Charleston, South Carolina may be the best food town in the nation. They have the most fine dining options per capita and so much of the cuisine is original, complex, curated, authentic and Southern. The influence in Charleston is French, European, West African and West Indies, but overall seafood rules supreme in the Lowcountry, especially oysters. You’ll find classic Southern fried casual, Gospel brunches, raw bars, Italian, seafood and steak, some of the nation’s best sommeliers and wine bars, and some of the world’s best oysters. For some bizarre reason, Charleston does not have a single Michelin star restaurant, but that’s always just one person’s opinion. This is mine. You need to go eat in Charleston.
Start by staying downtown at one of the elegant, luxury hotels that ooze charm and pastel. Or hey, why not stay on the beach? The #1 resort in South Carolina (and #2 in the South), The Beach Club at Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina, is a sprawling estate located in the eponymous marina near a private palm ringed beach. It’s a 15 minute water taxi ride or free vehicle shuttle to downtown. It has a divine little spa called Estuary Spa just for body treatments with highly skilled bodyworkers, a sprawling pool complex, a tiki pool bar for frose and pimento cheese, a restaurant, two bars, a gym, and its own trolley. It also offers a beautiful view of the historic Charleston skyline, including the USS Yorktown, and the marina houses dozens of local dolphins and an actual sailing school you can take a lesson at. There’s even a summer sailing camp for children.
Once you’re settled into your room, start your food tour at the Charleston Harbor Fish house at the resort where the award winning chef, Cole Poolaw, will prepare perfect raw oysters and artful Southern dishes like pan seared diver scallops and carolina gold rice paella paired with fine Old World wines. For breakfast try the shrimp and grits; it was my first time having this classic dish and now I regret missing out on it for so long. Honestly, you can just order seafood and shellfish in every restaurant in Charleston and rest easy; even if it’s shipped in, the local masters know how to prepare it perfectly.
When staying at the marina, the Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island are nearby. There are over a hundred beautiful islands in Charleston. Head to the quiet beach town of Sullivan’s Island, where golf carts rule (they are allowed downtown as well!), to enjoy Sullivan’s Fish Camp and it’s very ‘70s yacht rock, Jaws-esque decor. Make sure to try the pool boy cocktail, a purple vodka refresher, and the seafood gumbo: shrimp, clams, okra, lobster broth, dayboat fish and Charleston Gold Rice. The most famous restaurant on Sullivan’s Island is Obstinate Daughter, a beautiful “eclectic” Southern restaurant that is influenced by French, Italian and Spanish cuisine with a wood fired oven, plancha and island kitchen range, and inventive pizzas, pasta, and grilled octopus in a charming blue and white nautical space. Downstairs, Beardcat’s Sweet Shop serves authentic Italian gelato, espresso and pastries. Get the biscoff almond crunchy if it’s in season.
FIG is one of the best restaurants in the country, and currently boasts a James Beard award winning chef. Famous for their fish stew, all of FIG’s dishes are prepared with local ingredients in French kitchen style. The walls of its large dining room are decorated with pastoral scenes of the Lowcountry, and after almost 20 years this iconic and hard-to-get-into restaurant has become a backbone of its culinary community.
Downtown on King Street, which is a little similar to New Orleans’ Bourbon Street but classier, you should grab brunch at Leon’s Oyster Shop. They are famous for their fried chicken, fried oysters, fried clams, and fried everything. Have rosé on tap, frozen G&T’s, and a very tasty milkshake, all in a large, old, vintage Southern ‘50 style garage. It’s a good place for groups, as it’s large and has parking, unlike some of the smaller elegant spots on King Street.
For extremely fine dining, try Circa 1886 behind the historic Wentworth Mansion for modern Lowcountry cuisine and charming décor. In Charleston, service reigns, and it’s beyond reproach at Circa, whose large, elegant dining room with 19th century design and beautiful old oak trees under the gazebo outside beckon you in.
Halls Chophouse is known for their espresso martinis, service and steaks, but also has a famous Gospel Brunch. It’s a good place to meet locals, and an institution with live music every night of the week.
167 Hospitality is newer on the scene. It has three outposts, along with a fish market in its native Nantucket where it started in 1978 as a small wholesale seafood company. Chic Bar167 opened just this past summer to accompany 167 Raw and 167 Sushi Bar. It has a Mediterranean feel with wicker chairs, and is a place for young professionals to see and be seen, with tonics made in house,and light, colorful cocktails. The focaccia that is made fresh daily in-house with rosemary, fennel pollen and honey butter and Stracciatella cheese is a good option, as are the seared scallops for a non-raw option and arroz con negro, which is perfectly baked crispy rice topped with tuna tartare. The dishes are elegant enough for a meal but perfect for appetizers before heading to 167 Raw.
There are many oyster bars in Charleston, but 167 Raw might be the best. It’s a dimly lit brasserie with a long bar and high tops. Inside, start with the raw sampler of clams, shrimp and a wide array of oysters served with lemon and mignonette. I prefer raw, but there are grilled and oven roasted. Pair it with orange wine; currently all the rage in Charleston and originally from Eastern Europe, this white wine made by leaving the grape skins and seeds in contact with the juice is robust and bold and pairs perfectly with seafood. I’d never had it before, and now I am obsessed with it. Buy a bottle or two while you are there. Then have the caviar, traditionally paired with creme fraiche, grated egg yolk, egg whites, diced onion and scallions, and non-traditionally the vessel of a sweet potato waffle. You will dream of their caviar. Try their crudo, a staple for raw bars; often called “Italian Sashimi,” it’s thinly sliced fish of the day cured and dressed in citrus. It’s fresh, clean and heavenly.
There are so many other iconic spots to hit up in Charleston, including Husk and John Lewis BBQ (both have won James Beard awards), S.N.O.B., Paige Okra Grill, the very French Felix’s Cocktails et Cuisine, Magnolia for upscale Southern, and Melfi’s for Italian and more. Most have brunch.
If you really want an unforgettable experience, though, you need to visit Raw Lab. The world’s only omakase (Japanese for “I’ll leave it up to you”) raw bar experience, Raw Lab is hosted by chef, owner, and Master Mermmelier Kevin Joseph, a charismatic expert with decades of study of seafood, and who is working on opening an actual academy for future Mermmeliers. (A term he coined, it is to oysters what “sommelier” is to wine.) Each dish is an original work of art for the senses. It was opened less than a year ago and has won Open Table’s 2022 Diner’s Choice award, and many five star reviews from locals and travelers who pay $225 per seat plus tax and gratuity for his highly instagrammable edu-tainment experience.You’ll be seated around the “U- Shaped” bar with built in ice moat in a salon-like atmosphere and be able to ask questions and learn about the seafood you eat—including if caviar is always made from sturgeon and if the “R” month saying about oysters is true.
Joseph is full of superlatives and puns, like calling cocktail sauce the “C word” and explaining that his is the best raw bar in the world because there is no cooked seafood distraction. “It is like Michael Jordan…who also played baseball for a hot minute,” he quipped during a recent visit.
Joseph’s world-beat uber-hip soundtrack and sound effects create quite an engaging experience, but his knowledge is key to making each oyster a true amuse bouche with various unprecedented mignonettes and hyper-creative seasoned and paired dishes. Those include gazpacho with dry white wine, caviar “bumps” off your hand which we learned is the proper way to taste (and then pop them against your teeth), lobster Caesar, salmon tower, shrimp ceviche, and his piece de la resistance: raw oysters cold-smoked like a cocktail in a disco lit case. The wine was fine and plentiful and perfectly paired. You will learn and have to give yourself a Porron pour, serving yourself straight to the mouth. It’s a Bourdain-esque experience, and you will leave with new friends.
For brunch head to Three Sirens, and start with dinner at Stems and Skins, also co-owned by sommelier Matt Tunstall, who ran the wine program at Husk for five years and has studied extensively in Europe. They are a James Beard semifinalist for outstanding wine program, which consists of natural wines, and it’s well deserved. I was served by Tunstall who did a tasting paired with classic cocktails and a selection of Mediterranean-style plates, tinned seafood, charcuterie, and cheese, with the best pickings from around the globe. It’s also been recognized as “One of America’s Most Important Natural Wine Bars” by Food & Wine. Here I was once again introduced to orange wine, and had a vibrant, rich muscat pinot grigio orange. The deceptively simple menu features the absolute best quality imported ingredients, like tinned sardines with garlic butter and parsley from France that were paired with Georgia hand-made butter, topped with a little salt and arugula for roughage. I still think how good it was. I tried to recreate it at home and it just wasn’t the same from Whole Foods. They have red vermouth on tap as well, and I also had a house made tortellini with butter and cheese that was ss good as in the monasteries of Italy. A focaccia with tomato paste and olive oil was to die for in its perfection of texture, flavors and simplicity. Ingredients and purity matter and Tunstall believes in only using the best of the best for a meal, including the wine. He has a young and fresh palate that pairs excellently with seafood. There are no regular wine tastings but locals flock for the nightly menus and pair them with his suggestions.
Ever since leaving Charleston I’ve found myself dreaming of oysters, caviar, and even sardines, Everywhere I went I met with passionate foodie transplants and locals, and experienced that famous Southern hospitality—which, I will say, had a twinge of NOLA college party grit that I didn’t expect, although that’s just King Street. I also met half of the cast of Southern Charm and learned that everyone in town knows them, and bought a pillow from Craig Conover’s shop and learned that The Notebook and The Patriot were filmed here. Stroll off all your foodie gems in the Holy City’s beautiful gardens where they were filmed, and take a constitutional down King Street to see the Riviera and other famous spots—when you’re not too busy enjoying Charleston’s amazing restaurants, that is.
Alyssa Pinsker is an award-winning travel writer and writing and publishing coach based in Boulder, Colorado. She has visited 45 countries so far and lived in five. Follow her at @girlgoneglobal or visit alyssapinsker.com.