Where to Dine in Charleston, According to a Local

Because these days, South Carolina’s favorite food town is about much more than blue crabs and barbecue.

By Stephanie Burt

Published on May 8, 2024

If shrimp and grits are what come to mind when you think about food in Charleston, my hunch is that you haven’t been down to my neck of the woods lately. Since the late aughts, the city has undergone a culinary renaissance propelled by a cohort of chefs, notably Sean Brock, who brought the farm-to-table movement to new heights. In part because of this burgeoning scene, Charleston’s tourism sector has grown exponentially in recent years, and the city of just over 150,000 residents now receives close to 1 million tourists annually. (Some 35,000—including a handful of SAVEUR staffers—descend on the Charleston Wine + Food Festival each year alone.) 

But Charleson’s culinary evolution continues apace to the present. These days, a new class of chef-driven restaurants has cemented the city as an evergreen food destination, drawing from the traditional Lowcountry palate as well as international flavors and cooking techniques. 

Charleston is a thriving centuries-old port, and its food is grounded in the influences of enslaved people from West Africa and beyond who largely built the city from the ground up, grew its crops, and worked and cooked here. On this peninsula hugged by the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, they creatively combined spices and other foodstuffs that came off the ships with the bounty of this place—corn, game, shrimp, fish, crab, oysters—and established a singular cuisine at the intersection of many cultures. 

The peninsula is still Charleston’s gastronomic epicenter, which means a lot of the best restaurants are within walking distance from one another. However, as the city has grown, so has its culinary footprint, and now diners can be served—and served well—by spending some time west of the Ashley River, in the Park Circle neighborhood of North Charleston, and out on the Sea Islands. 

Charleston’s restaurants are marvelously diverse, and nowadays, you’re almost as likely to find flounder cooked in miso-infused broth as you are to enjoy it dredged in cornmeal and deep-fried. That's why this primer runs the gamut.

I hope the list sparks your imagination: This city by the sea is where I dove headfirst into food writing, and almost two decades later, I am just as enamored with Charleston’s restaurant scene as I was that first soft-shell crab season. My biggest piece of advice? Come hungry—enjoying all that Charleston has to offer takes time, reservations, and a voracious appetite. 

1219 Savannah Highway
(843) 225-1717

Matt Taylor-Gross

Sixteen years and counting, The Glass Onion continues to churn out pitch-perfect po’boys with flash-fried plump local shrimp served on a soft yet crusty roll. Beyond the sandwiches, there are in-season vegetable sides like local field peas stewed with onions and fresh herbs, which are great to share alongside entrees including pan-roasted Carolina trout and succulent pork chops. The diner-style dining room is simple yet comfortable enough to linger for dessert, which may be a tart meringue pie one day and buttermilk panna cotta the next.

Matt Taylor-Gross

At this Mediterranean restaurant next to Colonial Lake, Chef Vinson Petrillo (of Restaurant at Zero George fame) reminds everybody why burrata became so trendy in the first place: This is the good stuff, ultra-creamy with a mild tang (and it doesn’t hurt that there’s an option to have it arrive gilded with caviar). Eggplant parmesan, bubbling from the oven, feels like a coat on a cool night, but regardless of the weather, I find myself returning to the cool beef carpaccio with velvety slices of meat encasing an Asian-inspired herby salad.

Matt Taylor-Gross

After moving to Charleston to open Le Farfalle, chef Michael Toscano connected with local pig farmer Tank Jackson and soon perfected his already exceptional porchetta. At this Charleston take on an Italian American butcher shop, try the flavorful, thinly sliced pork on a focaccia sandwich topped with salsa verde, or skip the swine and opt for the eggplant scapece sandwich with arugula, sun-dried tomatoes, and ricotta. When you’ve gone hard the night before, Da Toscano’s breakfast sandwiches—such as porcini-rubbed prime rib topped with a sunny-side-up egg—always save the day. 

1011 King St.
(843) 990-9535

Matt Taylor-Gross

There’s often a line out the door to this restaurant on Upper King, and when Rodney’s in the house, a line to see him, too. Rodney Scott is one of the great pitmasters of smoky whole-hog barbecue, which requires the strength to lift butterflied pigs over glowing coals, the stamina to tend it for multiple hours, and the patience to know when it’s crisp enough to serve with zippy vinegar sauce. The sound system is always playing some classic pop or blues in the sun-filled dining room, and the music is even piped out to the parking lot for customers at the drive-through. Rodney’s is a rare taste of country-style barbecue in the city—red cafeteria tray, pork skins, beans, collards, and all. 

Matt Taylor-Gross

It feels like a cozy dinner party at this Cannonborough neighborhood haunt, where seasonal bistro dishes are the draw. A few recent standouts include escargot with tarragon and gruyère, gnocchetti with walnut arugula pesto, and bavette steak with sweet onions from Wadmalaw Island. Bethany, the co-owner, is a marvelous host, serving wine, hugging customers, and deftly maneuvering the crush of diners. Settle in for aperitivi at the bar, then peruse the wine list favoring low-intervention small producers. 

73 Spring St.
(843) 974-1674

Matt Taylor-Gross

There’s no cornbread in sight at this Filipino restaurant with a pleasant side yard patio—yet as any local will tell you, Kultura has quickly become a Charleston favorite since opening last year. Ingredients sourced nearby, like Peculiar Pig pork and a variety of vegetables, shine through in dishes like arroz caldo topped with smoked trout roe and tocino (twice-cooked pork ribs with banana ketchup and furikake rice krispies). It’s astonishing that the cooks can achieve such depth of flavor and beautiful plating using little more than an induction burner and a small oven. On Sundays, guests belt out karaoke hits at brunch while sipping mimosas and halo-halo cocktails made with coconut, sake, and ube foam. 

6 Payne Court
(843) 579-3060

Matt Taylor-Gross

We’ve already professed our love for this spot swimming in fairytale European charm, but the lasting appeal of Chez Nous is how it connects the diner with the seasons—six menu items at a time. On a recent visit, there was crispy fish with peas and sofrito, shaved carrot and golden beet salad spooned over creamy mozzarella, and berries in vanilla cream for dessert—all served in an unhurried, well-choreographed procession. At Chez Nous, the candlelight glows, the Old World wine list flows, and there’s always a new season to celebrate.

Matt Taylor-Gross

This Pakistani street food mecca next to a movie theater is the Mount Pleasant sister restaurant of Ma’am Saab. Its walls pop with Pakistani street posters, and Bollywood music blasts from the speakers. Masala fries, sprinkled with the house chile-spice blend, come topped with onions, cilantro, and spicy ketchup; they’re a solid starter to munch on while deciding between mains like beef kabab with green chutney and tamarind or the paneer tikka masala combo with vegetable korma. For dessert, don’t miss the traditional kulfi (pistachio, rose, and cinnamon) ice cream. 

232 Meeting St.
(843) 805-5900 

Matt Taylor-Gross

Though FIG recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, reservations are as hard to come by as ever (so book ahead!). Favorites like the gnocchi and tomato tartine are always in seasonal rotation, but there’s always something new to try in dishes like broiled Steamboat oysters with green garlic (which go great with Cruse Wine’s sparkling rosé), beets with house-made cottage cheese, and sautéed snowy grouper served in a pool of artichoke dashi with peas and asparagus. After-dinner cocktails such as the “café de Carmen”—espresso, Hoodoo chicory, Giffard Banane du Brésil, and Cynar—make a wonderful pairing for desserts like rich Carolina Gold rice pudding topped with local blueberries. 

8D Line St.
(347) 249-6594

Bintü Atelier is one of Charleston’s first African restaurants. Tucked in a house in Eastside with an old-fashioned kitchen store attached, the establishment cranks out stunning mains such as goat with melon seed and pumpkin; mafe, a groundnut stew with chicken; and fried soft-shell crab served over shito spicy crab rice. To wash it all down, there are fresh house-made juices from pineapple to ginger to soursop. This is a family-run operation (you can often spot chef Bintou N’Daw Young at the stove through the screen door), which adds to the warm, homey feel.

Matt Taylor-Gross

From wood-roasted clams to seasonal vegetables, the OD (as it’s affectionately called) is all about shareable French, Italian and Spanish plates. Start with oysters from the raw bar, a flatbread with butterbean puree, or Frogmore chowder with shrimp and sausage, then move on to a veal cutlet over creamy grits or the Capanelle made with seasonal fish, green olives, calabrian chili, and breadcrumbs. Make sure to save room for a gelato sampler from Beardcat’s downstairs, which uses local and seasonal ingredients ranging from strawberries to Counter Culture espresso. The OD is the rare restaurant that’s great for romantic dates, family celebrations, and everything in between. 

Matt Taylor-Gross

Braving the long line here is part of the pilgrimage, and everybody’s in it together: construction workers, churchgoers, the lawyer from those TV ads, and now you. Bertha’s is about more than the silky okra soup, creamy mac and cheese, green beans like my granny’s, and fried pork chops (my go-to order ever since one of the owners gave me the up-down and said, “You look like it might be a pork chop day”). With its mural of Bertha herself and tables of impatient children waiting for their parents in line, Bertha’s is community across the steam table. 

252 Coming St.
(854) 222-3949

Matt Taylor-Gross

Cooks here work hand in hand daily with local fishermen to bring patrons the best Lowcountry seafood imaginable. You might luck out with a snapper ceviche with avocado and cucumber on one visit, while the next, it might be fried soft-shell crab nachos. The dining room bathed in varying blues, the wine list with plenty of lights and white, and the ever-helpful staff make this Cannonborough neighborhood standby feel like a party—without getting in the middle of yours. Insider tip: The caviar sandwiches on potato rolls are one of the best Charleston restaurant experiences on the peninsula.

36 George St.
(854) 895-4137

Matt Taylor-Gross

Lowland Tavern is the kind of place local chefs flock to when they’re not on the line: It’s cozy yet decadent, thanks to the art-saturated walls and ornate 19th-century fireplaces, and the menu is deceptively simple yet full of subtle culinary flexes. Take the Tavern burger and fries, for instance, inspired by James Beard Award-winning chef Jason Stanhope’s favorite burgers at Peter Luger Steak House and Minetta Tavern in New York: It’s bathed in creamy cognac sauce and comes on a pillowy, sesame-flecked bun that absorbs just enough of the juices so they don’t dribble down your chin. When I’m in the mood for something lighter, I spring for the celery salad with dates, walnuts, and mint. 

Matt Taylor-Gross

The patio here on a summer night is Park Circle (North Charleston’s hip neighborhood) at its finest. The cocktails—perhaps a carafe of the sake-based If You’re a Bird, I’m a Bird—and easy-to-drink Lambrusco, chenin blanc, and rosé make for many gregarious rounds, and the dim sum brunch of dumplings, congee, and a big ol’ piece of chocolate chip banana bread is so popular it’s often standing-room only. No matter the occasion, at least one order of Sichuan hot karaage, drizzled with house “filly sauce” and served with sweet pickles, is a must.

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