I’m just back from Charleston where I spent three days — with my dear college friend, Shannah — walking, eating, and drinking our way through town. I took on organizing our restaurant plans, because — in my book — pre-trip research is half the fun. Lucky for me, Shannah was happy to hand over the reigns.
Now, Charleston is known for it’s good food and restaurants, but I couldn’t believe how many new places opened up in the past eight months since my last visit. Lots of cool little places with well-executed food, interesting cocktails, and hip, happening design have popped up all over downtown. I felt like I could be in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, except that I never felt out-of-place for not being as hip as the staff. Most were extremely friendly and we felt welcomed. I hit several on my wish list, and luckily, none disappointed.
By the way, I found Charleston Eater to be a fantastic resource in planning our dining ventures. Speaking of Eater, just now when I went to their site to get their link for you, I saw a post about Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown — Sunday’s episode was set in CLEVELAND — just kidding — it’s in Charleston AND Bill Murray joins him as well! Must immediately add to my watch list… this is a triumvirate of awesomeness!
So, below are the restaurants we hit, in no particular order other than our schedule…
This is an offshoot of a popular seafood place of the same name in Nantucket. The interior is small — maybe 4 or 5 tables plus several counter seats at the main bar and a smaller one facing the tiny kitchen. Designed clean and simply with white subway tile and industrial-looking lighting which seems to have become the norm for many hot new places — I don’t mind as I still love this look.
According to Open Table, Yelp, and Trip Advisor, 167 Raw usually has a line outside and around the corner. We lucked out, just arriving in Charleston mid-afternoon, as there were empty tables and no line at 4:30 p.m. Just a little tip for you…
We sat at the main bar, drank Albarino, and shared a fried oyster basket and a recommended tuna burger. The oysters were nice and crispy on the exterior, drizzled with a slightly spicy vinaigrette with lime, honey, and siracha, and served over an arugula salad. It all worked. We were surprised and happy to see the sushi-grade tuna burger split and served in two baskets since we were sharing, despite us not requesting this. Such a welcomed motion. And the tuna burger — best EVAH! Seriously, get this if or when you go. I also hear the lobster roll and key lime pie are not to be missed, but we had to pass (sadly — especially the pie) since we were dining at F.I.G. in four hours.
We stayed next door to this brand new stylish hotel (which is part of the Marriott chain, FYI!), so made a point to enjoy a cocktail at the rooftop restaurant, Eleve. Both the hotel and Eleve are bedecked with splashes of bright colors, Murano-glass and crystal chandeliers, plush and whimsical fabrics and wallpapers. It’s fancy but in a playful way. The outdoor terrace was closed due to light rain, but it was still pleasant inside. Plenty of space at the bar with two long counters flanking the room.
We also frequented Maison Cafe at this hotel each morning. It’s a large, pretty and pleasant coffee bar with plenty of indoor and outdoor seating. The young manager was extremely pleasant to us at each visit.
This is my second visit to FIG, and it was just as good. I made a reservation TWO weeks before our trip, and the only thing available for our dates was Wednesday at 9:15. Lesson — make your reservation well in advance if you want an earlier or weekend slot. Otherwise, take a chance the day of — you might get a spot at the bar or the communal table.
The restaurant design is just okay. It’s really the wait staff and the food that make this place sing. The staff could not be nicer. The menu is succinct, and, honestly, at times not exactly enticing. I think this is probably intentional, in order to encourage interaction with the server regarding dishes that perplex — descriptions of the menu items are articulated to the point that you learn where ingredients are sourced plus the entire preparation process. It is then that the drooling will commence…
On both visits, I ordered the fish crudo appetizer which was phenomenal each time. You may or may not not see this on the menu due to fish availability and freshness, so ask. The ricotta gnocchi with lamb bolognese are also delicious — the gnocchi are so tender, with the consistency of creamy potato puree. They were out of the flounder meuniere — one of my favorite fish preparations with the sauce of brown butter, lemon & parsley — but substituted a little known fish called Amber Jack. I’ve never had it, but it was very good — kind of firm like swordfish, and very mild. It is an underused fish, but certainly shouldn’t be since it is quite good. And the sauce, of course, makes the dish. Everything’s better with butter, right?
Bin 152 is a cozy wine bar on King with a French vibe. We enjoyed our wine, though there is not a large selection of wines by the glass under $15. Still, there is a decent selection of wine, and it’s nice to see excellent wines served by the glass, rather than bottle only. The servers behind the bar were extremely friendly. Our cheese — a Vermont chèvre — was good, but came straight from the fridge; we were warned that it would take some time for it to open up, and it did.
This is related to the new French restaurant, Chez Nous, which was on my wish list of places to visit. It’s a place that serves a different menu each day for lunch and dinner which they post each morning on social media. No reservations, just first-come. Their Instagram food photos are drool-worthy. Hope I get there next time…
NOT as new as the others, but a must visit!
On my last trip to Charleston, I dined at Husk. It was very good — and I was happy to try the infamous cookery of Sean Brock — though I slightly preferred the food and service at F.I.G. However, after two Charlestonians recommended the excellent burger at Husk Bar which is next door to Husk, I made it my mission to stop in. The handsome brick building was hopping on a Thursday night, with a great ambience and energy. The crowd was a mix of locals and tourists, young and old. The interactions of a flamboyant group of locals next to us kept us entertained until they headed to the upstairs lounge area.
For eats, we tried the pimento cheese. Good, but too much cheese, not enough crackers; no worries, they brought us more. Then we split the burger. It was quite good — double patty with bacon infused into the meat, American cheese, thinly sliced onion under the cheese, bread & butter pickles (my FAVORITE for burgers and sandwiches!!) and a “special sauce”, which seems to be mayo-ketchup-mustard based with a kick from jalepenos. It certainly gives Shake Shack a run for it’s money.
Mercantile & Mash bills itself as a gourmet food emporium. It is a bakery, butcher, gift shop, cafe, bar, and liquor store all within the confines or a renovated brick warehouse on East Bay Street. It is a bit of a walk from the historic district. I walked in feeling quite unhip, but immediately was made to feel welcomed by the barista who greeted me and explained where to order drinks or food.
Though still morning, there was a large group engaged in a wine tasting at one of the large communal tables. Several solo diners were engrossed in tasks on their laptops. Bakers were busy at work in the open pastry kitchen.
Shannah and I tried one of the cinnamon rolls and a breakfast sandwich of fried boudin, b&b pickles (yay!), creolaise, and egg on a biscuit. I fretted about the boudin because it seemed way too soft to have been cooked all the way through, but the server assured me it was properly cooked and I did not procure trichinosis, so there’s that. 😉 Both items were extremely tasty, and I loved the atmosphere here. Wish we had time to revisit during the cocktail hour, as the bar reviews are laudatory thus far.
I can only attest to the cocktails, bar food, and restaurant design, but I would return here for those reasons alone. Service was initially less welcoming than our other dining experiences in CHS, but a far cry from aloof. By the second cocktail, the barkeep was much more attentive and cheered by our appreciation of his talent.
The woman next to me couldn’t stop raving about the mushroom toast appetizer, so we ordered one as well. Her praises were justified. The toast points were spread with a creamy mixture of mushrooms, chestnuts, caramelized onions and vincotto — a sweet, dense Italian vinegar.
One of the coolest design features of the restaurant — besides the awesome light fixtures — is the wall mural created by buttons and lit from behind. Never seen anything like this! So stunning both visually and texturally.
For warmer days, there is a large outdoor courtyard for dining and lounging.
The Westendorff was an absolute MUST on my short list this trip after reading the commendatory reviews on both Eater and Yelp. I recommend it for several reasons. One, I love the seating arrangement. There are a few conventional booths — albeit beautifully outfitted in black tufted leather — and I love the marble table-height counter which snakes through the bulk of the dining room; bar dining is the best!
The majority of the wait staff seem to be bearded hipster young men dressed in plaid. Our server was a congenial and well-spoken fellow; I loved how he convinced Shannah and myself to try a “Champagne Cocktail” — aka French 75 — which he said was the drink of choice at Harry’s Bar in the movie Casablanca. Champagne, gin, lemon juice, and sugar are the components. Fabulous — though I’m both a gin and champagne drinker so most likely biased. Don’t you just love how these old-school cocktails — and cocktail bars — are coming back in vogue?
My dining partner and I yet again split a couple appetizers, followed by one shared entree. First — a chopped kale salad with pickled beets, candied pecans, ricotta salata, figs and a maple vinaigrette. Good, but not great, as it was too heavy on the kale, and too light on all the other delectable components. But the Po’ Boy Sliders? Yum, yum, yum, yum! Fried oysters with remoulade, cole slaw, and b&b pickles — it’s all good. Our entree was a slow-cooked pork shank with potato puree which was a special for the night. Well executed, and flavorful, but just didn’t hit the spot like the Po’Boy, though the potatoes were wonderful. I also think we were very full at this point, so that played a factor, too. It would not at ALL stop me from returning and trying everything on the menu, here.
The vibe is just fun here with great energy. Diners having a great time, as well as the staff, plus it’s a very handsome space. The place was packed but I didn’t feel like it was difficult to hold a conversation, even at the counter. The counter dining adds a bit of theater to the whole experience. No reservations here, but we arrived at 8 p.m., and waited less than 5 minutes for two seats at the counter.
Callie’s is an adorable tiny homemade biscuit shop on upper King. I read that it usually had long lines, but we must have come upon it at a good time on Saturday afternoon. Shannah and I both picked up a box of biscuits to bring back home to our families that day. They were quite tasty even after a flight and several hours wait time after warming in the oven.
Other recommendations of not so new places
- Cru Cafe — good food served in a historic house with attractive dining inside or on the porch.
- Thoroughbred Club — a handsome and popular old-school bar in the beautiful Belmond Charleston Place hotel. Good Negroni!
- The Rooftop at The Vendue Hotel — I can only recommend this for drinks with a view. We did not like the food at all, unfortunately, though I think we ordered wrong with the shrimp and crab salads. I believe typical bar food, especially fried items, would be the way to go. Make sure you turn left out of the elevator to go up to the 2nd level for even better views including the Arthur Ravanel Jr. Bridge. Take a turn at the human-sized Pin-Art board for fun — you’ll see it as you get off the elevator.
- Gin Joint — fun cocktail bar in the French Quarter with an affectation for the 1920’s era.
- Poogan’s Porch — A traditional Southern cuisine menu; the restaurant is housed in a charming historic Charleston home. So, if you are looking for a more typical Charleston restaurant that has great food and ambience, and don’t want a super fancy place… Poogan’s your guy. I highly recommend the she-crab soup, fried green tomato BLT, and the fried chicken or fried chicken salad. We didn’t ask but the everything was split on two plates making it less awkward to share — a very considerate action by the waiter.