Let’s talk Charleston.
You’re saying I should to go to Charleston?
It’s a great combination of history, beautiful town and surrounds, and incredible food. If you’re from the Midwest, there’s the added bonus of warmth (except in the summer months, when it’s called “suffocation” with the humidity).
Where should I stay?
There are plenty of B&Bs and now AirB&B’s if that’s your thing, but when it comes to hotels, here are the best:
On the small boutique side, Zero George Street is the winner. It’s on George and East Bay in close proximity to everywhere you’ll want to walk.
On the slightly bigger, but still quality side, there’s The Restoration on King, on the safe end of King’s Street (further north becomes a hotbed of college bars and clubs), right in the heart of the small city.
The Planter’s Inn, in the center of it all, is a solid Relais & Chateaux property, but the rooms have admittedly gotten a little tired in recent years. (Although the bar is still a favorite stop—see below).
The Belmond Charleston Place is a big dog. Quality service and rooms, but be prepared. It’s a big hotel.
Okay, give me the history, but keep it short:
Charleston is credited with the start of the Civil War—the first shots were fired at this Atlantic port against the federal government by cadets of the Citadel to stop a ship from resupplying for Fort Sumter. Three months later came the bombing of the Fort. Charleston didn’t fall to Federal forces until the last months of the war.
Most of the city was bombed and burned during the Civil War, but the forts and ongoing military presence are still here in Charleston.
But what’s cool about the city?
It has low country and Gullah roots that come through in the food and culture. It combines the beauty of Antebellum mansions and plantations with a rich-but-troubled history of buying and selling slaves (180,000 African slaves transported and sold in North America landed at Sullivan’s Island). The former slave quarters are still intact in the city, now converted to market stalls (of course?).
What should I beware of?
The Charleston port is one of the 10 busiest for delivery of goods, services, and white-pants-wearing tourists from the cruise ships. There can be a lot of them during the daytime in cruise-ship season.
What should I do when there?
Eat. And eat. Then walk the city for one or a part-day and see the combinations of the houses with side porches and slight leans, and catch spectacular peeks at the hidden backyard gardens and courtyards. Stroll the battery and check out the history.
Head out to Sullivan’s Island to walk the beach and eat. Then you can either head to see the Angel Oak, the 1500-year-old live oak on John’s Island (the largest in the world), or do a plantation tour at either Magnolia or Boone Hall. Boone Hall could be done on same trip to Sullivan’s; it’s in the same general direction. Yes, go see the tree. It’s very cool.
We always recommend renting bikes from either Affordabike or The Bicycle Shoppe. The terrain is flat (hence the term “lowcountry”), so it’s not scary even for novices, and it’s the best way to get an overview of the small city. We, of course, took our bikes on the ride to Sullivan’s Island over the 4-kilometer-long big bridge (Arthur Ravenel Bridge) to Sullivan’s Island. That’s a bit of a tester up to the center both ways, but worth it because you can justify wine with lunch.
Eat? Isn’t that really why I’m going?
I’ll start with Sean Brock. He is mostly responsible for putting Charleston on the map as a foodie town with McGrady’s first, followed by Husk. Both are solid choices, but make reservations in advance. Even the Husk bar is hard to fight your way into with our tips on the art of bar sitting.
Now, we’ll say something a bit unpopular. Both places are still for foodies, but they’ve turned touristy. They’re both feeding the masses, and while the food is good and the service professional, it lacks what was once the more authentic character and warmth that many others have, like Fig.
Fig is the darling of the moment, and while the food is great, the service is spectacular. Warm, personal, casual, and genuine. We personally prefer the bar sitting because even though the dining room is small, it feels more formal.
The others we loved in Charleston are Two Boroughs Larder, especially for lunch or brunch, sitting at bar watching them make sausage, with all of the food coming out of a 12-foot hood. The Ordinary is a creative renovated bank building space with an oyster bar (unfortunately hidden from view until you get deep inside), and the freshest of seafood. If you’re lucky enough to get the first-in-season softshell crab, you’re golden. The 150-degree cold-smoked oysters were a treat.
Close to the Ordinary is The Grocery. The space houses a central open kitchen (again, unfortunately hidden by a too-high “partial-height” wall) and an extended community-table-like bar. Try the deep-fried pimento cheese. No one outside of south understands pimento cheese. When you deep fry it, it becomes universally loved.
Hominy Grill is on every tourist list for the best of low-country cooking. This tourist place is worth fighting your way into, but keep your cardiologist on speed dial. Close to Hominy is a great little French place for dinner with a changing menu every night, Chez Nous.
The gauntlet known as King Street has a few legit restaurants, like The Macintosh, Hall’s Chophouse (a more traditional steakhouse), and Indaco (Italian-ish), but make sure you’re not there anywhere near there at about 9 p.m. on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday when the College of Charleston disgorges its short-skirt-wearing coeds.
If you took our advice and went to see the tree (you really should), have lunch at Bowens Island Restaurant. It’s a local oyster shack with oysters (really?) shrimp and beer. Great views on a coastal estuary.
Yes, of course. Drinks. The Gin Joint. Order Bartender’s Choice, tell them what you like, and let them surprise you. Three of the best, quickest bartenders we’ve met.
Or go see Cory at the bar at Peninsula Grill at the Planter’s Inn. He pours a “country club” glass of wine (aka healthy), and mean Sazeracs. Peninsula Grill also offers a different soufflé every night. Not to be missed.
And the bonus question you didn’t ask: What does “low country” and “Gullah” mean when it comes to food?
She-crab soup (super rich crab bisque with Atlantic blue-crab meat)
Gumbo (okra soup)
Frogmore stew (sausages, corn, shrimp, and whatever else was handy to throw in)
Shrimp and grits (the real kind, not the knockoff)
Biscuits and gravy (I don’t need to describe this, do I?)
Hoppin’ John (black eyed peas, rice, onion, sliced bacon, etc., etc.)
Charleston red rice (from African slaves, white rice with tomatoes, bacon, or sausage and seasonings, veggies)
Yes, low country and Gullah means a lot of throwing things together and thickening with the most heart-stopping of creams and gravies. And the young chefs are using this tradition as a foundation here in Charleston.
See why I mentioned the bikes?