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Sep 20, 2008 09:45 AM

Low country/local cuisine in Charleston

I will be in Charleston on Monday and Tuesday night and I'm looking for a couple of great local favorites. They can range from eating on newspaper to white linens. I'm looking to experience the best in local fare. I'm staying in the historic district, but will travel up to 15 minutes from there.

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  1. Absolutely go to The Hominy Grill on Rutledge Street. Great Low Country/Carolina cooking. Unpretentious and exquisite. Butcher paper on the tables, great torch lit secluded patio and very affordable. Don't miss the shrimp and grits, the collards, the roast chicken with peach gravy, and if they have it, the best peach pie ever. Jestines Kitchen is also terrific....close to everything downtown near Broad/slave market, etc. King Street has some great little hotspots as well, just stroll and gander. If you are an oyster fan check out Bowen Island, A bit out of town on James Island I believe. They roast oysters in a huge basement fireplace. Craaazy place with house encouraged black marker graffitti covering nearly every square inch of the ground floor. Nothing else like it.

    10 Replies
    1. re: flmx

      flmx, none of your recommendations remotely qualifies as the best in local fare.

      Hominy is spotty at best, though I have had good food there. If you go, get the fried chicken.

      Bowen's Island is decidedly low-rent, but a favorite of ours. It's not "low country", it's steamed oysters fresh from the marsh. Take your bug spray. Lots of fun, bit of a drive from downtown.

      My impression of the "low country" scene in Chas-town is that the old stand-bys have gone decidedly touristy, with the decline in quality which inevitably accompanies that sort of thing. Jestine's is routinely panned on this board, though I have not tried it. I ain't standing in line for an hour for cold biscuits and sub-par fried chicken.

      You'll probably find some of the most delicious variations on traditional Charleston cuisine in the fancier restaurants like Charleston Grill, which we highly recommend. Expensive, but worth it. And you won't end up with your intelligence insulted as you will at the various tourist traps.

      Many of the best places in Charleston do not specialize in "local cuisine", though many try to source local ingredients.

      Also, it's always nice to use the "search" function, as Charleston is easily one of the most discussed cities on all of Chowhound.

      Good luck!

      1. re: uptown jimmy

        Jimmy, I'm not sure you can call Hominy spotty at best. It's not my favorite place in town, but their chef did just win the James Beard award for Best Chef in the Southeast.

        There have been plenty of debates on this board as to what exactly qualifies as local cuisine, which places are authentic, yada, yada, yada.

        When most people think of local cuisine they're probably thinking of shrimp and grits and she crab soup. That's fine and there are plenty of places in this city that can deliver (Hank's does very well at both of those, I've heard Hominy's shrimp and grits is top notch too).

        That being said, as Jimmy said in his other post, a lot of the best food around here isn't stereotypically "lowcountry" food. There are some great chefs here that use a lot of great local ingredients, but it's not the traditional southern food you're thinking of.

        FIG uses almost exclusively local ingredients. It's one of my favorite restaurants in the city.

        McCrady's grows a good amount of their produce at their farm on Wadamalaw Island and try to use as much local food as they can.

        Slightly North of Broad (SNOB as you'll hear it frequently called around here) gets rave reviews every time someone mentions the best places in charleston.

        Bowen's Island is a good spot for fried seafood and fresh oysters. They have a very good Frogmore Stew which is decidedly Lowcountry. Like he said, it's low rent, but it has a great view and a nice laid back atmosphere.

        Another place to try would be Fat Hen on Johns Island. It's Lowcountry meets French. Lots of good selections there.

        Hope this helps!
        - David - One Charleston College Student's Guide to Food and Film

        1. re: DavidHeiser

          Let's see: four entrees, only one that qualified as pretty good, and one bad app between the four of us, plus getting routinely panned here on Chowhound? Yeah, that's what we call "spotty at best".

          SNOB gets a resounding thumbs up from us. Easily our favorite place in Charleston, and plenty of interesting twists and turns to the menu.

          FIG is wildly inconsistent, and not worth the risk for the money. Half our food was amazing, the other half sorta bad.

          But Charleston Grill has a whole section of their menu devoted to local dishes, gussied up, of course, but the place is fabulous. Impeccable service and food.

          1. re: uptown jimmy

            winegeek/penny...i encourage you to take jimmy's comments with a grain of salt...i live here and have barely ever heard anyone having anything less than glowing to say about FIG...if I had to recommend one restaurant with an average entree price below $30 in Charleston it would be FIG...

            Hominy gets some flack because it gets lots of national attention and has started becoming more touristy...but the dude one best chef in the region for a reason...the vast majority of the time their food is very, very good

            - DH
   - One Charleston College Student's Guide to Food and Film

            1. re: DavidHeiser

              I live here too and rarely do I hear anything about FIG that is subpar. It is actually part of my job to find out where people have been (locals and tourists) and what they thought. I try to keep my ear to the ground....

        2. re: uptown jimmy

          UJ said: "Jestine's... I have not tried it. I ain't standing in line for an hour for cold biscuits and sub-par fried chicken."

          Huh? If you haven't been, how do you know what the food is like?

          1. re: carolinadawg

            Well, I guess I felt justified in avoiding the place because of all the negative posts here on Chowhound. What is Chowhound for, if not that sort of thing? Frankly, even without Chowhound, I would never wait in line on a sidewalk for fried chicken. Jestine's may not have started out as a tourist trap, and they may not want to be a tourist trap, but the tourists have made them a tourist trap. That much is obvious.

            As for David's poo-pooing of my opinion about FIG, as I stated, half our meal was fabulous, the other half truly bad. And I have heard the same sort of thing from dozens of people, including here on Chowhound. hey, enjoy what you enjoy. I just think the food and service at FIG are, well, spotty. There ain't no "A for effort" when you charge those kinds of prices. They do seem devoted to food in an admirable way, but when you decide to specialize in the freshest and most refined ingredients, you really gotta prepare them properly, otherwise the whole thing sinks into an expensive, disappointing mess.

            That's the thing about Charleston: lots and lots of competition. It is weird, though, that there doesn't seem to be a restaurant specializing in traditional Low Country food. Or maybe I'm missing something...

            1. re: uptown jimmy

              Virginia's on King seem to be trying to fill that gap -- it is essentially a higher end version of Jestine's. My wife had lunch there last week and said it was better than expected, as we had heard some mediocre reports. It is a little pricey for what it offers, but not crazily so.

              In defense of Jestine's, we enjoy it when we go -- which is when there are not lines. They have great fried whiting, fried chicken (so says our children, who are the best judges of fried chicken i know) and amazing "Co-cola" Cake. The cucumbers in vinegar that come on the table are excellent. There is a reason tourists go there, and it is not because Jestine's advertises like crazy as Hyman's does. They go because they get good traditional, basic low country at reasonable prices. Just because tourists go there doesn't make it bad. The trick is to go when no one else is!

        3. re: flmx

          Hey flmx, we stopped calling it the "slave market" over 100 years ago. JSYK...

          1. re: penny35

            Plus, it was actually the "Slave's Market" -- where slaves brought things to sell. It was not where slaves were sold -- that was elsewhere.

            SNOB's, Aluette's for local ingredients/low country. Tons of other places for just great food.

        4. Hi uptown jimmy (it wouldn't let me respond directly to your post)-It sounds like you know a fair amount about the area. I'm going to be down there next week (Seabrook). You said "Many of the best places in Charleston do not specialize in "local cuisine"" so who does? Where is a good place for an out-of-towner to go to for "local cuisine"? Which, I guess brings up the question, what exactly IS "local cuisine" in the area? Thanks!

          3 Replies
          1. re: CookingGirl

            No, no, no. I'm no expert. Just a frequent visitor, and someone who has perused the Chowhound posts many times. There are probably locals who could recommend really good places for "Low Country" food, but they might be reluctant to do so at this point because the classic spots for that sort of thing seem to have become swamped with tourists, and have long since become decidedly mediocre.

            I'll post more tomorrow. Charleston is a fascinating restaurant scene, but one that has, to a very real extent, left it's roots behind. I think you'd get better representations, by far, of traditional Low Country cuisine in someone's house than in a restaurant, at this point in history. But some of the finer restaurants pride themselves on serving gussied-up versions of the stuff, so if you want to pay a little extra, you can dine sorta traditionally and EXTREMELY well in that lovely town.

            But one cannot escape the fact that some of the best spots in town are Italian, or Thai, that sort of thing. It's become a very cosmopolitan food scene. But locals maybe can steer you right....

            But I'll weigh in more when I have time. Gotta run on down to Atlanta on bidness, already behind schedule.

            1. re: uptown jimmy

              I think it's funny that jimmy would look poorly upon the lack of traditional "lowcountry" cuisine in charleston. The reason that you have a hard time finding the more traditional fare done in a traditional manner is because the Charleston food scene has moved beyond simply copying what has been done for many years to actually innovating. The asian, french, and italian influences in particular combined with local ingredients have created a cuisine that is unique to charleston and much more valuable, I think, than just copying some old shrimp and grits recipe.
              That being said, you can still find plenty of good traditional food served up for good prices if you actually know what you are doing ("a frequent visitor"...come on). Seewee restaurant out on 17 going towards Awendaw is a fantastic option. Boulevard Diner has already been mentioned (lord knows I've mentioned it before) and I would strongly second that recommendation. I've said it before and I'll say it again, Poogan's Porch is a good bargain for eating downtown although I've had better luck with their brunch than with dinner. The Wreck is good but reminds me more of Calabash than lowcountry...nothing wrong with that though.
              I think jimmy's comments also bring up a good point on how to use this resource. Anybody can go out to eat one night when they aren't in a good mood or they happen to catch one server on one bad night and then come back and write a general review about a restaurant being "spotty" or on a downhill slide. If you are really trying to research the best places to eat the old posts on here are of much more value than what one guy writes about one meal. Take a look at the what has been said about a rest. over time to make your decisions. If you don't like a place after one meal by all means let us know, but I wouldn't choose to avoid it just because of one bad review.

            2. re: CookingGirl

              Local cuisine is low country. Shellfish, oysters, seafood, corn, hominy,rice, grits, and definitely pork. There are also influences from the West Indies and Africa (okra, field peas, tomatoes) and obviously southern (greens, pork, gravy, and fried anything!). Put it all together and you can forget all your woes for a while mmmmmm. There are plenty places in Charleston where you can find this. Magnolia's, Carolina's, Hominy, Glass Onion, The Wreck, Blvd. Diner, Jestine's. And like someone else said, you find these influences in many restaurants like FIG, Cypress, SNOB, High Cotton, Cru Cafe, Charleston Grill, and plenty of others. Happy eating!

            3. Thanks to all for your input. I dined at SNOB last night and it was very good.
              I think im going to try Fig tonight. I'm a risk taker!

              1 Reply
              1. re: winegeek40

                make sure you order some of the vegetable side dishes at FIG. They are the best part, IMO.