In honor of Charleston’s eighth consecutive year as the number-one city in the US in Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best Awards survey, we’re sharing eight ways for you to enjoy the Holy City’s famed South Carolina Lowcountry cuisine and incomparable hospitality on your next visit.
When you go, you’ll notice that safety is incorporated into the overall dining experience. At press time, all restaurants require a mask to enter and have tables spaced apart in keeping with social-distancing guidelines. Make reservations since occupancy limits are in place. The upside: fewer people and more spacing inside means more focused service and more intimacy with your dining companions. Once you’re seated and your order is placed, you’ll almost forget about the world outside as you immerse yourself in these dining experiences that are uniquely Charleston.
1. EAT LIKE AN ARISTOCRAT AT MAGNOLIAS UPTOWN DOWN SOUTH
As one of the founders of the Lowcountry cuisine renaissance that swept South Carolina in the early 1990s, Magnolias established itself as the trend’s leader by taking authentic fare and making it modern with unexpected flavors (think spicy-sweet jalapeño and peach coleslaw). Magnolias is known for attentive service and beautifully presented meals. Try their upscale version of fried green tomatoes with caramelized onion, white cheddar grits, country ham and tomato chutney drizzled in tomato butter so rich that you may neglect your manners and lick your plate clean. Consider ordering the daily catch for your entrée, and be sure to save room for pecan pie with bourbon caramel sauce.
2. EAT LIKE A SURFER AT WIKI WIKI SANDBAR
Just a short drive south of town in Folly Beach, Wiki Wiki will have you feeling as if you’ve stepped back in time to the 1950s. You might even expect to see Elvis dining here at this Hawaiian-themed joint complete with a papier-mâché octopus hanging from the ceiling and cocktails served in tiki cups adorned with orchids and little umbrellas. Don’t pass on the Spam sliders—yes, that Spam—marinated overnight in fresh pineapple juice and then coated in brown sugar, broiled, and served simply on Hawaiian sweet rolls with a slice of dill pickle and aioli. Trust me.
Wiki Wiki Sandbar
3. EAT LIKE A FARMER AT FRANNIE & THE FOX
One of Charleston’s newest eateries—located inside Emeline, the city’s newest luxury hotel—Frannie & the Fox has crafted a menu where fresh ingredients from local purveyors take center stage on the Italian-inspired menu. Order a wood-fired brick oven pizza, or try shared plates such as the colorful heirloom tomato toast with whipped ricotta and fresh basil, hand-rolled beef and pork meatball, or delicate blue crab fritters, lightly battered and filled with lush mascarpone. Outside, an intimate courtyard beckons with its massive fireplace surrounded by comfy couches, jasmine-covered trellises and hanging lanterns—a perfect place to end your meal with a glass from the curated wine list. Then, retire upstairs to your hip suite at Emeline, where guest rooms include a Crosley turntable and soulful 33 1/3 rpm albums so that you can spin the rest of the evening away in private.
Frannie & the Fox
4. EAT LIKE A FOOD CRITIC AT ZERO RESTAURANT + BAR
Make sure you’re hungry when you sit down for the 11-course tasting and wine-pairing menu. Settle in at your table overlooking the courtyard of this historic 1804 residence to enjoy a plethora of plates, including broiled oyster in fig butter, ocean trout with crab rice, and beef Wellington in black truffle sauce. If 11 courses aren’t enough, you can always add the Regiis Ova caviar plate. And if, after this two-and-a-half-hour gastronomic gorge, you find you’ve eaten too much to walk out, ask if there’s a room available in one of the 16 guest rooms at the adjacent boutique inn Zero George, ranked on Condé Nast Traveler’s Gold List 2020.
Zero Restaurant + Bar
5. EAT LIKE A TOURIST AT CHARLESTON CRAB HOUSE
With its focus on Southern staples and locally sourced seafood served in traditional ways, this family-owned venue has long been a tourist favorite. Since you’re in a coastal city, you’ll want to try anything that includes shrimp—get it chilled, grilled, fried or boiled. Oysters are also a popular choice, and a perennial favorite is the restaurant’s award-winning she-crab soup. Visit the downtown location, where you can sit on the rooftop deck overlooking Charleston City Market.
Charleston Crab House
6. EAT LIKE A (HUNGRY) BIRD AT CHARLESTON CITY MARKET
And speaking of The Market, this central point of historic downtown has been a hub of Charlestonian shopping activity since 1804. Stroll along the four city blocks of this mostly open-air market, and you’ll discover more than 300 entrepreneurs selling everything from T-shirts to Certified Authentic: Handmade in Charleston sweetgrass baskets woven by hand locally using techniques passed down through generations. While you shop, peck through local favorites such as boiled peanuts, candied pralines, crunchy cheese straws and pimiento cheese sandwiches.
Charleston City Market
7. EAT LIKE A LOCAL AT LEWIS BARBECUE
Just about a 10-minute drive north of the historic area is one of the area’s best-kept secrets, founded by veteran Texas barbecue master John Lewis just four years ago. The pitmasters at Lewis Barbecue use custom-built smokers and a secret flavor profile to churn out award-winning beef brisket, pulled pork and roasted chicken. Line up (safely distanced) with the faithful, place your order, and then take it outside to eat at a picnic table under the massive live oak. Match up your meal with an ice-cold Overly Friendly IPA from nearby Holy City Brewing, and you’ll think you’ve landed in hog heaven.
8. EAT LIKE A COLLEGE KID AT CARMELLA’S CAFÉ AND DESSERT BAR
The late-night dessert bar seems to be a trend in Charleston, but Carmella’s takes the cake with a focus on gourmet recipes with a regional flair. Calories don’t count here, but good taste does. Get in line with the beautiful people, and choose from such house specialties as creamy gelato, fruity sorbet, massive brownies, crunchy cannoli and more. Or drink your dessert at the full bar with your choice of cocktails, spiked milkshakes and frothy coffees.
And once you’ve had your fill at these stellar dining spots, don’t worry: there are hundreds of other restaurants in the city with a table in your name. Go to AAA.com/TravelGuides to get the scoop on dining and much more to see and do in Charleston.