but there are enough local hits to make it feel worth it. I had a corn, tomato, butter bean, and boiled peanut salad that is reason enough to go back. Note: Do what you can to sit outside, the charming fairy-lighted tiki bar outside is where it’s at (even if it’s a little chilly; they have heat lamps.) Inside is charming, but it’s dark, which isn’t my favorite vibe for a beach vacation spot.
Baker and Farmer Right down the road from Fat Hen, this place opened in August 2017 so last week’s visit was our first. It did not disappoint. We were pulled in by the promise of Toasted Coconut with Almonds and Buttermilk Cherry (local, artisanal, etc etc) listed on the website, but like a lot of these newer, local-ingredient-dependent places, they had a different line-up waiting. Let’s just say we were fine walking out with the farm-fresh butter pecan and malted chocolate ganache.
Little Jack’s Tavern When Abby wrote earlier that mom is always trying to drag her to new places instead of going to Hominy Grill, she mostly means I’ve been trying to drag her to Little Jack’s. (“Mom, aren’t you the one who wrote a book about family rituals? Why would you want to go somewhere new when we can honor years and years of tradition?”) Then she had a bite of Little Jack’s burger. In certain circles, specifically the instagram circle, the tavern burger, which arrives with no bells and whistles on a simple white plate (not even a pickle) has taken on a life of its own. It’s barely a quarter pound of beef, slightly more than slider-sized and topped with oniony relish, special sauce, and American cheese inside a sweet, squishy bun. Like the rookies we were, three of us ordered one to share, which allowed for roughly 1 1/2 bites each. (Including Phoebe, who broke Paleo to see what the all the fuss was about.) But what juicy, eyes-rolled-back-in-our-heads bites they were! We ordered seconds almost immediately and had no problem passing the time feasting on a crab rolls, garlic fries, and potato chips with salmon roe. Little Jack’s has only recently opened, but the green-checkered tablecloths, leather banquettes, and framed black-and-white old timey photos gives it that instant-institution vibe. Thankfully Abby agrees, which means we will be returning. Whew.
Minero This place is also owned by Brock, but offers a completely different vibe in a more touristy part of town. Fast fresh Mexican, margaritas, high ceilings, loud music, the type of spot that feels like it caters to a happy-hour crowd…until you taste the food. You think a guy like Brock would settle for mediocre?
Workshop The temperature on our first day of vacation was in the low 60s, i.e. a little too chilly for the beach, so we decided to drive into Charleston to check out this food hall, which feels nothing like either old Charleston or Upper King new Charleston. Located in an emerging tech neighborhood called Half Mile North (referring to north of the Arthur Ravenal bridge), it’s located in a sleek, contemporary business center and features fast-casual Mexican, pizza, Vietnamese, Indian, and great coffee. (Below: an avocado salad with watermelon radishes from Juan Luis.) We happened to be there on a Saturday so were treated to the farmer’s market and live music. Bonus: Effin B, a food and beverage (f & b…effin b…get it?) podcast that I have been on and adore, now has its headquarters here. Check them out!
Just one more nod to Hominy: Phoebe shells boiled peanuts back in 2012, one of maybe three zillion times she’s done so.
Where we haven’t gone yet but hope to very soon: the bar at the Dewberry; Rodney Scott’s BBQ; and Bar Normandy, one of Bon Appetit‘s best new restaurants in 2017. Check back on this post regularly because at the rate the restaurant scene is growing, I plan to continually update. As always, feel free to suggest your favorites as well. I always learn so much from you guys.
Photo credits: Charleston (B’s Bikes); The Ordinary facade: The Ordinary; Leon’s: Wall Street Journal; Tacos, Minero’s; Fat Hen, Fat Hen; Baker and Farmer: Post & Courier.