You can’t visit Tokyo and not order sushi, or Paris without buying croissants. And you can’t—or shouldn’t—visit Charleston, South Carolina, without devouring lots of pristine seafood. The city is home to unparalleled bounty, and chefs are ultra-committed to making the most of it.
You’ll find it raw in three-tiered towers and deep-fried in shacks where you can spy on fishing boats nearby. You’ll find dishes that are proudly Southern and ones boosted by fragrant Sichuan sauce. And you’ll find that for all the city’s culinary delights—and, yes, there are many—none show off chefs’ chops better than seafood. So let’s dive in.
The seafood marvels at The Ordinary
The Greatest Raw Bars in Town
Over the past several years, Charleston has evolved into a top-notch raw-bar town, thanks in part to The Ordinary, a high-ceilinged spot in a former bank from chef Mike Lata. Don’t struggle making a dinner reservation; just arrive not long after five and park yourself at the swanky bar for snacks and drinks. The dramatic shellfish towers are as good as they come (modern accoutrements like lemon-thyme mignonette complement pristine raw clams) and pair well with the rum-based cocktails (try a daiquiri, any daiquiri). The room at 167 Raw—a Nantucket transplant with long lines—is not as grand but still plenty stylish. Order the day’s oyster specials—briny South Carolina Seaborn Selects, say, or creamy Massachusetts Mayflowers—and round them out with barely touched offerings like a bright, citrusy halibut ceviche. Unless you’re a masochist with a taste for two-hour waits, shoot for early afternoon and don’t even think about going with a group.
…And One Wine Bar all the Chefs Love
Here’s how a meal at Bar Normandy (one of BA’s 50 Best New Restaurants in America for 2017) starts: You walk into a place ID’d as Normandy Farm Artisan Bakery, see the stacks of sourdough, think you’re in the wrong place, and consider heading for the door. Don’t do it! Because if it’s after 3 p.m., you’re in chef Alex Lira’s pop-up restaurant, which opens within the bakery each afternoon. The industry hangout is fueled by Lira’s personal whims, with just three dishes plus oysters listed on the constantly changing pinboard menu—recent examples included stone crabs with favas and a bright seafood nage crowned with herbs. The wine list is legit hilarious (the Primitivo is described as “an overweight Italian farmer with really dirty hands who somehow is super alluring”), and the vibe’s always convivial, like you’ve stumbled into someone’s birthday party, and of course they’re happy to have you.
A soft shell crab sandwich at Henrietta’s
Get Your Shrimp-and-Grits Fix
Ask anyone in Charleston where to find the best shrimp and grits in town and they’ll all likely have a different answer. Though you can’t go wrong at Hominy Grill. The local institution makes its with toothsome Boonville grits beneath a mess of fat local shrimp, sautéed mushrooms, and crispy bacon. Oh, and while you’re waiting for your table, sip a Dark & Stormy made with Blenheim’s (a.k.a. the world’s greatest ginger ale) on the flower-lined patio—the perfect spot for people watching.
Quite the spread at Xiao Bao
When You Want Some Fish Sauce With Your Fish
You can eat only so much shrimp and grits before you need a break from classic Low-Country cooking. Enter Xiao Bao Biscuit, a restaurant in a former gas station that serves family-style dishes from all across Asia, through a local, seasonal lens. Honestly, the entire menu is worth ordering (if you go with a bunch of people, this is actually achievable), but don’t be so seduced by “pork candy” that you skip the steamed local fish. The Yu Xiang Yu—made with delicate black bass when I visited—comes with a spicy, vinegary, slightly sweet Sichuan-inspired sauce, plus a crazy dehydrated eggplant chip for added crunch.
The regular, non-shrimp, burger at Little Jack’s
A Non-Beef Burger We Can Get Behind
The beef burger has gotten lots of love at Little Jack’s Tavern(another Top 50 spot!), and the fans aren’t wrong. But the shrimp burger is the menu’s sleeper hit. It stars a patty of local and Gulf shrimp flecked with jalapeño and Old Bay, griddled on a plancha until its edges are crispy, then stuffed into a brioche bun with herby mayo and shredded iceberg. Cracked stone crab claws and a martini pair nicely with the dish…and with the Frank Sinatra portrait overlooking the clubhouse-y room.
A customer headed out from Dave’s
Kick It Old-School
For all of Charleston’s buzzy new spots, there are plenty of decades-old establishments you won’t want to miss. Martha Lou’s Kitchen, run by 87-year-old Martha Lou Gadsden, might be the most famous—praise from local chefs like Sean Brock transformed this tiny pink shack into a tourist pilgrimage.
But a less busy, even tastier alternative is Dave’s Carry-Out, named after once co-owner David DeGroat. I watched as his partner, Sandra McCray, fried whiting fillet, shrimp, and scallops for my $14 fried Seafood Platter. There’s not much seating in the bare-bones place, so do as the shop’s name suggests and take out your Styrofoam container to a park bench at nearby Marion Square. If you prefer water views over park ones, head 15 minutes outside Charleston to The Wreck of the Richard & Charlene in Mount Pleasant, so named for a trawler that crashed into the restaurant site during Hurricane Hugo in 1989. The Wreck is about as no-frills as it gets—paper plates, mismatched plastic chairs, string lights on the screened-in porch—but certainly charming. You’ll watch folks fish off the dock in Shem Creek as you eat straight-from-the-boat flounder that’s been scored all over to ensure every inch of its flesh gets crispy when it’s deep-fried.
The bar scene at the Dewberry
The Best Hotel with the Best Snacks
You’re going to book The Dewberry hotel for its looks: all midcentury brass and wood, the result of a major renovation of a former federal office building. And the staff is so welcoming, you might never want to leave. Luckily you don’t have to: The lobster omelet from its restaurant Henrietta’s is a baller way to brunch. And what better way to end a night than with sweet White Stone oysters and a nightcap at the chic lobby bar?