Before visiting any new city, town, or hamlet, I have to research it online to find the best possible places to eat and drink. My attitude is that if I'm only going to have a few meals in a place, they better be the absolute best meals around. It is an obsession that often annoys those traveling with me, but once we're presented with a plate of [insert local specialty here], the complaints magically stop.
Therefore, I want to present you with the cream of the crop. Fortunately (and unfortunately), if you're looking for an incredible meal or a picturesque stroll, Charleston has almost too many choices. Not only is it enchantingly beautiful (Travel + Leisure named it the most romantic city in America), but it's also one of the most vibrant, creative, and welcoming places I've ever experienced.
This list will inevitably leave some things out (tell me about them in the comments!), and most recommendations are on the more affordable end of the spectrum, since my budget only allows me to frequent the swankier spots every now and then. I also shied away from listing some of the more well-known eateries, like Husk (which was featured on Netflix's Chef's Table), because you probably already know about those, don't you?
Here are my favorite restaurants (and bars and coffee shops, too!) in and around Charleston, the ones I find myself returning to again and again, where I most likely know a good portion of the patrons and the bartender, to boot. By the end of the night, you will too.
- Bowen's Island: A short drive away from the city, Bowen's Island is a seafood shack taken to the next level. The shrimp is good (people say fried is best, but I get boiled), the Frogmore Stew is a classic, and the local beers are always flowing. But the best part is the view: Go in the early evening and watch the sun set on top of the marsh while slurping down buckets (yes, literal buckets) full of steamed oysters. It's a great spot for a crowd, too.
- Butcher & Bee: This charming, slightly hipster sandwich shop is only open at lunch. Everything is served on bread baked in-house, and there's a different grilled cheese every day. All the sandwiches are pretty kick-ass, but the sides (especially the kale slaw) are not to be missed. On Fridays and Saturdays the Bee is open from 10 P.M. to 2 A.M., so you can get some hummus and homemade pita or the famous cheeseburger to sober you up before heading home. Oh, and it's also B.Y.O.B. Keep an eye out for the mural by Shepard Fairey, a Charleston native, in the parking lot.
- Xiao Bao Biscuit: XBB (as it's affectionately known to locals) is my absolute favorite spot to eat in Charleston. The menu is a mash-up of a bunch of Asian cuisines: Thai som tum sits on the menu next to Chinese lamb dumplings, and they're famous for their okonomiyaki (a Japanese cabbage pancake). They close up shop for one month of the year to travel and get new menu inspiration, and their specials reflect it: They're consistently some of the most innovative dishes I've ever tasted.
Photo by F.I.G.
- F.I.G.: If you're going to have one fancy meal out, let it be at F.I.G., which stands for Food Is Good. The food is pricey, but always, always on-point—as is their service. Their chef has won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast, and he does incredible things with fish. Weirdly, the best thing I've ever eaten there was a side of Carolina Gold rice, which is an heirloom varietal only grown in the lowcountry.
- Obstinate Daughter: You'll have to trek out to Sullivan's Island to get to this Italian-ish eatery, but it's worth it—plus, you can fit in a beach walk while you're there. Skip the pizzas and order a starter of their flatbread, then share a bunch of vegetables; they're mostly local and really incredible. Finish up the meal with dessert at Beardcat's, the Obstinate Daughter's gelateria located on their lower level. I recommend a scoop of pistachio and a scoop of olive oil with sea salt.
- Sugar Bakeshop: Yes, I might be slightly biased since I worked here, but this place serves the best cupcakes that I've ever had. And I don't even like cupcakes! Try a chocolate and honey cupcake (made with local honey), a ginger molasses cookie, or a mini derby tart. Actually, best make it all three. They also make their own popsicles, ice cream, and sun tea (with tea from the Charleston Tea Plantation, America's only one!), which will help you beat the heat.
The Darling Oyster Bar. Photo by Erin Alexander.
Trattoria Lucca: Walking into this tiny Italian spot in downtown Charleston’s Elliotsborough neighborhood feels like you're stepping into the cozy, inviting living room or dining room of a good friend. The menu is small but each option is excellent, especially the pastas—if you spot the blue crab tagliolini, make sure to order it.
Callie's Hot Little Biscuit: There will probably be a line out the door for Callie's fresh-baked, fluffy biscuits, but it's definitely worth the wait. With a variety of biscuits to choose from (from classic to cheddar chive), along with biscuit breakfast sandwiches and soups, you're pretty much guaranteed to find something you love her.
- Miller's All Day: Ok, so Miller's isn't actually open all day (it's usually open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.), but it's a top-notch spot for a Southern-inspired breakfast or lunch. The menu might look a little too straightforward to be exciting, but in this case, looks are deceiving. Their cinnamon roll made with biscuit dough is out of this world (and perfect for sharing), the biscuits and gravy are divine, and their special grits bowl (last time it was hot chicken with cheddar grits and pickles) is always a safe bet.
The pulled pork sandwich at Blackbird Farms & Market. Photo by Erin Alexander.
Blackbird Farms & Market: Even though it's not technically in Charleston proper, Blackbird Farms and Market is worth making the 30-minute trip outside of the city for (it's also conveniently located around the corner from a popular attraction, the Angel Oak Tree). This quaint market sells everything from local produce to fresh-caught seafood, but if you're just visiting town, make sure to stop a plate of their fried shrimp and sides (hush puppies are a must, according to Test Kitchen Director Josh Cohen) or their pulled pork sandwich.
Rodney Scott's BBQ: It wouldn't be a trip to the South without some BBQ right? There a couple options in town, but James Beard Award-winner Rodney Scott is serving up some of the best and most popular.
- The Darling Oyster Bar: Charleston's proximity to the water means you're going to find plenty of spots serving up spectacular seafood. Case in point: The Darling Oyster Bar, which is constantly rotating their selection of oysters depending on what's freshest. Raw oysters aren't the only option here, though, they're also known for their oyster spaghetti with bacon, capers, and lemon—it might sound strange but it's actually impossible to stop eating (you'll find most plates licked clean).
Watch: How to Make Snickerdoodle Shortbread
- Edmund's Oast: If you're into beer, this is the place for you. They have around 50 beers on tap, 8 of which are brewed on the premises, and they change up the menu all the time. If you're not into beer, this is also the place for you. They make damn good cocktails; I'm partial to their punches which are on-tap, and only $4 during happy hour. Bearded barmen are happy to help you pick your poison, and they look good doing it—and they have a shrimp toast which is the best dish I've eaten in Charleston to date.
- Faculty Lounge: When I first passed Faculty Lounge, I thought it was an abandoned building. Located on an unassuming street corner removed from the hustle and bustle of downtown, there's hardly any signage to let you know you've found the right place. There are no windows. In fact, if you try to open the door, you'll find it locked. But ring the buzzer, and you'll enter into a dimly-lit bar that's the perfect union of slick and dive-y. You can get expertly made cocktails, $2 PBR on tap, and a bizarre concoction which is meat-infused whiskey. It's a speakeasy without the pretension.
- Second State Coffee: This trendy coffeeshop looks like it belongs in Brooklyn, but that's kind of what I like about it. There is better coffee off the island, but with its downtown location, fat straws, and ever-flowing cold brew, Black Tap is a great spot to know about.
- Take a stroll: Charleston is small enough that you can see most of downtown in a day. Start at the battery, which is basically the bottom of the Holy City's peninsula. Take in some ocean views, then stroll up King Street, the main drag. There are plenty of shops to pop in, and they shift from bougie to bohemian as you walk north. On Saturdays, check out the farmer's market in Marion Square, and if you're really ambitious, walk all the way north to Hampton Park, which has a lot of good dog-watching and some beautiful flowers to boot.
- Sullivan's Island: It's about a 15-minute drive from downtown, but the beautiful beach and quaint little town are worth it. Bring some folding beach chairs and a towel, and don't forget to hit up Obstinate Daughter and Beardcat's (see above) before heading back to Charleston.
- RiverDogs game: Owned by Bill Murray, (yes, the Bill Murray), this minor-league baseball team is definitely worth watching. Even if you're sports-averse, there's plenty to enjoy: The stadium is set looking out on a marsh, there are craft beers at a reasonable price, and the food is actually good. There is a ribbon-dancing contest. They light off fireworks. And if you're lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the owner.
The Royal American: This dive bar has much more than meets the eye. Not only is the punch good (and strong), the food is actually killer—I'm a huge fan of the veggie patty melt. But the real reason to stop by "Royal" is the local talent. Most nights of the week the bar has live music, and the atmosphere is always friendly. It's a great place to meet other Charlestonians; I guarantee you, you'll leave with a new friend.
- Shem Creek Boardwalk: Drive across the Ravenel Bridge and take a relaxing walk along the Shem Creek Boardwalk, which is home to sweeping views of the water, spots for fishing, waterfront dining, and shrimp boat docks.
Note: Charleston was in the news a lot lately after the shooting in June 2015, which killed 9 people. I don't want to dwell on this tragedy, but I did want to mention that the community's response of overwhelming love and support was something truly special to experience. #CharlestonStrong
Have you been to Charleston? Where were your favorite places to eat? Sip cocktails? Explore? Tell us in the comments!
This article was updated with a handful of new dining options by Associate Editor Erin Alexander in January 2020.