There are few Southern cities with as dizzying food scenes as Charleston. While in the past, it was known as a sleepy, historic town where visitors could find a plate of genuine shrimp and grits, now the peninsula is packed with some of the region’s best restaurants, and new ones are constantly opening.
For a first-timer, or even a returning visitor, it can be a bit overwhelming trying to decide where to spend precious vacation days. This list mixes classic and current favorites so whether you’re strolling on King Street at breakfast or driving by Hampton Park during lunchtime, you’ll always be able to find an option.
With the historic sights of Old City and a growing food scene along Upper King Street, the Holy City offers the best of both new and old. Often described as a living museum, everything in Charleston has a story to tell. From the cobblestone streets and antebellum homes to the spate of new boutique hotels that dot its storied corridors, the “Holy City” (named after the city’s many churches) has come a long way since it was settled in 1670. In recent years, the city has become just as recognized for its food scene — home to world-famous chefs and restaurants serving up a mix of haute cuisine and new takes on Southern fare — and has grown from a colonial seaport into a hot spot that attracts more than four million people each year.
Charleston has idyllic antebellum architecture, stunning harbor views and charming cobblestone streets but a trip to Chucktown is really about the food. For such a small geographic area, the peninsula and its surrounding islands pack a huge culinary punch. The city is full of Beard award-winning restaurants and even more Beard nominees. Here’s how to strategically pack in a week’s worth of quintessential meals in just one day.
Late last summer, McCrady’s, the grande dame of haute cuisine and special-occasion splurge dining, shuttered its doors for a mysterious overhaul, reopening as a dual entity. The main dining room is now called McCrady’s Tavern, true to the original name of the 1778 establishment that’s spirit infuses its walls. (McCrady’s now designates the adjacent, hot-ticket, multicourse tasting room, which is not the subject of this review.) McCrady’s Tavern is, once again, a tavern.
Brunch at McCrady’s Tavern — reopened by the chef Sean Brock last summer with an eye toward the Gilded Age — comes with a side of history: George Washington ate here in 1791. While the exposed brick and timber of the circa 1778 Georgian building along busy East Bay look unchanged, the menu is respectfully modern. Try the house’s version of Charleston’s hallmark she-crab soup — blue crab bisque with vermouth and tarragon ($14) — before embarking on a fried pork chop sandwich ($13 including fries) or the daintier quiche Lorraine ($14).
Southern star Sean Brock’s latest gets raves from James Beard Award–winning journalist Matt Goulding, a chief editor of the influential Roads & Kingdoms and the author of Grape, Olive, Pig: Deep Travels Through Spain’s Food Culture. The new revamp of Brock’s legendary Charleston institution, set in a 1778 Georgian town house, includes a high-end tasting-menu restaurant upstairs and a “more relaxed but no-less-astounding tavern below,” he says. “You’ll find Brock’s obsession with historical cooking filtered through a mixture of familiar flavors and innovative technique—tater tots with sour cream and caviar, Thomas Jefferson’s macaroni (given an umami lift from kombu), bone marrow stuffed with escargot. The new McCrady’s reaffirms Brock’s status as one of the most talented and soulful chefs cooking in the U.S.”
After making his name with whiskey and country ham, chef Sean Brock turned his focus to a different kind of Americana: the heady, over-the-top flavors of the Gold Rush, the Gilded Age, and the Roaring Twenties. At McCrady’s Tavern, you can scoop caviar with a mother-of-pearl spoon, slurp nineteenth-century calf’s head soup, and slice into a plate-sized slab of veal blanquette dressed with peas and ham. Brock is leading the pack once again, with help from chef de cuisine Justin Cherry and pastry chef Katy Keefe, whose black walnut–perfumed Lady Baltimore cake is a fitting end to an extravagant all-American meal.
DINNER: McCrady’s Tavern
It’s not a Charleston trip if you don’t brush up against a Sean Brock restaurant. And they don’t come more fun or accomplished than the Tavern, a merry revival of Gilded Age dishes plucked from Brock’s cookbook collection and wedged into a modern context. The caviar is served with tater tots, and escargot arrives in a marrow bone.
Long-standing institution McCrady’s announced in May that the restaurant would shut down for a few weeks to transition into two concepts, McCrady’s Tavern and an updated version of McCrady’s.
“In late summer 2016, McCrady’s will move to an adjacent space and offer an evolution of the McCrady’s tasting menu experience. The current McCrady’s space will honor it rich history by transitioning back to its original purpose as a lively, everyday gathering place, and it will once again be known as McCrady’s Tavern.”
Concerned that patrons believed McCrady’s was going away, chef Sean Brock explained the changes to Eater as, “McCrady’s is taking a little nap, getting a new set of clothes, a little makeover, and is coming back stronger and cooler than ever.” Brock emphasized that the new, 22-seat space would be the McCrady’s he’d always wanted, with “the most intense food” he’s ever created and superb service that would leave guests in a state of revitalization.
Last week Sean Brock told Eater he was taking his new McCrady’s Tavern (2 Unity Alley) inspiration from the Gilded Age. Yes, my eyes got big at that quote too, but, as he’s revealed today with the release of his menu, the era’s notable excess will apparently begin and end on the plate. Thankfully, McCrady’s Tavern prices are nowhere near Rockefeller levels. In fact, the average entree price — $24 — is well below those at other recently opened spots such as Le Farfalle ($27) and Henrietta’s ($35). But that doesn’t mean his food won’t be decadent.
Brock says his idea with McCrady’s Tavern was to harness the creative spirit of the Gilded Age in so much as it allowed chefs to be wildly imaginative in order to meet the demands of their patrons’ outrageous diets. With that in mind, Brock says he’s tested and tested and tested again the items that make up McCrady’s Tavern menu. And what you see is a list of dishes that were only deemed worthy of inclusion after passing one final exam: “My theory is that a dish is only done when you can’t stop eating it, when you literally can’t control yourself. When it’s that addictive, when you wake up thinking about it and craving it, then the dish is done.”