It’s not just the horse drawn carriages, the giant pineapple fountain, the cobblestone streets, and colonial architecture that make Charleston a must-see. In recent years, this historic city has become not just what you see, but more about what you taste.
Less than a decade ago, King Street—the hotspot for culinary innovation—was a long road of abandoned buildings and downtrodden historical houses. These days, the Charleston chefs and restaurateurs who run establishments there snag spots as semifinalists in the James Beard Awards. The area attracts the rest of the country and the world to see what the hype is about.
Before becoming one of the best American food destinations (and before becoming the setting for Bravo’s reality tv show Southern Charm) Charleston, a colonial port established in 1670, was its own mix of British, French and African populations. Current culinary influences reach back to the wild pigs brought by the Spanish centuries prior, as well as to the West Indies (hence the pineapple) and India. In Charleston, you’ll find fresh-caught oysters and she-crab alongside boiled peanuts, shrimp and grits, pimento cheese, collards, and okra soup.
Situated in the swamps and river plains (called the Lowcountry) off South Carolina’s coast, Charleston is just two hours from Myrtle Beach and three from Savannah, Georgia, by car. Charleston International Airport, twelve miles north of the downtown, offers several direct flights from major U.S. cities, making it an ideal weekend destination to visit with friends—if even just for the food.
In between quintessential Charleston activities such as boutique shopping on King Street, making candles at Candlefish, or enjoying the fresh air at one of the city’s many rooftop bars (try Stars, The Rooftop at Vendue, and The Market Pavilion), you and your friends can fuel up at some of Charleston’s best restaurants.
You don’t only have to go to classics such as SNOB and Magnolias, or even celebrated spots such as FIG and Husk to experience the best. Spending a weekend with your friends in Charleston, it’s easy to get lost in the mix of where to begin. (For the purposes of this article, Charleston will refer to the five square miles generally considered downtown—and yes, there’s amazing eating beyond too.) Here are some tips to make the most of your tasteful girl’s weekend.
Charleston is popular destination among weekenders, South Carolinians from outside the city, and even international athletes. Restaurants notoriously are booked months in advance, while others offer hours-long waits. Some are small in space and won’t cater to larger groups. Make sure to research prior to your trip, and call to inquire about reservations and how much space they can accommodate.
But if you still can’t decide and feel overwhelmed….
Take a food tour, which will give you suggestions and help you make sense of the historic peninsula. Taking a food tour is a great way to taste of a number of different restaurants for an affordable price. If you tour at the beginning of your trip, you can sample four of five spots and then decide which you’d like to return to. For example, Charleston Culinary Tours offers Upper King Street Tours, including HoM, Fuel, R Kitchen, and Sugar Bakeshop, (you sample dishes as well as creative cocktails). Along the way, tour guides tell Charleston history and will divulge their own fave restaurants.
Go ‘app hopping.’ No, you won’t be searching for apps for your phone, but appetizers. Because restaurant reservations fill up quickly, locals go ‘app hopping,’ which means stopping for appetizers from several restaurants in one evening. Sit at the bar for a cocktail, oysters, and a few appetizers, and then move to the next location. Bar seating isn’t typically by reservation, and this way you’ll get the same benefits as a food tour.
Sit down to brunch. Sundays in downtown Charleston are full of groups of friends slowly sipping mimosas and bloody Marys while grazing on plates of shrimp and grits, chorizo, and chicken and waffles. Brunch works great for those on a budget—you get the same top quality, James Beard nominated chef’s food for less than dinner. Some places, such as Stars, introduce buffets. Still, make reservations if you can. Try The Macintosh, High Cotton, or Hominy (for its famed Charleston Nasty, a biscuit overloaded with fried chicken, cheddar, and sausage gravy).
Splurge for a dinner at R Kitchen
If you have a relatively small group, try R Kitchen, a restaurant where the city’s best chefs get the chance to test out new creations. The $30, five-course meal changes daily, as per the inventions of the chefs working that day. This is an excellent way to taste the best flavors of the city for a great price. When we went, we tried slow roasted rosemary tabasco pork shoulder and beans, locally-sourced shrimp orzo pasta with cream, and spinach and mustard greens.
If You Go
Charleston Visitors Center located at 375 Meeting Street, will help you with maps, and helpful people who can direct your visit to different tours and sights.
Callie’s Hot Little Biscuits dishes up handmade gourmet biscuits. Around $5 for three biscuits
Fuel offers Caribbean fusion. Main dishes between $12-16
The Ordinary is a seafood hall and oyster bar. Appetizers from $11, mains up to $32
Hominy Grill, a Charleston classic, serves Southern food breakfast, lunch and dinner. Mains between $10-20
The Macintosh is known for American food at brunch and dinner. Brunch $15-20, Dinner mains around $30
HoM for burgers and Southern fusions. Around $10
R Kitchen is an experimental restaurant with different chefs working out new menu items. Set five-course meal for $30
Sugar Bakeshop tempts visitors with baked goods and local crafts. $3 for cupcakes, $1.30 for cookies
Stars, restaurant and rooftop bar. Drinks $5-11
The Rooftop at Vendue, live music, cocktails, and open air. Drinks $4-10
The Market Pavilion, a rooftop bar. Drinks $5.50-16
What to do
Charleston Culinary Tour. Sample the city’s best foods and cocktails with various tour options. $60 per person