The first time I came across Chef Sean Brock was on the beloved PBS Show, The Mind of a Chef. Here was this bearded, bespectacled fella, giggling along with Chef David Chang as they ate way-too spicy Kentucky Hot Chicken and then pounded whiskey at a distillery. But then he started talking about heritage cooking and utilizing South Carolina ingredients that were long forgotten; some of which nearly disappeared. The pride he showed in describing his love of food was inspiring. It was while watching this passionate side of Brock, that I made sure to make a mental note to put his flagship restaurant, Husk, on my list of must-try restaurants. So when my wife and I were searching for a honeymoon destination in the U.S., I threw out Charleston as a possibility. Spoiler alert: between the views and the food, Charleston did not disappoint.
Similar to our trip to New Orleans, great food isn’t hard to track down in Charleston. We made it to places high and low, and found some common threads throughout: friendly staffs, simple, delicious food, and awesome historical buildings. And while Charleston has plenty of classic (and fantastic) Southern food being served throughout the city, we found the restaurants offering original preparations and reimagined classics shined brightest.
The city, the oldest in South Carolina, also offers sites and sounds beyond the fantastic restaurant scene. Think historical landmarks throughout the city (most accessible by foot), open air and covered markets, art galleries galore, and fantastic antique architecture. During our five day trip, here’s what we found:
Where We Stayed: The Restoration on King (75 Wentworth Street, Charleston, South Carolina 29401) I was excited about our stay at the Restoration, a boutique hotel located on the
corner of Wentworth and King streets in the heart of downtown Charleston. Before its
recent renovation, which added 34 additional rooms along with a coffee bar and restaurant, the Restoration felt more like a bed and breakfast with its quaint lobby, a single receptionist, and just 16 suites which featured a full kitchen and living room in addition to a separate bedroom and bathroom. Every morning breakfast was delivered in a picnic basket at the front door, the afternoon featured a cheese, wine and beer happy hour, and the evening brought forth an offering of freshly baked cookies with milk or port. The staff was welcoming, friendly, and overly helpful; a far cry from the corporate feeling of some hotels. The property was also home to a small but comfortable patio on the ground floor, and a sprawling rooftop with fantastic views of the city. It is probably the nicest hotel we have stayed at, and we’re looking forward to a return trip to see how many improvements the renovation made to an already great hotel.
What to Do: There is plenty of exploration to do in and around Charleston. There are, of course, shopping and eating options up and down King Street, which manages to simultaneously feel old-timey and touristy. Even with the people flooding the sidewalks, there are fantastic finds up and down the street; it’s a must hit location regardless of where you end up staying. As with many of our city trips, we did a fair bit of walking, and found Charleston to house a great art scene, with several blocks of art galleries. In addition, The City Market features an array of vendors offering local art, food, and wares. For the history buffs: a carriage tour may be a little bit touristy, but the guides provide interesting information on the various houses, prisons, and public buildings across Charleston. Continuing on our historical journey, we enjoyed (as always) a ghost tour of the city, in addition to admiring the stunning architecture of the Nathaniel Russell House. There are also several plantations within driving distance of downtown which offer year-round tours of the house and land surrounding them. We checked out Magnolia Plantation which was captivating, awe-inspiring, and deeply sad, at once.
For those night owls: the city has bars and drinking establishments for those looking for a late night vibe; and, naturally, there are restaurants with late night hours to quell those midnight hunger pangs.
Where We Ate:
Black Tap Coffee (70.5 Beaufain Street, http://www.blacktapcoffee.com/) – This nondescript coffee house sits on the first floor of what appears to be a row home from the outside. Food items are limited, though to be expected from a coffee shop, but the eponymous offering, particularly in iced form, is fantastic. Specialty espresso drinks are available, as are packages of whole beans for purchase. Reservations: walk-in only
Butcher and Bee (1085 Morrison Drive, http://butcherandbee.com/) – During our trip, the cozy shop used to be located on the north end of King Street. It has since moved, and
expanded its offerings to breakfast (Monday, Wednesday-Friday), brunch (weekends), lunch, and dinner. During our trip to the restaurant, it offered around a half dozen sandwiches and a handful of sides for lunch. Even with its limited offerings, it was one of my favorite places in the city. Our sandwiches included a Veggie Burger (which is still on the menu) flavored with tahini, grilled onions, roasted tomatoes and feta and served with zucchini pickles; as well as a fantastic Porchetta Sandwich, which topped a thick cut pork chop with traditional broccoli rabe, and very non-traditional date spread, harissa arugula and an anchovy vinaigrette. It was a balanced and earthy, but otherworldly good. Butcher and Bee tops my list of casual eateries, and their sandwiches are well worth tracking down. Reservations: accepted
Charleston Distilling Co. (501 King Street, https://www.charlestondistilling.com/) – My wife and I inevitably seem to find our way to vineyards, breweries, and distilleries when we’re on vacation. Coincidence? Probably not. Nevertheless, Charleston Distilling Co., a relatively new addition to the distilling world, is fun and homey place offering small batch liquors including vodka, gin and whiskey. We took a “tour” through the distillery, which was just a couple of stills, but the employees were welcoming and informative, and the liquor, tasty. During our visit, the company was still in the process of putting together the requesite licenses to serve mixed drinks, and it was still aging its first batch of bourbon. Nevertheless, it was a fun little location, and the spirits are going to make for some fantastic cocktails when provided the opportunity. Reservations: recommended for the tour
Hominy Grill (207 Rutledge Avenue, http://hominygrill.com/) – A small, homespun type restaurant doing traditional Lowcountry meals and featuring a James Beard Award winning chef. The food and atmosphere is breezy and casual, and it was a perfect stop after arriving
at the airport and making our way to the hotel. Jalapeno Hushpuppies were hot and crisp on the outside with a tender interior, and served with delicious sorghum butter to lather on. For our entrees, we stuck with the classics: Shrimp and Grits and Fried Chicken. The shrimp and grits were simple, homey, and savory (yay, bacon!), which made for a good, soul-warming meal. Though some may make declarations on Hominy being home to the best shrimp and grits in the city, I will simply say that I would have no problem returning for another bowl. The same applies for the fried chicken, which had great crunch while keeping the meat tender and juicy. For great, no nonsense southern food, look no further. Reservations: accepted for dinner only
Husk Restaurant (76 Queen Street, http://huskrestaurant.com/) – The star of the show, and the original restaurant that got me interested in Charleston; Husk did not disappoint. Service was polished, but warm, and the restaurant demonstrated some refined touches: a congratulatory menu for celebrating our honeymoon with the restaurant, along with glasses of champagne. I can also attest to the deliciousness – and potency – of the cocktails. Go bourbon, just make sure to pace yourself.
Our starter was somewhat playful: Southern Fried Chicken Skins, served atop a buttermilk biscuit and smothered in a black pepper gravy. The biscuits and gravy would be fantastic on its own, but the textural contrast with the crispy, crunch of the chicken skins raised the dish to another level. Entrees were refined, with Lowcountry ingredients radiating throughout. NC Snapper was wonderfully seared and placed delicately on a bed of famed Carolina Gold Rice (a crop that Brock has been attempting to bring back into prominence for some time now), Louisiana shrimp, sweet corn and tomatoes. TN Flat Iron was cooked perfectly and plated with earthy trio of potatoes, oyster mushrooms, and charred onion. It was all brought together with a Bourbon Barrel Worchestershire for dipping. Sublime. Dessert sent us home full and happy, with NC Apple Crisp topped Anson Mills oat crumble and vanilla ice cream. The kitchen, showing restraint, delivered a simple, homespun ending to an excellent meal. Believe the hype: Husk is a can’t miss experience. Reservations: highly recommended
Magnolia’s (185 East Bay Street, https://magnoliascharleston.com/) – We happened to
stumble across the restaurant on the recommendation of some of the locals we came
across during the trip. Magnolia’s describes itself as “Uptown, Down South” which nicely summarizes the establishment with prime real estate on East Bay Street. Think beautifully cooked pork tenderloin with creole sauce and red beans and unctuous beef short rib served atop brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes. But the real star of the show? Southern Pecan Pie: sweet, satisfying, and simply delicious. Reservations: accepted
Poogan’s Porch (72 Queen Street, http://www.poogansporch.com/) – Sitting right next door to Husk Restaurant, Poogan’s provides another great take (sensing a pattern here?) on Lowcountry cuisine situated in a beautifully restored Victorian house. The biscuits are a must, while the fried chicken and shrimp and grits are comfort food at its finest. Contrasted with Hominy Grill, Poogan’s version of the shrimp and grits gets a bigger pop of spice from Andouille sausage, and rounded flavors from bell peppers and onions. The restaurant, named after a beloved pup that called the porch home, treats its guests as family, adding to the charm of an already tasty destination. Reservations: recommended
Slightly North of Broad (192 East Bay Street, http://snobcharleston.com/) – S.N.O.B. describes itself as a bistro, and takes a simple, straightfoward approach to cooking. During our quick lunch stop, I have fond recollections of the housemade cornbread, one of the freshest and tastiest Blackened Catfish Sandwiches that I’ve ever had, and some addictive House Made Potato Chips. The well seasoned fish was seared and served with a red onion jam, bibb lettuce, and a brioche bun, which created for a beautifully balanced sandwich. The all-too-brief lunch has me pining to return to S.N.O.B. for a full fledged dinner next time around. Reservations: accepted, but we we arrived for lunch without a reservation and scooped up a table in less than 10 minutes
Smoke BBQ (487 King Street, http://www.smokebbq.kitchen/) – A no nonsense approach to barbeque located downtown on King Street, Smoke serves up lunch, dinner, and late night eating options. Their most memorable dish, Famous Smoke Wings, had that fantastic smokiness you look for in BBQ, without overwhelming the chicken. Factor in some solid pork and brisket options, along with Famous Hash & Grits (which blends a smoked brisket hash with grits and a creamy cheddar sauce), and you get a memorable little BBQ joint. It’s a must-have for the late night crowd. Reservations: walk-in only; we walked in for lunch with no problem
Still on the List: Here’s a quick take on the places we look forward to trying during future visits!
FIG (232 Meeting Street, http://www.eatatfig.com/) – Outside of Husk, FIG is the most talked about Charleston dining room, and according to some, may be churning out better food. We did not have the time (or stomach space) to try it out during our first trip, but it is on the top of the list our next time down. FIG, which stands for “Food is Good,” features a concise menu with plenty of Lowcountry produce and proteins. Like many of the great restaurants in the city, FIG remains true to its location.
McCrady’s/McCrady’s Tavern (155 East Bay Street/2 Unity Alley, http://mccradysrestaurant.com/) – McCrady’s is Sean Brock’s starting point in Charleston, and he remains associated with the restaurant. Recently, the restaurant decided to diversify: the original McCrady’s is slated for a September 2016 opening down the road in smaller, more intimate location. Since the departure, its former home has been transformed into McCrady’s Tavern, a more casual take on dining. If the restaurants share similarities with little brother Husk, then both are must-try locations.
The Ordinary (544 King Street, http://eattheordinary.com/) – A good friend of mine, who visited Charleston about a month before we made our way down, spoke highly of The Ordinary, a seafood-centric restaurant on the northern end of King Street. The menu is a mix of hot and cold dishes, fresh oysters, and a rotating plat-du-jour. There’s a solid mix of smaller and larger format plates, along with the restaurant’s unique take on some classics.
We live in the age of the “farm-to-table” movement. Restaurants are popping up across the country with a promise of sustainability, locality, and freshness. It’s a laudable goal. But what we found in Charleston is less a gimmicky restaurant descriptor, and more so a way of life. Lowcountry cuisine is a point of pride, and for good reason: it’s fantastic. Bottom Line: since I first saw Sean Brock, his passion for the Lowcountry has always been loud and clear. Husk, along with much of the Charleston restaurant scene, is making sure that love is well reflected in the cuisine.