Charleston's dining scene is sort of like Hollywood during its big-studio heyday: The culinary capital of the lowcountry is a small town that's riveting a nation of diners starved for glamour, gossip and artistic achievement. This is where line cooks' dreams lead: A visiting chef with an overscheduled eating itinerary and a restaurant-opening scheme is as much a mainstay of Charleston's cocktail bars as a bottle of Madeira. But the city's charms aren't spent entirely on industry insiders. Charleston has converted its legacy of monied entertaining into an accessible dining scene that celebrates the region's year-round bounty. Ideally situated on the southern edge of cold-climate crop zones and the northern boundary of tropical growing areas, Charleston is perpetually ready for dinner.
Until Platia rolled into town, chefs were stuck with Waffle House after work. Now they gravitate toward this food truck for smart renditions of Greek street snacks, prepared by a pair of young South Carolinians of Greek descent who went back to the old country to snag a starter for their house-made yogurt. Don't miss the feta pimento cheese.
South Carolina's shrimp season is short, but the urge to eat local is strong. Acme Lowcountry Kitchen, a loveable roadhouse with a rowdy past, solved the conundrum by buying two tons of shrimp and freezing it for the winter (they go through a total of five tons a year). The plump, sweet shellfish show up in multiple versions of shrimp and grits and other iconic dishes.
Atop The Restoration hotel in Downtown Charleston, "bacon and eggs" means local farm eggs, deviled and sprinkled with bits of bacon and smoked paprika. The focus for chef Chad Anderson, formerly of Oak Steakhouse Atlanta, is Southern comfort food with a twist. Be sure to take in the Lowcountry seafood, like Maine-style lobster rolls with a whisper of lemon aioli and the must-order grilled oyster with fermented black garlic, along with the views.
Restaurateur Brooks Reitz's fried chicken and oysters joint in Peninsular Charleston is everything right about casual Southern fare. Specializing in all things fried, from shrimp and fish to juicy chicken, it's the perfect place to unwind over a selection from the Sparkling and Expensive Champagne menu. The restaurant is housed in a former auto shop, where eclectic paintings and quirky knickknacks line the walls, and home to lighter dishes, too, like napa cabbage salad with avocado and fried shallots, and, obviously, freshly shucked oysters.
Chef Frank Lee's Downtown bistro gets its moniker from the area of Charleston historically reserved for those slightly less wealthy than South of Broad Street residents. However, the charming restaurant is a favorite among all Charlestonians and is celebrated as one of the original innovators of Lowcountry cuisine. Classics, like duck breast with blue cheese bread pudding and shrimp and Geechie Boy grits, are must-orders, but the restaurant also offers a gluten-free lunch menu.
You won't find any biscuits at this trendy Southern spot off in Cannonborough, but you won't miss them. Chef Josh Walker's ever-changing menu pulls flavors and dishes from Asia, spanning from China to India. Stop by the old gas station for a quick lunch of mapo tofu or go full-on family style during dinner with butter curry with cauliflower and eggplant, and okonomiyaki, served with "what you like" (aka bacon, egg and pork candy toppers).
Husk's freestanding bar was originally conceived as a haven for bourbon aficionados, but the list at this brick-walled haunt has effortlessly strayed beyond brown liquor. Even without the corn emphasis, the room still evokes the tavern culture of yesteryear.
The Rooftop offers Downtown's best view of Charleston Harbor (unless you count the parking decks, where it's illegal to sip on Gin Fizzes and rosemary-infused rum). And because there's no better time to train eyes on the skyscape than sunset, The Rooftop serves a range of aperitifs for patrons on their way to dinner.
There are very few Downtown Charleston bars that can boast an interracial crowd, so it's to The Faculty Lounge's credit that it draws drinkers of all cultural backgrounds. Tiki drinks add to the appeal, as well as a dance floor that's always comfortably crowded with folks having fun. Don't let the scrapbook photos of Janet Jackson dancing at the decades-old club intimidate you.
Renowned as the nation's second top seller of canned PBR, The Recovery Room is a classic dive bar, equipped with pinball machines and a heavy metal jukebox. The beer is domestic, cold and cheap, and the food menu runs from chicken wings to "tater tachos," or nachos made with tater tots instead of tortilla chips.
One of the best-kept secrets among beverage industry folks is this quiet, 40-seat cocktail bar on Upper King Street. It's a favorite among local bartenders, thanks to the wide variety of spirits on the shelves, not just for show but for actual use. Order like the pros by skipping the bar menu in favor of the Bartender's Choice.
Contrary to its name, this King Street bar is open seven days a week and equipped with 42 taps and counting. Local, regional, domestic and imported beers rotate daily, but our money's on the flight of the day, which always features a local brew from Joseph Fields Farms, Keegan-Filion Farm, Mepkin Abbey, Yon Family Farms or Blackbird Farms. As for food, order something filling, like the Pork Slap sandwich, a fried pork cutlet topped with beer-braised pulled pork, pickled green tomato and Swiss cheese.