which refers to its location, Slightly North of
Broad (Street), serves Low Country cuisine in
S.C. — I’m sitting at the bar at FIG restaurant in
Charleston, talking with the strangers on either side of
me about what we’re doing tonight at the Spoleto
Festival — I’m going to see "A Midsummer Night’s
Dream" performed with puppets, the couple on my left
is seeing a program of bawdy songs, the folks on my right
are going to an unspecified concert — when my soup
menu describes the soup as spring onion soubise with
pistou and a crouton. I don’t know what soubise is, but
the bartender, who knows more about food than a roomful of
bartenders anywhere else, has already cautioned me it’s
nothing like traditional French onion soup.
taste a spoonful and close my eyes. It’s amazing. It’s
creamy but light, the flavor of early green onions is
slightly sweet but intense, and there’s a narrow ribbon
of pesto stirred in. It may be the best soup I’ve ever
woman at the bar orders the soup, then says to me that she
did so "because of the look on your face when you
took your first taste of it."
convinced that tonight, I have the best seat in town for
eating. I couldn’t get reservations for FIG (Food is
Good), but friends said the trick is to arrive right when
the restaurant opens and ask for a seat at the bar, which
I did. So, apparently, did my new friends. No one is here
just for a beer or a martini; they all have plates of food
in front of them and are getting wine-pairing advice from
is small — population about 125,000 — but it’s one
of America’s great cities for travelers. Readers of
Conde Nast Traveler have voted it the No. 1 city in the
country three years in a row, and Travel + Leisure named
it the best U.S. city for tourists last year.
its restaurants and chefs are regularly honored: In the
last five years, for example, two of its chefs have
received James Beard Best Chef Southeast awards, and Bon
Appetit named Husk best new U.S. restaurant in 2011.
sits at the confluence of two rivers, the Ashley and the
Cooper. The rivers and the city harbor have played a
crucial role since Charleston was settled as a colony,
making it a center of the slave trade, its rich soil
farmed, its waters yielding a treasure of seafood. Here,
you can tour old warships and a modern aquarium or visit
Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were
Charleston still puts history on stage as well. Some of
Church Street’s congregations date to the late 1600s,
its oldest church buildings to the early 1700s. The old
slave market is now a museum that tells the story of
Charleston’s role in the slave trade. The City Market,
which dates to the early 1800s, sells local food products
and sweetgrass baskets woven on the spot, as well as all
manner of jewelry, clothing and crafts.
for me and for many others, the food is the draw.
visited Charleston four times in two years, sampling the
cuisine any way I could. I went to a food festival, went
on three walking tours related to food and drink, took a
cooking class and ate at restaurants recommended for their
emphasis on local ingredients, techniques and cuisine. It’s
a moving target, though, and my Charleston wish list is
never quite completed.
a fistful of tickets in my hand, I survey my choices:
pulled pork sliders; ricotta gnocchi with sweet corn and
country ham; fish tacos; jambalaya; truffled mac and
cheese; salmon tartare with smoked trout mousse and
grilled crostini; shrimp and grits; pimento cheese in
various forms. And I haven’t even gotten to the dessert
offerings. This is my idea of heaven: A Taste of
Charleston fall festival, with local restaurants selling
samples of their dishes, most of them $2-$6 for a small
Taste of Charleston is held every fall (Sept. 26-28 this
year) at Boone Hall Plantation, a culinary landmark in its
own right. The plantation, which has been in existence
more than 250 years, is still a working farm in the suburb
of Mt. Pleasant. We park on the far reaches of the
property, where the tomato and squash plants are still
producing in late September, and walk in, past the
historic slave quarters, the Gullah Theater, the alley of
arcing oak trees that are more than 200 years old.
after booth offer small servings of two or three dishes.
Plus there is a beer garden and wine from the Biltmore
Estate in Asheville, N.C. So much temptation! Far more
dishes appeal to me than I could possibly eat.
buy a tiny cup of she-crab soup and a serving of grits
sticks — cooked grits mixed with that old Southern
favorite, pimento cheese, shaped into sticks, deep-fried
and served with a sweet-hot sauce. Then I find a place to
sit on the lawn and listen to the live music.
my next round I sample fried pimento-cheese ravioli and an
excellent bruschetta with spicy grilled shrimp. The
ravioli was then topped with peach-bacon marmalade. The
dish is savory-sweet and almost could pass for dessert.
buy one more taste, a pumpkin cobbler dessert, and waddle
to my car.
tour starts in a public square in Charleston, tagging
along after a fellow dressed in pirate get-up. At our
first stop, a pub in a historic building, we order brews
— I have a White Thai, a local Belgian-inspired beer
made with lemongrass and ginger root. We drink out back in
the courtyard, in the ruins of an old bank vault, as the
pirate tells us about the history of the Blind Tiger Pub
and the state Prohibition-type laws that gave the pub its
on a walking tour of Charleston’s historic pubs. In one
of North America’s oldest cities — and a port city at
that — even the taverns have colonial-era histories.
our next stop, we hear a tale about a pirate, Anne Bonny,
who set sail from Charlestown disguised as a man, and at
the next, about the man who hanged himself on the third
floor of the building. Then we go up to the third-floor
bar. Whaddya mean, his ghost never left the building? Did
that chair just move on its own?
pirate-guide, Mike Coker, knows his local history — he
has written a couple books on Charleston — and is quite
you’ve been in training, four hearty beers plus pub food
is plenty to consume in 3 1/2 hours. Don’t kid yourself
that you can walk it all off that night. But the tales are
did two other food tours on different trips to Charleston,
including a tour of restaurant kitchens, where we talked
to chefs about what went on behind the scenes. Our tour
guide, Hoon Calhoun, a Charleston native and serious
foodie, he wove it all into a tapestry for us.
stops (and later in a phone interview) he talked about the
Charleston style of entertaining that goes back to wealthy
English settlers in colonial times, the lavish spreads
made with local ingredients, the talented slave-cooks who
sometimes spent time on other plantations so they could
learn new specialties, the rice-growing plantations that
thrived under slavery and turned riverfront landowners
into wealthy men, the grinding of corn into grits, how the
slow roasting of pork — the staple meat of settlers —
evolved into modern barbecue (and pulled pork sandwiches).
later, today’s interest in fresh, local produce, meat
and seafood takes us back to traditions of the colonial
table, he says. My own experiences here tell me that
Charleston celebrates its culinary history on the scale of
larger cities like San Francisco or New Orleans.
also take a class at Charleston Cooks!, a kitchen store.
We watch two people cook blackened fish; "pirlau,"
a creamy pilaf-like dish made with Carolina Gold rice and
local squash; and apple cobbler, as one of them explains
Low Country cuisine and the contributions of various
the heart of my research is eating. I look for restaurants
that are distinctively Charlestonian / Low Country or at
least Southern. No chains, no Italian or Mexican or Thai
restaurants, no steakhouses or burger joints.
meals are a mix of my favorites of the classics — oyster
po’boys, she-crab soup, shrimp and grits — and
of-the-moment takes on Low Country cooking.
night I eat seared scallops with grapefruit and avocado at
Anson’s (currently closed after a fire did extensive
damage), and thought it was the best scallop dish I’d
ever had, until the next night at McCrady’s when it was
surpassed by grilled clams and scallops on grilled
cucumber sprinkled with basil seeds plumped up in cucumber
juice, baby herbs on top, with popcorn miso on the side.
has a rooftop herb garden, and on both occasions that I
eat there, I think the chef has gone overboard with the
herbs. I brush off some of the green when the food feels a
bit weedy. McCrady’s has the most inventive kitchen of
any of the places I eat, but the wine list may be what I
like best: about 35 wines by the glass AND half-glass
(3-ounce pours) so I can choose a different wine for each
of the four courses without over-imbibing.
like McCradys, is a Sean Brock restaurant, and has neither
salt nor pepper on the table. The food, you are given to
understand, is already perfectly seasoned.
lunch at Husk, I eat feather-light yeast rolls with sesame
seeds and sea salt smoked in bourbon barrels, spread with
butter mixed with honey and rendered pork, while I’m
waiting for my catfish BLT. The sandwich comes with a
small green salad, and the waiter mentions that the Bibb
lettuce and tomato came from a farm on nearby Johns Island
just that morning.
have no reservations when I stop at S.N.O.B. (Slightly
North of Broad) another day for a late lunch and get the
only seat available — at the bar. I eat shrimp and grits
made spicy by andouille sausage. My seatmates are friendly
and slightly rowdy, and lunch has the feel of an impromptu
party even before someone buys me a shot of tequila. I’m
starting to like this eat-at-the-bar business.
much to savor! But the high point was dinner at the bar at
FIG, with a main course of grouper poached in olive oil
and served over finely julienned squash and bell peppers
with pesto, a nice selection of wines by the glass, and
the camaraderie of people with the same passion for good
food and drink.
time for "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" is
approaching, so I climb off my stool, say farewell to my
seatmates and the savvy bartender, and walk to the
theater. It’s my last night in town, and already I’ve
heard about another must-do restaurant. It will go to the
top of my to-do list for my next culinary adventure in
THERE: American Airlines flies nonstop from Miami to
Charleston in an hour and 40 minutes. There are no
nonstops from Fort Lauderdale, but US Airways and Delta
will get you there from either city in less than four
hours with a connecting flight. Roundtrip airfare starts
at $470 for a nonstop flight from Miami, $382 for a
connecting flight, $460 from Fort Lauderdale.
in Charleston’s historic district are typically pricey.
I’ve had good luck using Priceline or Hotwire and
expanding my search to hotels near the airport (North
Charleston). I’ve ended up at the Radisson and the
InnPlace (a former Sheraton) at prices considerably below
Charleston Place Hotel: 205 Meeting St.; 843-722-4900;
charlestonplace.com. An elegant hotel with rooftop pool,
health club and concierge floor, located in the heart of
the historic district, a short walk from City Market.
Rooms from $297.
Harbor Resort & Marina: 20 Patriots Point Rd.;
Just across the Arthur Ravenel Bridge in Mt. Pleasant, the
hotel offers 125 rooms, a free trolley to downtown
Charles, pool, activities for kids. Rooms from $229.
(Food is Good): 232 Meeting St.; 843-805-5900;
eatatfig.com. Contemporary cuisine with Southern roots,
made with seasonal ingredients from the Low Country. Chef
Mike Lata is a James Beard Best Chef Southeast winner.
Dinner only. Entrees $28-$40.
Cuisine: 1717 U.S. 17, Mt. Pleasant; 843-881-9076;
gullahcuisine.net. The cuisine of African-Americans, many
of them descendants of slaves, living in isolated pockets
of coastal Georgia and South Carolina. The menu includes
such traditional dishes as sweet potato fritters, fried
alligator, okra gumbo, fried chicken and smothered pork
chops. Lunch-dinner; entrees $12.95-$22.95.
Grill: 207 Rutledge Ave.; 843-937-0930; hominygrill.com.
Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Charleston classics including
she-crab soup, shrimp and grits, Country Captain chicken,
fried catfish po’boy. Entrees $6-$19.
76 Queen St.; 843-577-2500; HuskRestaurant.com. Southern
cooking, updated, with strictly local ingredients, an
artisanal mindset and a menu that changes daily. Bon
Appetit named it best new U.S. restaurant in 2011. Another
Sean Brock restaurant (see McCrady’s, below), Husk is
more casual and focused on bringing back heirloom
ingredients. Lunch and dinner; entrees $27-$30.
Kitchen: 251 Meeting St.; 843-722-7224;
jestineskitchen.com. Lunch-dinner; traditional Southern
food including oyster po’boys, meatloaf, fried chicken
and fried pork chops and sides including collard greens,
fried okra. Sandwiches and baskets $5.95-$9.95, plates
(meat + 2 sides) $9.95-$15.95.
185 E. Bay St.; 843-577-7771; magnolias-blossom-cypress.com.
At age 24, one of the doyennes of Charleston’s
restaurants. Upscale Southern cooking that’s been
lightly updated (ahi tuna with a sweet chili rub,
pan-roasted duck breast with feta cheese and smoked bacon
dressing) but is still close to its roots (pimento cheese,
fried green tomatoes with cheese grits and tomato chutney,
buttermilk fried chicken). Lunch and dinner plus Sunday
brunch; entrees $19-$32.
2 Unity Alley; 843-577-0025; mccradysrestaurant.com.
Inventive Southern cuisine, creative use of unusual
produce, animal parts and fresh herbs from the rooftop
garden by owner and chef Sean Brock (2010 James Beard Best
Chef Southeast). Dinner only; four-course dinner $65,
nine-course dinner $110.
(Slightly North of Broad): 192 E. Bay St.; 843-723-3424;
Upscale Low Country cuisine that still has the classics in
sight, from shrimp and grits to pan-seared duck breast.
Local ingredients and a love of produce. Entrees $18-$34.
of Charleston: Sept. 26-28 at Boone Hall Plantation in Mt.
Culinary Tours: 843-259-2966,