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Sep 21, 2013 07:30 PM

Charleston for 5 days in October - help refine our selections

We will be in Charleston for a conference for 5 days in mid-October. We will be forced to eat at the conference for some of the time, but should have at least 3 dinners, 3 lunches, and possibly a breakfast or two available.

We are primarily interested in trying dishes that are signatures of Charleston and the Lowcountry environs. We will eat at hole-in-the-walls and will drive a good distance for must-have specialties. We have the budget to also eat at upscale places, but would do so only if they focus on these kinds of dishes/flavours (as opposed to great restaurants that don't necessarily reflect the local cuisine). We do not care about a balanced diet and will eat only one ingredient for a meal if it is worth the experience.

After reading through various threads here, thumbing through some other books and websites, we have come up with the following ideas. Please help us edit this list as we have too many options to try.

Bowens Island Restaurant - for the oysters, possibly the hushpuppies
Charleston's Cafe - Island potato casserole
Dave’s Carry-Out - fried shrimp and other fried seafood
Fishnet Seafood - Jesus crab, fried fish
Gullah Cuisine - gullah rice, fish-head stew
Hominy Grill - for the shrimp and grits, the purloo, Country Captain
H&R Sweet Shop - lima beans
Page's Okra Grill - fried flounder, pimiento cheese
Seewee - fried seafood
The Wreck - she-crab soup, fried seafood

Second tier on our list include Bertha's Kitchen, Diana's, Ernie's, for various simple dishes. Let us know if any of these should be promoted up the list.

Hyman's appears to be not strongly favoured, but we heard that the crispy flounder is good there. Yes/no?

We hadn't really looked at BBQ in Charleston as we were hoping to hit Duke's in Orangeburg as we will be in other parts of SC for a few days before Charleston. However, if there is a must-have place in Charleston, we will consider it.

If we do one upscale meal in Charleston, FIG appears to fit our interests and also seems well regarded. Husk, McGrady's seem more focused on local ingredients, but not indigenous flavours/dishes exactly. Other sites also mentioned 82 Queen, Anson, and Magnolia's, but we haven't seen as much praise for these on Chowhound. Any opinions?

Thanks in advance for further advice and suggestions.

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  1. Wow, you really have done your homework. I am duly impressed. I love that you have Fishnet and their Jesus crabs on your list.

    JB's Smokeshack would be a nice addition to your list for some good barbecue. Whether you get the pork, brisket, ribs or chicken, you won't be disappointed. Being in the Carolinas though, get some pork. Mustard cue sauce is SC style, Vinegar-based is Eastern NC style and tomato-based is Lexington NC style.

    The folks there are as nice as the day is long and it's a cute, tiny lil place. It's about a 20-30 min drive from Charleston but well worth it and it's a lovely drive (Kiawah & Seabrook Island are out this way). Be sure and check their hours because they are only open part of the week.

    I would hit up Anson Restaurant for one of the best representations of shrimp and grits in the area. Hominy Grill's s&g are pretty good too... and people swoon over HG's tomato pudding.

    If you're looking for something sweet, find yourself some buttermilk pie. I love Husk's pie but Hominy Grill also has it although I've never had there's.

    2 Replies
    1. re: lynnlato

      JB's was not good in our opinion.

      And while your take on sauce styles is somewhat correct, it does offer an opportunity for further information.

      Mustard is certainly South Carolina. Vinegar is classic Eastern NC, but also traditionally crosses the border with SC and compromises a good portion of the NE corner of the state. The tomato based based sauce you refer to is actually a vinegar based sauce that uses a bit of ketchup to turn it red (with a few other recipe tweaks). This sauce tule also crosses the border from NC into SC.

      Many folk attribute SC barbecue solely with the unique mustard sauce, but the other styles offer some of the best representations in the state.

      Personally, I would not be traveling to Charleston for barbecue.

      1. re: JayL

        I was speaking generally to someone traveling here from out of the country (Toronto).

        Wood-smoked cue is a part of the Carolinas and plenty of folks enjoy JB's. SuefromMtP turned me onto them a couple of years ago. We've been a few times and always thought there was adequate smoke, moist meat and great service and the place is a charming representation of a small, family-owned restaurant in the Carolinas. It's certainly not the best (gotta head north to NC for that, in my humble opinion) but it's undoubtedly memorable.

    2. As Lynn said, you've done some impressive research . . . and discovered the Charleston food scene's dirty little secret - very few of the upscale restaurants feature cuisine that is distinctly Lowcountry (with the exception of the ubiquitous shrimp & grits or she-crab soup). For the most part, what you get is modern American cuisine with a Southern/Lowcountry emphasis or twist. It's deserving of praise and represents the best in the genre I believe, but it's a stretch to call it authentic in the true sense of the word. It's a shame considering how many great cook books document the long history of our local foodways. I wish more Charleston chefs would take the time to research them.

      Hominy Grill (which inhabits the mostly empty category of mid-range downtown restaurants) represents an exception in my book as the chef (interestingly a fellow North Carolinian) makes an effort to explore some of the "hidden" classics like Country Captain, catfish with Geechee peanut sauce, shad roe with grits, etc.. Currently, they've replaced their purloo with a shrimp bog (still a type of purloo) on the regular menu. It's fantastic. They've also been featuring a Charleston shrimp curry (yes, a traditional dish) as a semi-regular special. It's pretty good, too.

      Anson's is a good upscale place and has more traditional dishes than most. It doesn't get much press or buzz, but it's a solid choice and has great service (or did last time I was there).

      Husk is worth a visit just for the hyper-local food sourcing in my opinion. I appreciate the challenge of what they do, and the food has been consistently good across the eight or so times I've eaten there.

      FIG is not really remotely Southern in its cuisine in my opinion, but it's good nonetheless and regardless of the fact that they've hiked their prices by nearly 50% over the last decade. It's hard for me to swallow paying over $30 for a dish that used to be in the low twenties.

      You definitely have a lot of fried seafood options on your list. I would pick Seewee over The Wreck. The she-crab soup is much better at the former for one thing. SeeWee also has a much larger selection plus some good desserts (think caramel cake).

      If you go to Fishnet, try the fried hard shell crab just for the experience. Dave's is probably a lot more convenient but won't offer you as many choices.

      Skip Hyman's. I's say skip Page's, too. Gullah Cuisine is a good choice as it has a larger menu than most Charleston "soul food" restaurants. The fish head soup is quite good (and not as scary as it might sound). They also do a good version of Charleston-style lima beans (cooked down to a thick gravy consistency), so if you go there, you can probably skip H&R. However, be prepared for spotty service at Gullah Cuisine. It's what limits me from going there more than once every couple of years. Last time I went, the waiter brought out my entree, then noticed it wasn't what I ordered. He cheerfully clarified that the dish I ordered wasn't available that day anyway and left me with my substitute. I didn't even bother to complain because I know what I'm in for when I go there, and this was a better example of their service. At least the guy was cheerful.

      I would put Martha Lou's on your list as a possibility. Very good fried chicken, lima beans, and okra & tomato soup. And the experience is incredibly homey and cozy. Be prepared to wait for your (large) chicken to be fried to order.

      I'm with Jay in saying Charleston isn't much of a BBQ destination. You might consider Momma Brown's less for the 'cue and more for the fact that they serve three of the state's iconic rice dishes: purloo, red rice, and hash & rice. If you are anywhere near Manning, SC I'd recommend McCabe's BBQ. Some of the best in the state IMO (I think Jay agrees, too). If you're in Columbia, I'd recommend John D. Hite's but only for the rib cut (it's an "off-menu" item and amazing).

      Hope this helps!

      24 Replies
      1. re: Low Country Jon

        Yep...McCabe's is one of our favorites. We also swing by Hite's when in West Columbia and hungry.

        1. re: Low Country Jon

          Re: FIG—you don't think that food and labor costs have risen too? Seems like an odd complaint.

          Anyway, FIG was by far our favorite meal of our recent visit (and coming from New York, I found it an excellent value). I quite loved the seafood stew and grits, the tomato tarte tatin, and the okra. I thought it was plenty Southern.

          Also, from your list: we enjoyed and would recommend Husk, McGrady's, Bertha's Kitchen, Hominy Grill (for breakfast), and Bowen's Island.

          1. re: loratliff

            How is it odd to note that a restaurant priced itself out of the midrange market and squarely into the high end market for Charleston in just a few years? The costs you mention haven't risen by 50%, and while there has been a general uptick in prices at Charleston restaurants, I think it has more to do with charging what the market will bear (because of the great popularity of the town's food scene) and not so much inflation. Some restaurants, like Hominy Grill, have barely raised their prices over the same amount of time.

            Very few of FIG's dishes are specifically Southern. Using Southern ingredients is not quite the same thing. They do like to do "hat tips" to Southern dishes, but it's mostly through the lens of European cooking. For example, one could argue that the tomato tarte is a nod to tomato pie. Still not quite the same thing.

              1. re: Low Country Jon

                I do still disagree with you regarding food and labor costs, but my SO works for a Michelin-starred restaurant here in NY, so perhaps I view that a little differently, since my bread-and-butter depends on it.

                Anyway, if they are worthy of playing in the high-end market (which they very much are), then what is the issue? If they were charging for sub-par food, I could understand it, but they're not.

                Everything we had there was excellent, even better than McCrady's in some instances. I would recommend it over McCrady's and Husk for a fine dining meal.

                1. re: loratliff

                  We're also looking at the issue differently because I'm a local and you're from off. If you visit the restaurant once and the prices seem reasonable by NY standards, then you feel like you've gotten a decent return on investment. If I go to the restaurant on a regular basis over the years (as I have) and see the prices skyrocket while the food remains essentially the same, then I can't help but feel that my ROI has gone down significantly. As a local I also have an innate sense about when a restaurant is raising prices from necessity and when they are doing so just because they can. I suspect you have the same sense about NYC restaurants. It's no coincidence that FIG's prices really took off after the chef won his James Beard award and the restaurant started booking up weeks in advance.

                  Charleston is a bit of an anomaly in the food world. Because of its incredible tourist traffic, its restaurant scene punches far above its weight class. That's a plus for us locals since it gives us a restaurant selection we wouldn't otherwise have. On the down side, the tourist traffic also drives up the prices in downtown restaurants, both because tourists tend to be more willing to spend high dollars on meals while on vacation than at home and, as in your case, the prices might not seem that high compared to home depending on where that is.

                  Bottom line, the majority of us Charlestonians don't live south of Broad and have endless amounts of money to spend in restaurants, and we know when we're being gouged because a restaurant hit the popularity jackpot. Do restaurants have the right to do that? Absolutely. Do they risk alienating regular customers by doing so? Yes, indeed.

                  1. re: Low Country Jon

                    Well said. My last meal for one at The Ordinary was $77 which included tip. It was great but not $77 great. Plus I had to scream to be heard by my separate check friend because the noise level was intense. So I'm rethinking my restaurant strategy and finding that there are a lot of great restaurants for $20 per person in Charleston. And I am happier for it. I think prices in downtown are out of whack but what do I know? Nothing. The restaurants are filled to capacity.

                    1. re: Expat1234

                      Agreed, Expat. I don't dine downtown as much as I used to either, and I think I'm happier for it, too. So far I've stayed away from The Ordinary. I'll probably go there eventually once the buzz dies down, but I do get sticker shock when I look at the menu. $23 for a lobster roll? I assume there must be a ton of lobster on that roll, but at the end of the day it's still $23 for a sandwich.

                      One has to wonder if the downtown restaurant scene is experiencing a bubble that will eventually burst. I hope that's not the case, but it is hard to see how a small city can support so many high end restaurants even with all those tourist dollars. Can't help but think a market correction may eventually take place.

                      1. re: Expat1234

                        <I'm rethinking my restaurant strategy and finding that there are a lot of great restaurants for $20 per person in Charleston. >

                        As an out-of-towner visiting in May, I would love some of those suggestions, please.

                        1. re: ChristinaMason

                          That's tough in the historic district. Goat Sheep Cow (closes at 6:00, I think), Hominy Grill, Cru Cafe (will stretch the $20 limit). Out of the HD, Fat Hen and Pages Okra Grill.

                      2. re: Low Country Jon

                        I'm not arguing with you...I hate to see FIG get more expensive too, even though I'm a semi-tourist, only making the 3 hour drive to Charleston a couple of times a year. Even more , I hate to see FIG become difficult to reserve.

                        But, still, don't forget how grateful you should be that it, and so many other Charleston restaurants, are so good. Here I present an example of a Greenville SC menu.

                        Note the cost of just about every entree is over $30. I'm not picking on's one of Greenville's better restaurants, but I can assure you that the quality is no where near...not even the quality of FIG.

                        (I think this is why the glimmers of hope in the food world in G'ville are happening at the opposite end of the market...convenience stores and food trucks)

                        1. re: danna

                          I'm kind of surprised to see those prices on a Greenville menu. I agree with you that we have an embarrassment of riches in Charleston. Unfortunately, they're by and and large clustered around the high end (at least downtown) with very little in the mid-range. So it's been especially vexing to have a restaurant like FIG move from the mid to the high. With some exceptions - like Hominy Grill, CO and XBB - it's begun to feel a little like there is no mid-range downtown anymore. A few brave souls like Butcher & Bee are actually staking out territory at the lower end - bless 'em for that!

                          I also used to associate the high end of the scene with a certain level of ambiance and high touch service that FIG doesn't really provide (where's my amuse bouche?). FIG is more casual - which I like actually, but I don't especially like paying big bucks for the experience. The food is still very good though, or was last time I was there.

                          The food trucks in Charleston have been a blessing, too. I feel like they've re-energized the scene and provided some much needed balance on the price scale.

                          1. re: Low Country Jon

                            I can SO relate to your "where's my amuse?" comment. We went here:
                            a couple of years ago. Shockingly high prices, I made the assumption that I would be covered up w/ amuse and hor's d. and intermezzo and petit fours, etc. NO. Just the plate, man. Beautiful food, but you order an app an entree and soon you and your $300 are done and gone.

                            1. re: danna

                              Yeah, danna, at those prices I'd expect the whole nine yards, too. Is that whole concept going by the wayside, I wonder?

                              Their prices are stratospheric, but I always found that Charleston Grill did a good job providing the royal treatment, especially if you told them it was a special occasion (and they always asked). You'd get an amuse, possibly an intermezzo, complimentary glass of champagne, and a plate of truffles with your name piped in chocolate. It's been a few years since we've been back, so I hope they still do all that. It set the bar in Charleston IMO.

                            2. re: Low Country Jon

                              This is funny and tangentially related, but the one thing that me and my SO were disappointed by in Charleston: we felt that both FIG and McCrady's had this "forced formality" to them that didn't match the food or Charleston in general. Both rooms were boring with average art and little personality.

                              My final theory was that people in Charleston would be uncomfortable paying prices like that for food served in a casual atmosphere, which is what New York thrives on (Spotted Pig is one great example, or say, Roberta's, in a cinder-block warehouse in Brooklyn).

                              Your remarks about no amuse lead me to believe this theory is true, as I don't mind paying "big bucks" for great food served in a casual environment.

                              1. re: loratliff

                                I think your theory is probably right. My husband complains about the formal feel to McCrady's and just complains about FIG in general. It's probably the biggest disagreement over restaurants we ever have. (he usually goes there when his parents visit and I think it taints things for him.) Lots of people on Chowhound have complained over the years about the design of the space at FIG. I never really notice, but unlike my husband, most of my visits there are with 7-8 of my girlfriends, so we are the loud table that ruins the formality for others ;-)

                                Anyhow, I think people have to have done a lot of formal, frou frou dining before they start to get fatigued and appreciate the whole pricey cinder-block concept (see also the Admiral in A'ville NC).

                                1. re: danna

                                  Good to know. We were actually surprised walking into McCrady's, not because we dislike formal dining, but knowing Chef Brock, it just seemed like an odd fit. Husk was much more to our liking, but still spartan.

                                  FIG, on the other hand, has that beautiful, rustic front bar that is then ruined by a room that looks like it could be in any city in the U.S. (and that's not a compliment). We didn't make it to The Ordinary, but it seems like it maybe has more character?

                                  1. re: loratliff

                                    Sean Brock has had a kind of bifurcated career. Early on at McCrady's he was doing some serious molecular gastronomy, complete with "stunt" desserts involving dropping things like strawberries into liquid nitrogen. There was a weird but not unpleasant dissonance experiencing that kind of food in Charleston's most historic restaurant.

                                    As for the space at McCrady's, it depends on where your table is. I think the main area with the original brickwork is beautiful as is the bar area. The back room is plainer as is the side room. The Long Room upstairs, where George Washington ate, is quite beautiful but rarely available for public dining. (To be clear, McCrady's itself hasn't been open continuously since Washington's time, but the building has been a restaurant/tavern at various points in its history.)

                                    1. re: Low Country Jon

                                      We sat in the main room with the brickwork. I don't know, still awful plain to me. Our server did take us upstairs afterward to show us the Long Room, which was lovely. (We also got to see their test kitchen too—lots of cool stuff going on in there.)

                              2. re: Low Country Jon

                                I've just started checking out the Food Trucks. Love the Cast Iron Food Truck. Good food and stylish. While we stand in line, people oh and aw at his presentation of dishes. I like his fried shrimp and he uses local shrimp when available. I tweet to see I'd he is using local on the days I seek him out. His lamb chops with grits are a wow factor. This guy loves what he does.

                    2. re: Low Country Jon

                      Jon am in Charleston now. Reading some nasty comments about Seewee over at Roadfoad, really schizo. Have you eaten there recently? So far you are spot on to the T. Martha Lou's is the best fried chicken I've had since I was a kid.

                      1. re: LuigiPrima

                        I last visited about a month ago. It was still good in my opinion. It's not mind-blowing, but I don't typically find fried seafood mind-blowing. I like the option of getting the seafood grilled and finished with their Seewee sauce - garlic, lemon, sherry, and Old Bay. It especially works well with the local shrimp.

                        I also like that the place is what I call a sea-and-three, so you have many more options for sides than your typical seafood joint. Also, the cake (especially the caramel cake) is worth the trip alone.

                        The service is friendly but can be a bit inattentive.

                        1. re: Low Country Jon

                          Thanks much Jon. Ate at Dave's Carryout for lunch yesterday, great flounder and seafood platter, cooked to perfection. Glass Onion for fried chicken Tuesdays, which I definitely recommend to anyone who comes down here (you need to reserve 24 hours in advance). I ate at Martha Lou's the day before and had some excellent fried chicken, but the Glass Onion was the best I've had since a Georgia friend pan fried it specially for me 20 years ago.
                          Can anyone recommend a local cardiologist ;)

                          1. re: LuigiPrima

                            The GO chicken is only sold on Tuesdays...that's a pretty important part of the equation. The 24 hour policy is the minimum (order at least by Monday). They take reservations for the chicken up to a week in advance.

                    3. You are getting great advice, especially from Jon.

                      I think crispy flounder is a must try dish.Anson does a good one, so does Sullivan's.

                      Dave's also has outstanding lima beans.

                      The jesus crabs at fishnet now are from a box, but everything else is great.

                      Speaking of traditional low country food,who hear remembers Henry's? How I wish I had a time machine! I started a Henry's thread once and was politely told to only discuss places that still exist!

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: mollybelle

                        My Henry's Menu from early 1980's in my breakfast room.

                        1. re: Expat1234

                          This is great. I was thinking as I ready mollybelle's post that I wish I could see an old Henry's menu since I've heard so much about it. A couple of places around town still do an a la Wando seafood preparation, most notably Hank's. (If I'm not mistaken the name Hank's is an homage to Henry's.)

                      2. Thanks for all the detailed replies.

                        It sounds like there is a bit of a split on the BBQ issue. We intend to have BBQ before we hit Charleston. McCabe's is further off our track than Duke's in Orangeburg. Which would be more representative?

                        We've added tomato pudding and buttermilk pie to our list of eats. We had never heard of Geechee peanut sauce, so we will be on the lookout for it. We would also have ignored Charleston shrimp curry (erroneously assuming it was a dish from "away").

                        Anson's got a few votes, so perhaps we can try their grits, she-crab soup, and crispy flounder. I looked at Husk's menu, and while it looks yummy, it still seems to be further away from SC-based dishes (in my very limited opinion). Correct me if I am misguided.

                        If we can skip Hyman's, Page's, and The Wreck, that helps simplify things (but not if we have to add Martha Lou's).

                        If the Jesus crabs are "from a box", does that mean they are no good anymore?

                        10 Replies
                        1. re: Dr. John

                          I haven't been to Duke's but I believe they fall into the sweet mustard sauce/pork shoulder camp. McCabe's specializes in whole hog with vinegar-pepper sauce. You could start many arguments about which is more representative of the Lowcountry (and first you would have to agree on a definition of the Lowcountry), but whole hog with V&P sauce certainly has an older lineage. It's pretty much recognized as the earliest form of BBQ still widely cooked today in the US.

                          Not to muddy the waters too much, but Hank's offers Charleston shrimp curry as a regular menu item and I would probably give it the nod over HG's version. Like Country Captain, this dish probably has its roots in colonial sea trade and specifically influences imported from India. See also Charlestonians' traditional fondness for chutneys, Indian pickles, and hobotee (though the last probably came from Indonesia by way of Africa).

                          Yes, Husk is more pan-southern although there are often Lowcountry inspired items on the menu. Depends on the day really.

                          1. re: Low Country Jon

                            Thanks for the further info on the different BBQ styles. So much to learn/eat, so little time. McCabe's it might to be. We will also be in Columbia and will look up John D. Hite's.

                            1. re: Dr. John

                              Hite' Friday and Saturday only for take out..definitely go for the "rib cut" and when ordering specify "no loin meat, please" .. the slaw is good too. I would suggest you call ahead and reserve the rib cut as they have a limited supply and can sell out quickly. They'll give you some mustard sauce on the side..I'd skip using it.

                              Their location is very convenient to I-26.


                              1. re: Cpt Wafer

                                Conveniently we are in Columbia on a Saturday. We will ask for the rib cut. How is the hash?

                                1. re: Dr. John

                                  Ahh, you're in luck then. Oddly enough I've never tasted their hash. Hash is one of those things that can be hit or miss...too much liver will kill it for me for example. The old saying about hash is it's got everything in it but the squeal. The best hash I ever had was at D&H in Manning..but that was some time in the previous century. I only go to McCabe's now when I'm over that way. Maurice's, the original location on Charleston Highway fairly close to Hite's has some passable hash but many people shy away from doing business there due to his extremely reactionary politics..enter there at your own risk. And I only mention the place since the subject of hash came up...otherwise it's a total skip. Maybe you'll try some Hite's hash and let us know. :)

                                  And seriously, if you plan to have some rib cut call early and reserve some.

                                  1. re: Cpt Wafer

                                    I tried the hash and wasn't too impressed. It wasn't objectionable, just sort of nondescript. Cpt. Wafer, we should start a lexicon of ordering terms for Hite's. I've now seen recs to order the rib cut "flat meat only," "from the side," and "no loin." Do they basically mean the same thing or are they all different directions? I guess one could try ordering the rib cut flat meat only from the side with no loin and see what kind of funny looks one gets.

                                    1. re: Low Country Jon

                                      I think they must all mean the same thing. I do like your idea though!

                              2. re: Dr. John

                                Or you could come through Hemingway and get some of Rodney Scott's BBQ of my favorites...but what do I know I am just a certified South Carolina BBQ judge...

                                Hominey Grill:tomato pudding, big nasty, fried chicken, and buttermilk pie...although hubby would say the chocolate thing.
                                Sew wee :a dive but oh so yummy! Any dessert order before you eat or you might miss out like I did last week for the coconut cake! And the caramel was long gone :( I have never had a bad meal here...the she crab is a must! Oh and the collards!
                                In oct I would definitely do bowens...local oysters are a must to "get" the low country!
                                I am a Husk fan...Sean Brock is from the Appalachian mountains (like me) and I love how he marries the lowcountry with the mountains.

                                1. re: LaLa

                                  Agreed. Scott's is in the middle of nowhere but well worth the drive if one has the time.

                                  1. re: LaLa

                                    Hemingway..Scott's..that's exactly what I'd do.

                            2. Keep Bowens - good time of year for the oysters and you can hit Folly for a beer. Try Surf Bar.

                              Most certainly add Martha Lou's, I love the white meat fried chicken, but can't stop ordering that damn pork chop with butter beans & collards!

                              Fish Net is take-out. You can just drive over the bridge and make a left to eat at the Limehouse boat ramp.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: sunbums

                                Thanks for the further tips. We will clearly be gaining 15 lb. over our week in South Carolina.