Charleston: Eating, Drinking, and Taking In the Southern Charm

“My teeth actually hurt, my pants feel tight, and, I swear, my liver is trying to jump out of my body,” I said. “It that the sign of a good trip or a cry for help?”

That was breakfast conversation (over a morning meal including chocolate babka slathered with Nutella and caramel monkey bread, naturally) after three days together in Charleston. Our friends Colleen and Jordan (fellow Minneapolis residents and owners of Black Sheep Pizza) had waved the white flag and were headed home to burn the “drinking shoes” that I’d put on their official packing list.

We figure: If people can work from their basements, we should certainly be able to manage working from Charleston. Bonuses would include a decent balance of business and pleasure and escaping some of Minnesota’s coldest weeks. Once, spending two weeks in one place would have seemed like a lifetime, but after a pandemic-fraught year, it felt downright exotic. Especially once we called in friends who provided an entertaining palette cleanser for a few days.

We intended to be “normal” on this trip. We’ve been to Charleston many times before, so we weren’t there to discover a new city—we were there to live in the city. Wander the streets, meet the neighborhood dogs, get friendly with the bartenders (who are always the single best resource; tip well). We were going to float through the experience casually, not with our typical fervor to devour the city in big gulps.

That serene mindset lasted exactly five hours. By the end of the 19 hours that followed, we’d walked the entirety of historic Charleston (almost every street south of Broad, then Meeting/King Street up to Spring), putting on about 6 miles. Our original plan of limiting ourselves to one restaurant per meal was quickly eschewed, as our first dinner included both The Grocery and The Ordinary, followed by dessert and Amaro on the porch of our hotel, Zero George Street (see below for Quixotic rhapsodizing on our temporary home). The next day, lunch was a progressive of three places (Baker & Brewer, High Wire Distilling, and Leon’s Oyster Shop) followed by a stop to check out Delaney Oyster House (in our defense, it was on the way… Ish) and dinner at Fig—a meal in and of itself that would normally be enough to make anyone gush.

Also within the first day or so, we managed to sniff out the best wine shop and liquor store around (Pence’s Liquor & Wine), which, handily, also had the largest selection of mini-bottle booze (look up the history of the mini-bottle law in South Carolina for some entertaining reading), and the easiest route to Harris Teeter for supplies.

We picked one of our favorite hotels, Zero George Street, as our home base, because we didn’t want to feel like we were in a hotel. Airbnb was (kind of) an option, but that would mean we wouldn’t get our morning coffee and breakfast delivered, or a wine a cheese happy hour every night, or the ability to sprawl on the 18th-century porches like we owned the place. Not to mention the great outdoor dinners and the best burger in town (offered on certain days for lunch).

To avoid some kind of intervention, I won’t go into the day-to-day detail of our food and beverage consumption, but here are some other highlights:

  • Walking the Sullivan’s Island beaches to discover the jellyfish
  • Cycling over the Arthur Ravenal bridge to Isle of Palms, with a stop for the view at Patriot’s Point
  • Morning biscuits and coffee
  • Sunsets from the rooftops
  • Exploring the cemeteries to see where the street names came from
  • Photographing the live oak trees
  • Walking down the centers of cobbled streets and discovering small tree-lined alleys
  • Bicycling up and down those same streets, checking out of 18th and 19th-century antebellum and single houses
  • Sketching the many church steeples
  • Getting a pink glow on our faces from sitting on the patios of the many breweries and restaurants
  • Walking the wall from the Battery to the park and seeing the city’s history, starting in 1670
  • Eating at more than 30 creative restaurants, and experiencing some of the best hospitality in the country

Now that we consider ourselves educated locals, we’ll share our favorites from around the city and strongly encourage everyone to spend some time in Charleston. The city earns the highest-star rating we can give: Instead of wanting to leave, we wanted to stay.

To Stay:

  • Zero George Street for a more residential-scale, personal, service-oriented neighborhood experience
  • Emeline or The Spectator for a little bigger, newer, and more traditional hotel experience
  • The Dewberry for a high level of service, mid-century modern building, a rooftop with great sunsets, a great cocktail bar, and corner rooms with lots of glass.

To Eat:

  • Fig: Still the best food in Charleston. Casual, great service, and exceptional food.
  • The Ordinary: Sister restaurant to Fig, and the perfect complement. Great for shellfish, etc., and great space in old bank building
  • 167 Raw: Our favorite for oysters (high praise in a town full of them).
  • Butcher & Bee: Great food all around. One of our favorites for burgers and fries, but the rest of the menu is super-creative.
  • The Grocery: Across the street from the Ordinary. Creative menu, though the space layout isn’t our favorite (occupational hazard).
  • Malagon: Spanish, kind of tapas style. They have a great, heated side alley if the weather is good.
  • Bistronomy by Nico: Newish, Frenchish, more-than-goodish.
  • Maison: More Frenchish. Creative items and spins on classics, like an onion soup croquette.
  • Chez Nous: A great little cozy French spot with an ever-changing menu, and the same owners as Malagon.
  • The same restaurant group owns Melfi’s, Leon’s Oyster Shop, and Little Jack’s Tavern. They’re all creative and fun spaces (especially outdoor), with good food. Melfi’s spins more Italian, Leon’s is great for oysters and fried chicken, and Little Jack’s is a burger go-to.
  • The Daily: Great for lunch, from Butcher and Bee owners.
  • Delaney Oyster House: Great for oysters and seafood.
  • The Gin Joint: Cocktails. ’Nuff said.
  • Edmund’s Oast Exchange: A great outdoor beer hall.
  • The Living Room and Citrus Club at the Dewberry: Worth a stop for cocktails and snacks. The Citrus Club is the rooftop space, and has some incredible views of Charleston.
  • Vintage Lounge: All the drinks, in the middle of crazy King Street.
  • Jackrabbit Filly: A really fun, creative menu in North Charleston.
  • Mercantile & Mash: Lunch on East Bay.
  • For BBQ (because you gotta), the two everyone swear by are Rodney Scott’s and Lewis Barbecue. We like Lewis best, as it gets huge bonus points for the Juan Luis taco truck in the backyard.
  • Rog Pizzeria: A food truck (coincidentally, owned by the son of our friends, the owners of Baldamar and 6 Smith in the Twin Cities) currently parked where Container Bar and Rutledge Cab Company meet—both fun spots.
  • Baker & Brewer: A great outdoor brewery with pizza; definitely worth a stop.
  • Obstinate Daughter is the Sullivan’s Island sister restaurant to Wild Olive (on John’s Island). Both fun as destination spots, especially bicycling to Obstinate Daughter for lunch. It’s also close to Fort Moultrie, which is a nice walk with views.

To sum up:

  • 13 days
  • Nearly 50 miles walked
  • Almost 200 miles on bicycle (probably the same in pounds of food)

Thank you, Charleston, for making us feel like locals.