For Americans and international tourists alike, Charleston is top destination for lots of reasons. One of the very oldest cities in America, Charleston bears all the architectural and cultural hallmarks of a city that has seen a diverse range of influences since its founding early in the colonial period. An incredibly beautiful city with an easy-going way of life, one area where it excels particularly well is food. Boasting a range of natively developed culinary delights, Charleston is a foodie’s hotspot within the American south, itself a region known internationally for a truly unique and exceptional cuisine.
Charleston is further distinguished by being situated right on the doorstep of an unbelievable natural bounty. Most of the specialty dishes you will encounter in this culinary landscape have key ingredients local to the area, from blue crabs to grains milled out on the historic Edisto Island. “Authentic” is a word that well describes the cuisine around this area. For sure, there are many high-quality modern restaurants complete with all the trappings from professional waiter service, large capacities, and modern kitchens complete with expensive cooking equipment and safety signs, but there are gems to be found also in the smaller joints, where traditional fare and local customs combine to winning effect.
Charleston is located by the sea and sits below the ancient Sandhills. The area around here is known as the “Lowcountry”, a word that has become almost synonymous with culinary excellence and authentic tradition.
Diverse Culinary Influences
Being among the very oldest settlements in America, Charleston’s local cuisine has been influenced by the many different cultures that have been established in the area and incorporated into the distinct local culture. As such the town’s culinary scene bears the mark of the diverse dishes brought over by the European and West African immigrants who have had a strongest impact on the development of the unique Lowcountry cuisine.
The city’s importance as a center of trade from its earliest history has even seen influences from much further afield, in the form of rich spices and other delights that have come through the city’s port down over the years. Undoubtedly, the Lowcountry cuisine owes much to the innovations of unfortunate early slaves forced into kitchens and rice fields, working with local marshland fare and combining it with the rich and exotic ingredients brought from far off lands. Add to this all the culinary traditions brought by the people who have historically inhabited the city, and a distinct cuisine quite like no other is born.
Of course, that cuisine has developed significantly over the centuries. It might be worth pointing out here that Charleston was founded way back in 1670, so that is three-and-a-half centuries of trade, immigration and local culinary innovation to thank for the Charleston cuisine as it exists today. Yet despite all that time (and it is indeed difficult to think of anywhere in America where you will find a culinary tradition as old as this) many of the original and traditional dishes and ingredients haven’t changed at all. Standard ingredients such as oysters, rice, okra, crabs and, that Southern staple, grits are still just as popular today as they ever were. When it comes to cuisine, Charleston is truly rooted in tradition.
So where does one begin when navigating the diverse and ancient culinary delights of the Lowcountry? That is a question that takes some answering, such is the diversity on offer. However, a good rule of thumb if you find yourself freshly landed in Charleston is to check the seafood and go from there. Up and down the east coast, settlements along the bountiful Atlantic are all united (North and South) by one thing – exceptional seafood. Charleston is no different. And regardless of what dish you select for a main course, there is nothing like a plate of freshly caught oysters to start off any Lowcountry meal.
Charleston Food Neighborhoods
There are that many outstanding restaurants in Charleston that we could be counting all day. But as space is limited, and as any such list would be likely to leave out some of the best eateries in the town, it might be better to look at the distinct culinary neighborhoods of Charleston and what specialties they are each known for. Although not a particularly large city, one of the great things about Charleston is it has built up distinct neighborhoods, each of a unique character. A far preferable option to trapsing from restaurant to restaurant (possibly miles apart) is to visit a neighborhood, and just sink into the local culture. Here are some of the best:
South of Calhoun
Before we get to the food, it is worth pointing out that the neighborhoods collectively known as “south of Calhoun” feature some of the most splendid and quaint architecture anywhere in America. In between meals, it’s well worth taking in these surroundings. Crepes are popular here and make for an excellent starter early in the day (especially if you plan to do some walking). Next up, it’s well worth a lunch of fresh oysters and lobster rolls from 167 Raw. For dinner, you might well check out the Charleston Grill, where you will be treated to more land-based fare cooked in the distinct Lowcountry style. Wherever you go, south of Calhoun is probably the best introduction to Charleston.
North of Calhoun
North of Calhoun is known for its lower rents and a vibrant, young, and entrepreneurial atmosphere. Accordingly, you will find slightly more unusual dishes here, albeit still bearing a unique Lowcountry stamp. The small restaurants in residential neighborhoods such as Cannonborough, Radcliffeborough, and Eastside are well worth checking out. For an Asian twist, try Xiao Bao Biscuit; for fresh fish of the very highest quality, try Dave’s Carry Out.
The more modern and inland northern portion of Charleston is the newer part of the city. So it lacks much of the colonial and French style architecture that typifies the beautiful coastal quarters. There is also a higher density of the chain restaurants here, so finding something authentic and exceptional is slightly more of a challenge. However, it is a challenge well worth undertaking as there is plethora of independent eateries less geared towards tourists and serving the local tastes. The Italian food is great here, and if you can put your name on the waiting list at EVO Pizzeria, you can head across the street to kill time in the Stems and Skins wine bar, which is excellent.
Of course, this list only scratches the surface, and for the real Charleston experience, your best bet is to turn up, wander about, and remember to order the oysters.
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