Charleston was voted the No. 1 City in the World and No. 1 City in the U.S. and Canada in the Travel + Leisure 2016 World’s Best Awards. That’s the umpteenth time Charleston has been named one of the best cities on the planet. Charleston does have everything: history, beauty, architecture, culture, beaches and, of course, incomparable dining.
Dining in greater Charleston is an experience few other cities can offer. Unlike New York or San Francisco — cities Charleston has outdone in the “Best City” competition for the last five years — the Holy City is a relative newcomer to the haute dining scene. Though it only began to take shape in the mid 1980s, today there are easily 200 or more extraordinary dining venues where the cuisine is outstanding and the service superb. When paired with the incredible number of historic plantations and mansions, it’s little surprise the Charleston Convention and Visitor’s Bureau brags that “Charleston tastes as good as it looks.”
And looks can be everything, especially when it comes to the way in which a restaurant presents itself or how it visually stimulates its patrons with its ambience and brings them into the environment both inside and outside of the restaurant.
With a spellbinding harbor and the impressive Ravenel Bridge as a backdrop, the Charleston Harbor Fish House on Patriot’s Point makes the best use of its privileged location. Offering dramatic views of the city’s skyline, Charleston Harbor, Ravenel Bridge and the U.S.S Yorktown, the excellent views are matched by the seafood creations thought up by Chef de Cuisine Michel Fitzhugh. Begin the evening upstairs at the Bridge Bar, the only rooftop bar in Mount Pleasant with commanding views of the entire harbor. Sit and sip, and follow up the pastel painted sunset with the sparkling bridge lights.
Also in Mount Pleasant on photogenic Shem Creek, take a seat outdoors directly on the waterfront at Water’s Edge Restaurant. From your vantage point you can watch dolphins parade up the creek as shrimp boats unload their daily haul. Savor a glass of wine from chef and owner Jimmy Purcell’s award-winning list of more than 450 labels while delighting in his personal brand of Lowcountry cuisine. If you are in the mood to just enjoy a cocktail with friends, the Cabana Bar at Water’s Edge is a guaranteed good time.
On the Charleston side of the harbor, the only waterfront dining available downtown is at Fleet Landing on Concord Street. Tradd and Weesie Newton’s iconic restaurant also commands sweeping views of the harbor, but that’s because it actually rests on pilings right in the harbor itself. It’s simply gorgeous, with every table offering a perfect place for lunch or an early evening dinner with a view.
On the corner of King and Calhoun Streets you’ll find the Swamp Fox Restaurant and Bar, named after Revolutionary War hero General Francis Marion, on the first floor of the Francis Marion Hotel. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the Swamp Fox provides valet parking as a courtesy.
Warm and intimate, most of the tables in the cozy dining hall look out on to King Street. Across the street is Marion Square, where the weekly Charleston Farmer’s Market is the thing to do on a Saturday.
Chef Daniel James is one of the many locals shopping at the market each Saturday. He prepares a special three-course dinner making as much use of the fresh, local, seasonal products as he can. The dinners are fresh, delicious and at the right price point. Each dinner includes a complimentary glass of wine or beer. The menu changes monthly and reservations are a must.
A little west is Husk, the star of James Beard Award-Winning chef Sean Brock’s growing dynasty of fine southern eateries. When Husk first opened in 2011, it was named the best new restaurant in America by Bon Appétit and Southern Living magazines. The food is outstanding, but so is the ambience, especially if you are dining on the porch.
In a separate building, a few steps from the main seating area, is what is widely agreed to be the most beautiful bar in Charleston. From the lighting and exposed brick to the rough-hewn beams, The Bar at Husk offers the perfect setting in which to indulge in the best bourbon in town. Now, to everyone’s delight, there is also an outdoor patio that opens at 3:00 p.m. daily.
Because outdoor, garden seating is limited and highly prized, make reservations as early as you can, especially if Charleston’s weather is accommodating. The Peninsula Grill Courtyard at 112 N Market Street, is home to one of Charleston’s most outstanding garden dining venues. Exquisitely designed by Sheila Wertimer, the renowned landscape architect responsible for many of the gardens in historic Charleston homes, the brickwork, fountains and flowering trees create an ambience that is simply unforgettable.
Out on East Bay Street, there are four dining spots that are well worth the visit — and the splurge: McCrady’s Restaurant, McCrady’s Tavern, Husk and Minero.
McCradys’ Restaurant, McCrady’s Tavern, Husk and Minero are part of Neighborhood Dining Group, and Chef Sean Brock is one of the partners. McCrady’s Restaurant is a 22-seat, U-shaped, tasting-only venue, where for $125 a person Chef Brock will perform his culinary magic right in front of you. Reservations are booked by the first of the month, so pick a date and lock it in. McCrady’s, formerly a traditional Charleston steakhouse, has been completely and stunningly reimagined into McCrady’s Tavern. It features a selection of small plates on Brock’s menu. The roots and name of this tavern go back to the 1700s and feature a Mac and Cheese side from an 1802 recipe by Thomas Jefferson.
Minero is Chef Brock’s newest concept. It offers a very casual take on Mexican cuisine, and it’s a fun place to enjoy some great food. It was named one of the “10 Best Cheap Eats In Charleston” by Travel + Leisure magazine.
Also near the City Market is one of the most recognized dining establishments in all of Charleston: Hank’s Seafood Restaurant. In 1999 Hank Holliday re-created a classic Charleston fish house in an old warehouse building at 10 Hayne Street with the help of Bentel & Bentel, the award-winning New York architectural firm, and noted interior designer Amelia Handegan from Charleston.
That interior, with its leather-pleated banquettes and the wildly inventive idea of having a large common table, largely set Hank’s apart from the beginning. These seating arrangements have been replicated by many restaurants in Charleston today. The pine plank floors, use of leather, lighting and rich mahogany trim, create a visual masterpiece.
Hank’s was the first to have wait staff in white dinner jackets and feature “caught-that-day” seafood entrees and a saloon-style bar. For 17 years in a row, readers of the Charleston City Paper voted Hank’s as the “Best Seafood Restaurant” in town.
The fully renovated 492 King Street also makes use of its ambience and history. The building dates back to the late 1800s when clothiers played an important role in Charleston’s economy, especially in the Upper King Street district, where the restaurant is located. The button wall art installation in the main dining room, which is a take on a photograph of sous vide leeks, pays homage to that history. The restaurant’s fabric ceiling in the downstairs dining area is a replica of a 1902 city map. Beyond the unique and thoughtful design details, live music and a changing menu of deliciously fresh, sustainable dishes make this a great sport to grab a meal with friends.
Pearlz is one of the great oyster bars in Charleston. If you like slurping the favorite Lowcountry bivalve, Pearlz is your place. It’s part of Mark Cumins’ and Jerry Sheer’s Homegrown Hospitality Group (HHG) that has been developing dining concepts since 1985 when they opened TBonz, their first restaurant in Charleston. They now have more than 20 locations in South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina. In addition to Pearlz and TBonz Gill & Grill, Kaminsky’s Dessert Café and the Liberty Tap Room & Grill are also part of their portfolio of dining concepts.
The Darling Oyster Bar is yet another spot that embraces and promotes the Lowcountry’s relationship with the bivalve. The 14-seat raw bar fronts bustling King Street, making for an outing that is equal parts lively and delicious.
If you are looking for a great place to stay when you return to Charleston, reserve a room at the French Quarter Inn, ranked among the “Best City Hotels in the Continental U.S.” by Travel + Leisure magazine. Full menu, room service is provided by Ruth’s Chris Steak House, which is located in the hotel lobby.
Casual creative Southern cooking is what you’ll find at Lowcountry Bistro, where the inspired menu intertwines fresh farm-to-table ingredients from the local market with a hearty mix of Creole and French influence. From crab cakes, gumbos, and she-crab soup to chicken and waffles, the menu features the classic dishes you crave.