Charleston, S.C., is perhaps my favorite city in the South. Good-looking, friendly and rich with history — its history being especially relevant this year, the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. And the downtown area is cluttered with one good dining option after another.
Which is a good thing, because if there’s a city with worse cab service than Charleston, I don’t want to know about it. Even proud locals get downright apologetic in response to the question, “How can I get a cab?” From your hotel, you can summon a cab to get somewhere, but getting back is, ahem, tricky. So rent a cab, or, if you’ve only got a day or two (as I did this trip), stick to the attraction-packed and eminently walk-able downtown.
So, with apologies to the myriad and worthy outlying options, here are my walking-distance picks:
Sean Brock’s sedate restaurant-in-a-mansion is the dining spot of the moment, thanks to Bon Appetit magazine, which last month named it the best new restaurant in the country. The dining room is a flat-out charmer, whose ceiling seems as tall as the room is wide, its rustic plank wood floors contrasted by contemporary, gray and silver wall treatments. True to the restaurant’s name, table centerpieces feature jars half-filled with corn feed and a long piece of dried okra.
After you devour one or two dinner rolls topped with benne seeds (better known as sesame seeds; the name benne, like the seeds themselves, comes from Africa), dishes to try include a Low Country panzanella consisting of fried corn bread, golden tomatoes and gamey slivers of lamb heart; or the messy but rewarding benne-crusted, barbecued chicken wings. The must-have entree is the pork-shoulder confit, the tender and sweet accompanied by a riot of supporting flavors and textures: spicy-crispy pig ears, smoky field peas and butter beans, bitter mustard greens and tart pickled peach jus. The cheese-and-grits side dish, fortified with mushrooms, contains so much sharp Tennessee cheddar that it’s like a cheese course in cast iron; enjoy it separately, with a glass of red wine. 76 Queen St., 843-577-2500; huskrestaurant.com
My first trip to SNOB (which refers to its location, Slightly North of Broad), a few years back, was a memorable one because I’d parked too far away and got caught in a sudden and severe rain that thoroughly soaked the four of us (and our one pathetic travel umbrella). Conversation stopped when we arrived, looking like drowned rats as we sloshed to our table; the servers generously plied us with cloth napkins until we managed some semblance of respectability.
Can’t remember for the life of me what we ate.
But I can tell you about my recent, considerably more dignified lunch visit, at which I arrived dapper and dry (a little August humidity aside), feasting on a massive charcuterie platter (which included Canadian bacon, of all things) and some of the best shrimp and grits, abetted by coins of spicy sausage and awash in a fragrant tomato sauce, that I can recall. And I took in the funky decor, which juxtaposes classical white columns and faux-marble walls with exposed industrial loft ceilings and striped-fabric chairs and tablecloths. Viewed through unfogged eyeglasses, it’s quite appealing, really. 192 E. Bay St., 843-723-3424; slightlynorthofbroad.net
The Peninsula Grill is widely regarded as Charleston’s finest restaurant, and perhaps one day I’ll eat there. But on one visit the place was booked solid, on another trip I had less-expensive dining in mind and this time … the dining room is lovely, in a neutral, hushed, gently lit sort of way, but the place didn’t excite me. But the marble-topped bar and ebony-wood back bar of the adjoining Champagne Bar, which offers plenty of liquid enticements and a fun little appetizer selection? Now you’re talking.
So we bellied up and lit into a lobster trio (sauteed lobster medallion with lobster beignet and lobster ravioli), a beautiful heirloom-tomato salad and a foie-gras composition with barbecued duck, black-pepper biscuit and peach jam. Our waiter/bartender Chris regaled us with local tales, including the factoid that Charlestonians guzzle more Grand Marnier than anybody (which I assume is true, because who would make up something like that?). The Champagne Bar offers a three-taste flight of Grand Marnier, including the 150-year stuff, but you needn’t indulge to that extent. Just pick a bar, order a shot of “granmar,” as they call it, and they’ll treat you like a native son. Or so I’m told. 112 N. Market St., 843-723-0700; peninsulagrill.com
I had just enough time in my brief stay to duck into Mercato, a cozy and casual Italian restaurant with romantic decor — Venetian plaster-look walls, leather-wrapped chairs and booths, dim art deco chandeliers — and live music most nights. Our food was unremarkable; risotto with blue crab had a nice regional air to it, but it needed seasoning. Still, for a nice drink, perhaps some wine and one of the chewy-crust pizzas, well, you could do lots worse. 102 Market St., 843-722-6393; mercatocharleston.com
Other places to consider
FIG: James Beard award-winner Mike Lata’s neighborhood restaurant means Food Is Good (yet another acronym), and it certainly is here. Loads of regional American specialties in industrial-rustic surroundings. Garlic soup and ricotta gnocchi with lamb Bolognese are highlights. 228 Meeting St., 843-805-5900; eatatfig.com
Sticky Fingers: A barbecue joint for the indecisive, Sticky Fingers (which has locations in Georgia, Tennessee and both Carolinas) serves hickory-smoked ribs, pulled pork and beef brisket in a variety of styles: Memphis (wet or dry), tangy Tennessee style, sweet Carolina style and so on. All the sauces are available by the bottle, of course. 235 Meeting St., 843-853-7427; stickyfingers.com
Jestine’s Kitchen: Just look for the long line of waiting diners and you’ll have found this iconic Southern restaurant, whose 40-seat, frill-free but comfortable dining room fills up quickly, especially at lunch. Load up on fried green tomatoes, gumbo, fried chicken, mac and cheese, Coca-Cola cake and sweet tea. You won’t spend much. 102 N. Market St., 843-722-6393.