The Traveler 20: Epic Places to Try Now in Charleston


By Helen Mitternight

Charleston has plenty of traditional Lowcountry restaurants, but sometimes you just want to eat where the locals do. Here are 20 places Charleston locals love.

Downtown

The Immortal Lobster: It’s not the cheapest food truck, but Immortal Lobster, which parks for lunch nearly every day in the parking lot of Blue Bicycle Books, has delicious Maine lobster tucked into tender rolls and served with either homemade potato chips or a tangy apple poppyseed coleslaw. Buy a few books by local luminaries while you’re so close to the bookstore.

Blue Bicycle parking lot/420 King St. | immortallobser.com

Smoke BBQ: You’ll want to order the Smoke wings that have the city’s top food critic raving, and you definitely will want the Tommy B Monster Meat Sampler so you can taste all the smoked meat available. Take a leap of faith and save room for the sides, especially the brown butter mac and cheese, rotini topped with herbed bread crumbs and oozing with creamy, cheesy goodness.

487 King St. | smokebbq.kitchen

La Farfalle / photo by Rachel Venter

La Farfelle / photo by Rachel Venter

Le Farfalle: It’s a good thing there are barre classes at the other end of this quiet downtown strip because Le Farfalle is going to do its best to make you undo your fitness plan. You can make a dinner off small plates ranging from pork meatballs studded with pine nuts and currants, to octopus with eggplant and roasted tomatoes, to a rich Umbrian chickpea stew. Split the big daddy of entrees, the Florentine steak, or just head straight for the homemade pastas, rich combinations like duck confit and mushrooms with agnolotti, or pork shoulder and cannellini beans with sorghum pappardelle. Don’t let the white tablecloths fool you; this is a casual restaurant.

15 Beaufain St. | lefarfallecharleston.com

Cocktail Club: If you want to feel like you’ve gone back to “Mad Men” days, when there was time to lounge over a cocktail, head upstairs to the Cocktail Club, a cavernous space with sofas and comfy chairs and a serious dedication to craft cocktails and farm-to-shaker drinks. Be sure to order the bacon-dusted popcorn to soak up the libations.

479 King St. | thecocktailclubcharleston.com

Harold’s Cabin: There’s a lot of history at this one-time snowball stand and later grocery. As a nod to the history, the re-imagined Harold’s Cabin serves snowballs and has a grab-and-go grocery on the first level, but you’ll want to head upstairs for the vegetable-based menu. Vegetable-based doesn’t mean you can’t get meat, it just means that meat doesn’t take center stage as it does at most restaurants. The food is fresh and creative. If you’re lucky, you’ll see one of the owners: actor and local favorite Bill Murray.

247 Congress St. | haroldscabin.com

The Rooftop Bar at Vendue: It’s hard to feel cooler than sitting at the top of the city, letting the peninsula’s breezes riffle your cocktail napkin as you take in the view – and that’s just the pretty people on the rooftop with you. The Rooftop Bar at the Vendue sits atop a hotel that hosts some of the city’s most innovative artwork in a rotating gallery that takes up the entire lobby and restaurant.

19 Vendue Range | thevendue.com/restaurants/the-rooftop

Martha Lou’s Kitchen: Forget the lurid pink shack, this is down-home good food. If you’re lucky to get a seat in the tiny standalone, and you see Martha Lou Gadsden turning the fried chicken, consider yourself even luckier. It would be rude to ask Martha Lou’s age, but she’s been providing the best fried chicken in the city for years, as well as soul food sides like collards and lima beans, baked macaroni and corn bread.

1068 Morrison Drive | marthalouskitchen.com

Lewis Barbecue / photo by Leslie Ryann McKellar

Lewis Barbecue / photo by Leslie Ryann McKellar

Lewis Barbecue: If you haven’t tasted John Lewis’ brisket, you haven’t really lived. And, while Charleston has its own vital barbecue scene, the city has made room for Texan Lewis to bring his huge smokers and his magic to the city. You can get sandwiches or sides to eat in at the casual restaurant, or you can just order meat by the pound and take it somewhere else to enjoy where no one can watch you dig in.

464 N. Nassau Str. | lewisbarbecue.com

DeSano Pizza Bakery: Remember the soup Nazi on “Seinfeld?” No substitutes, or no soup for you! Well, De Sano’s doesn’t do substitutes either, but why bother when the pizza is this good? You may see the outpost at the airport, but really, go to the real place. A cavernous dining room with big wood-fired ovens and a good view of the pizza-tossing is just a prelude to thin, Neapolitan-style crust. Try the San Gennaro, with sausage, peppadews, garlic, scamorza, Buffalo mozzarella and Pecorino Romano. There are also calzones and desserts, but you may never leave the pizza menu.

94 Stuart St. | desanopizza.it

West Ashley/James Island/Johns Island/Folly Beach

Early Bird Café: This family-owned diner is great for those late-night or early-morning carb cravings. You’ll see red-eyed revelers ending their nights out and well-heeled suburbanites wrangling the kids for breakfast before church. The art on the walls is local and the food is made from scratch. Try the chicken and waffles or the pork chop with red pepper jelly. Or just succumb to the Mess, a scramble of curried vegetables, potatoes and egg with avocado topping either a biscuit or toast.

1644 Savannah Highway | earlybirddiner.com

Mex-1 Coastal Cantina: Named for “Mexico 1,” the interstate that parallels the coast of the Baja California peninsula, Mex-1 serves Baja-style food – especially good is the Bangin’ Shrimp in this lively, casual joint. Don’t overlook the drinks because the margaritas are topnotch, and they have a whole menu dedicated to tequila.

817 St. Andrews Blvd. | mex1coastalcantina.com

Voodoo Tiki Bar: Remember tiki drinks? Voodoo do. Or does. You never know what you’re going to find at Voodoo – it could be a Lunacy Party on the full moon featuring black lights, body painting and a DJ or it could be drag queen bingo. But you know you’re going to find some of the most innovative bar food around – from traditional lumpia or potstickers, to truffled tater tots or duck tacos. You don’t have to order a tiki drink, but with the kitschy décor and the laid-back service, why not have a little umbrella in your drink?

15 Magnolia Road | voodootikibar.com

Swig & Swine: If you’re hungry, go for the family platter – seven meats and three large sides and the need to loosen your belt afterward. A whopping 2.5 pounds of pork, brisket, turkey, sausage, wings, ribs and pork belly fill up the platter. You can order smaller plates of smoked meat, but why bother – unless it’s to save room for the delicious pies for dessert.

1217 Savannah Highway | swigandswinebbq.com

Boxcar Betty's, Charleston, SC

Boxcar Betty’s

Boxcar Betty’s: You can order anything on the menu from this locally-sourced diner styled to look like a boxcar. Locals know to order the Boxcar, a cage-free, natural chicken breast fried and served as a sandwich with pimento cheese, peach slaw, house pickles and spicy mayo. The odd-sounding combination just hits all the right notes once it’s in your mouth. Have a pecan-pie-in-a-cup for dessert, and life is pretty much perfect.

1922 Savannah Highway | boxcarbetty.com (A second location is located in Summerville)

Rita’s Seaside Grill: You may be skeptical about nachos with blackened tuna and watermelon, but you’ll be sorry if you skip this delicious take on traditional nachos. The energy here – including the seven-day-a-week live music on the patio – is high, but that laid-back beachy vibe keeps it from going over the top, and the food is reliably delicious.

2 Center St. | ritasseasidegrille.com

Maybank Public House: If you’re looking for an innovative brew with your food, you can’t go wrong at the Maybank Public House, a funky gastropub that elevates bar food with local seafood, a variety of burgers, and a flatbread menu that includes the delicious Woodland: roasted mushrooms, asparagus, caramelized onions, parmesan and white truffle oil. Not something you’d normally think of as bar food.

1970 Maybank Highway | maybankpublichouse.com

Mount Pleasant/Isle of Palms/Sullivan’s Island

Graze Restaurant: You don’t expect to find a restaurant like this is a strip mall, but Graze likes to confound. The menu changes to encourage diners to return several times a week, but if you are lucky enough to get the balsamic-glazed short ribs, you’re in for a treat. As the name suggests, you can order small portions to graze on, such as lobster mac and cheese, but the other entrees are large enough to make a meal.

863 Houston Northcutt Blvd. | grazecharleston.com (A second location is located in Summerville)

Page’s Okra Grill: Look for the giant wooden chair in front and you’ll find Page’s. They don’t take reservations, so be prepared to wait for delicious Southern food at great values. You won’t go wrong ordering any of the items marked as “Page’s Favorite” on the menu – they’re favorites for a reason, especially their version of shrimp and grits, over grit cakes instead of creamy grits, and the country-fried steak.

302 Coleman Blvd. | pagesokragrill.com

Dunleavy’s Pub: The owners say this popular spot is “beach-Irish” because it definitely gives a nod to the Irish roots of its owners, but the casual atmosphere of the beach at Sullivan’s Island has definitely made its mark. Try the wings – chargrilled rather than fried and never frozen – served with honey mustard, teriyaki, lemon pepper, ranch rub or barbecue sauce. Then alternate sips of Irish beer with Dunleavy’s classic Reuben on rye. It doesn’t have to be St. Patrick’s Day to appreciate the warm glow that follows.

2213 Middle St. | dunleavysonsullivans.com

The Wreck: Hurricane Hugo is still spoken of in hushed tones around Charleston, and this restaurant, built where the storm twisted and turned the old trawler Richard & Charlene, is a testament to that. The Wreck isn’t fancy, but the seafood is local, fresh and just plain good. Shrimp, scallop, oysters and crab come fried, boiled or grilled and are complemented by local sides like hush puppies, fried, green tomatoes or boiled peanuts (yes, boiled peanuts – it’s a local thing).

106 Haddrell St. | wreckrc.com

Helen Mitternight is a former AP reporter and current freelancer living in downtown Charleston. Her lifestyle blog, “Stilettos Not Required,” can be found at helenmitternight.com.