April 19, 2024

Adventure Awaits Journeyers

Discovering the World Anew

Culinary travel: Where to eat while visiting Charleston

5 min read
Culinary travel: Where to eat while visiting Charleston
Chasing Sage

Photograph by Peter Frank Edwards

As a rule, Charlestonians would rather catch waves than make them, so when the governor of South Carolina declared the state open for business in October 2020, with few restrictions, restaurateurs didn’t resist. They threw themselves into entertaining tourists in high Lowcountry fashion, making the Holy City a destination du jour as government officials elsewhere kept strict pandemic protocols in place.

Consequently, by 2022, the local hospitality industry had a nasty hangover. Exhausted workers were swapping their jobs for real estate licenses, and potential visitors kvetched that they’d just been to Charleston. In 2023, though, the restaurant scene rebounded, energized by longtime members of the culinary community pursuing passion projects, and new arrivals offering fresh perspectives.

The growth is grounded in the essential components of Lowcountry cuisine, which occupies a unique spot in place and time. Geographically, the Charleston area is situated at the southernmost edge of some growing regions and the northernmost tip of others, so farmers can try their luck with both sweet corn and tart citrus. The city was founded in 1670, so it’s amassed centuries of dining traditions, which appear on restaurant plates in the form of shad roe in spring and okra soup in the summertime.

For example, just to cherry-pick from the buzziest menus, the local shrimp bathed in ‘nduja butter at Costa exemplify the hometown enthusiasm for seafood (and impressive tolerance for excess). At Lowland Tavern, the garlic-sauced fried quail references the fondness for hunting that undergirds the area’s oldest recipes, while barbecue hash over rice at King BBQ celebrates the crop central to its identity. And it’s hard to surpass the salted sesame gin martini at Beautiful South for a contemporary take on the benne seeds that enslaved West Africans cultivated in hidden gardens. It’s all here, now.

Culinary travel: Where to eat while visiting Charleston
Charleston chewies at Daddy’s Girls Bakery

Photograph by Peter Frank Edwards

Iconic dish: chewies

Charleston has sat atop where-to-eat lists for decades because so many of its dining experiences can’t be reproduced or replicated beyond where the pluff mud ends. But there’s good news for visitors who want to hang on to a taste of the city: One of Charleston’s most iconic dishes can be tucked into a carry-on bag, and even frozen at home.

A Charleston chewie has nothing to do with the chocolate-covered nougat bars that the Fox-Cross Candy Company rolled out in 1922. Rather, the bar cookie—invariably dusted with powdered sugar—is closer to what most pastry fans would classify as a blondie. Made from brown sugar, butter, flour, eggs, and vanilla, chewies have served as a special-occasion treat in Gullah Geechee communities for at least a century.

Chewies are traditionally ornamented with nuts, most commonly pecans. But as chewies have migrated from home kitchens to retail bakeries, chefs have begun leaving out the potential allergen, and adding just about everything else to the strikingly rich batter. Among the riffs now sold in the Charleston area are red velvet chewies, peanut butter chewies, coconut chewies, snickerdoodle chewies, and lemon chewies, all of which share a shape and texture with the original. (A sweet potato cheesecake with chewie crust, developed by caterer Carolima’s Lowcountry Cuisine, does not.)

For a plain nutted chewie sold by the piece, there’s no better source than Daddy’s Girls Bakery in North Charleston. Owners Nate and Chasity Brown use an old family recipe for their chewies, and a new digital camera to record first-timers’ reactions to them. “Chewie Cam” footage is one of their social media staples, every bit as sweet as the dessert honored by the videos. Daddy’s Girls Bakery, 2021 Reynolds Avenue, Suite 102-B, North Charleston

Culinary travel: Where to eat while visiting Charleston
Chasing Sage

Photograph by Peter Frank Edwards

Three restaurants to visit

Vern’s
McCrady’s is long gone, but the legacy of the restaurant that launched chef Sean Brock’s career is on display at Vern’s. Opened in 2022 by longtime McCrady’s chef de cuisine Daniel “Dano” Heinze and wine specialist Bethany Heinze, the Cannonborough-Elliotborough nook reflects the married couple’s unwavering commitment to smart sourcing and warm hospitality. The ever-changing menu always leads off with a puffed disk of ferment-forward sourdough, chargrilled and glossed with allium butter; fresh dill clusters enticingly in the hand-worked bread’s crevices. It’s a delicious demonstration of why fewer ingredients and greater attention is the correct formula for a memorable dish. 41 Bogard Street A

Bintü Atelier
West African ingredients and French culinary philosophies come together at the stunning Bintü, created in 2023 by Bintou N’Daw, an expat New Yorker who was raised in Senegal and France. Housed in a pair of pocket-sized buildings on a residential street, this one-woman operation brims with kitchen enthusiasm, volleyed back by guests in the thralls of pepper soup scented with pumpkin, or slow-cooked cassava leaves punctuated with boiled peanuts and red shrimp. As that dish, called saka saka, makes clear, West African–influenced cooking—previously unrepresented on the Charleston peninsula—is a natural fit for a city rooted in it. 8D Line Street

Chasing Sage
Walter and Cindy Edward were so besotted with Lowcountry produce that they relocated from Seattle to grow and prepare it. Their reverence for the land’s bounty threads through every drink and dish served in this handsomely restored 1890 corner store, which the husband-and-wife team opened as Chasing Sage in 2021. The best way to experience chef Walter Edward’s vision is a “let us pick for you” supper, but there are no rigid ordering requirements in a dining room defined by Cindy Edward’s kindness. Nobody will fuss if you opt for a ridiculously vernal snap pea margarita and a Carolina Gold risotto flecked with flowers. 267 Rutledge Avenue

Culinary travel: Where to eat while visiting Charleston
The Dewberry

Photograph by Andrew Cebulka

Where to stay

The Dewberry
Home to two of downtown’s most respected cocktail bars, the stylish and welcoming Dewberry is the most inspired overhaul of a 1960s federal building you’re likely to find.

The Starlight Motor Inn
Sixty years before it was reimagined as North Charleston’s first boutique hotel, the Starlight Motor Inn bore the distinction of being the first modular-built motel in the South.

The Inn at Middleton Place
If your travel plans allow you to lodge on Charleston’s scenic Ashley River Road, this architectural masterpiece adjacent to Middleton Place National Historic Landmark offers one of the area’s most serene stays.

This article appears in our March 2024 issue.

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