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The cuisine of Charleston: A unique mix of history and geography

May 19, 2015
Iconic mural on Charleston City Market by artist David Boatwright

The cuisine of Charleston is built upon a singular mix of geography, terroir and tradition.

The cuisine of Charleston reflects such a distinct mélange of ingredients and traditions that visitors from other regions of the U.S. may feel as if they’ve arrived upon a foreign shore.

This is the land where menus populated with regional favorites, such as she-crab soup, Charleston red rice, shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes, pickled okra, Hoppin’ John, benne wafers and coconut cake, are luring food lovers from around the world.

Last year, more than 4.5 million people visited Charleston, the oldest and second largest city in South Carolina. Founded by English colonists more than 300 years ago, the luster of the “Holy City” (nicknamed for the numerous church steeples that dominate its otherwise low skyline) hasn’t faded.

Historic French Huguenot Church in Charleston, a National Historic Landmark

Historic French Huguenot Church in Charleston, a National Historic Landmark

Despite having been ravaged by the Civil War in 1861, a 7.3 earthquake in 1886, and Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Charleston has not only persevered but has also thrived. In 2014, the city ranked #1 (in the U.S. and Canada) in the Travel + Leisure World’s Best Awards and #1 (in the U.S.) in the Condé Nast Traveler Reader’s Choice Awards.

Located on a scenic peninsula at the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers and surrounded by sea islands, the downtown historic area is relatively flat, laid out in a simple grid. Ironically, because the city didn’t have the financial wherewithal to rebuild or remodel structures devastated by the war, Charleston displays a remarkably intact and varied architectural history with more than 3500 well-preserved buildings. In fact, the nation’s first historical preservation zoning ordinance was passed in Charleston.

Rainbow Row on East Bay Street in Charleston

Rainbow Row on East Bay Street in Charleston

The city’s culinary renaissance

Experts mark the late 1970s as the turning point for the ascent of Charleston as a food mecca. In 1977, the city was chosen to host the U.S. version of the Spoleto Festival for the performing arts. With an influx of sophisticated guests arriving for 17 days each spring, restaurants ramped up their efforts to cater to Europeans and other visitors, says Erin Perkins, editor of the online publication Eater Charleston.

Of course, Charleston was already well poised to create a culinary stir on the basis of its singular mix of geography, terroir and traditions.

“Charleston is surrounded by fertile fields, vibrant forests, and thriving estuaries that serve as fish and shellfish incubators as well as by a massively stocked ocean,” explains Eve Felder, an executive chef and Charleston native, who is managing director of the Singapore campus of the Culinary Institute of America.

Jetty over a characteristic marsh on Johns Island

Jetty over a characteristic marsh on Johns Island

“In addition to the abundance of ingredients, the city’s food heritage also derives from the varied cultural influences of its citizens: people of African descent, the French Huguenots and the English aristocracy,” she says.

Many dishes reflect Charleston’s Lowcountry history and coastal location, too. “This unique cuisine is based on the abundance of products brought by African slaves (such as okra, eggplant, sesame and their knowledge of rice cultivation), and the indigenous foods of the region (e.g. creek shrimp, blue crabs, wild tuna, flounder and bass; marsh hens, wild ducks, geese, turkey, quail, and deer; and scuppernong grapes and wild mushrooms),” says Felder. Some of the region’s best vegetables are grown in nearby barrier islands like Wadmalaw and Edisto, she adds.

View of Charleston Harbor

View of Charleston Harbor

The roots of Southern cooking run deep in Charleston, says Perkins of Eater Charleston. She notes that the 1984 opening of a Johnson & Wales campus in the city (offering programs in food service, hospitality and travel tourism) also inspired a cadre of talented and committed culinary professionals. Although the campus was consolidated with the one in Charlotte, North Carolina some twenty years later, many graduates remained here and in other parts of the South, reinterpreting the fried chicken and pickled vegetable recipes handed down generations ago.

Lead with your nose

The diverse neighborhoods within downtown Charleston are eminently walkable (There’s also a free trolley system). Wherever you go, you’re likely to find a restaurant, bar, cafe, market or bakery with local flavor and extremely friendly and solicitous wait staff. Precious few are part of national chains.

“Stay downtown and roam her streets and follow your nose,” says Felder. “Get an early morning start and explore the alleys, cobblestone streets, nooks and crannies and let Charleston embrace you with her magic.”

Chalmers Street, the oldest remaining cobblestone street in Charleston

Chalmers Street, the oldest remaining cobblestone street in Charleston

Depending on your budget and the time you have available, here are some options for the first-timer:

-Take a tasting tour

A number of companies offer tasting tours of the city. For example, Charleston Strolls features 2½-hour Savor the Flavors tours by licensed guides that allow participants to taste specialties such as stone ground grits, benne wafers, locally made gourmet chocolates, southern pralines, sweet tea, collard greens and Lowcountry barbeque.

Visitors on a carriage tour of Charleston

Visitors on a carriage tour of Charleston

-Attend a food festival 

Many tourists plan their visit around one of the annual festivals that showcase Charleston’s culinary treasures. These include Taste of Charleston (September), The Lowcountry Oyster Festival (January), and the 5-day BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival (March), now in its tenth year with over 160 participating chefs from Charleston and across the country.

-Visit the city market 

The Charleston City Market, one of the oldest public markets in the country, occupies a series of sheds from Meeting Street to the Cooper River. Originally erected in 1804, it once sold meat, fish and vegetables. The complex has seen its share of adversity, too—destroyed by fire in 1838 and damaged by tornadoes nearly a century later. In 1973, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and received a $5.5 million makeover in 2010.

Entrance to the Charleston City Market on State Street

Entrance to the Charleston City Market on State Street

Sweetgrass baskets, used during Colonial times to separate the rice seed from its chaff, one of the oldest handcrafts of African origin in the United States

Sweetgrass baskets, used during Colonial times to separate the rice seed from its chaff, one of the oldest handcrafts of African origin in the United States

Woman selling sweetgrass baskets in front of the Post Office and Courthouse on Meeting Street, part of the 4 Corners of Law

Woman selling sweetgrass baskets in front of the Post Office and Courthouse on Meeting Street, part of the 4 Corners of Law

The market is home to 285 local vendors selling local jams and fruit preserves, pickled and dried foods, candies, boiled peanuts, crafts and other quintessential Lowcountry souvenirs. Artists of African origin make and sell hand-woven sweetgrass baskets, used during colonial times to separate rice seed from its chaff.

-Rely on the advice of local experts 

Restaurant menus are built on local, seasonal ingredients that reflect the city’s “sense of place.” Be sure to taste characteristic foods and products of the region, and sample dishes that have brought national acclaim to the city’s long list of award-winning chefs.

The experts at Eater Charleston recently compiled various lists (with reviews) of essential restaurants (not-to-be-missed classics), oldest restaurants (noteworthy for their longevity, and “hot” restaurants (that are popular at the moment).

The intimate bar at Chez Nous restaurant

The intimate bar at Chez Nous restaurant

The dilemma for any food enthusiast visiting Charleston for the first time will likely be one of overchoice rather than overpromise.


IF YOU GO 

A FOOD LOVER’S SHORT LIST

  • Peninsula Grill – Elegant fine dining experience in a circa 1844 building with courtyard; don’t miss the mile-high coconut cake
  • Husk – Chef Sean Brock showcases Southern ingredients, including heirloom greens and grains, on a menu that changes daily
  • The Vendue – Rooftop bar at boutique hotel offering sweeping views of Charleston Harbor
  • Chez Nous – Meals with a European flair at a tiny restored home on an alley off Spring Street
  • Hominy Grill – Casual spot for Lowcountry favorites prepared by Chef Robert Stehling; don’t miss the pickled okra
  • The MacIntosh– Chef Jeremiah Bacon emphasizes local ingredients; don’t miss The Mac Attack, a creative Lowcountry take on classic Eggs Benedict
  • Fig – Laid-back, unpretentious low-country food prepared by Chef Mike Lata; don’t miss the heirloom tomato salad and ricotta gnocchi
  • Fish – Local, seasonal, sustainable seafood; don’t miss the bouillabaisse and naked fish, prepared simply with salt and pepper
  • JB’s Smokeshack – Lowcountry barbecue or fried chicken at a quirky roadside shack on nearby Johns Island

Some prior posts about the cuisine of Charleston on More Time To Travel:


[This article by Irene S. Levine was previously published in the Sunday Travel Section of the Chicago Tribune on May 17, 2015.]

OUR PHOTO GALLERY OF THE TASTES OF CHARLESTON 

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  • Reply
    Marilyn Jones
    May 19, 2015 at 10:10 am

    I’ll be in Charleston in October. I really enjoyed reading your post; it gave me lots of ideas for my own visit!

  • Reply
    Sheryl
    May 19, 2015 at 11:23 am

    What a wonderful and complete account of this city – I must go back. I have only been there once, but now you’ve convinced me I need to return!

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      May 19, 2015 at 12:11 pm

      We are so happy to have been invited to a destination wedding in Charleston that will give us an excuse to return!

  • Reply
    Johanna
    May 20, 2015 at 12:00 am

    Here I am sitting in wintery WA quite happy with my lot until I click across to your post about Charlston. How much I’d like to be on the horse drawn carriage experiencing all that lovely cuisine, the colourful sights and cobblestone roads 🙂

  • Reply
    Tom Bartel
    May 20, 2015 at 7:32 am

    Okra, grits, and collard greens are not that high on my culinary wish list. But I’m sure I could find something to garnish the barbeque. I also remember the first time ordering iced tea in the South. Tea flavored sugar is what came. I guess I’m going to have to expand my food horizons a bit.

  • Reply
    Laura
    May 20, 2015 at 5:57 pm

    I think I would like Charleston! I would start with the Mac Attack and the ribs at JBs, and then check out the Charleston City Market and the basket lady’s stuff!

  • Reply
    Lori
    May 22, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    One of my favorite cities in the U.S. and a wonderful place to explore the amazing restaurants that make up Charleston!

  • Reply
    Nancie
    June 1, 2015 at 12:42 am

    Never realized that Charleston is so well known for its food. The U.S. isn’t on my travel list, but you never know.

  • Reply
    Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru
    June 1, 2015 at 1:24 am

    I remember your previous peeks at the cuisine of Charleston and thinking, how is it that we’ve yet to visit? I can see that eating one’s way through Charleston would be an enjoyable challenge, particularly with all the seafood.

  • Reply
    Donna Janke
    June 1, 2015 at 9:03 am

    I would love to visit Charleston some day. The food choices sound wonderful. I like the idea of following my nose.

  • Reply
    noel
    June 1, 2015 at 1:50 pm

    It’s definitely one of my favorite American cities and yes the food there is spectacular! Irene, if I go can you hook me up? Please do share this on my link up for Travel Photo Mondays, love to have you join us today!

  • Reply
    Sue Reddel
    June 1, 2015 at 5:31 pm

    Looks like you’d have to book at least a week to get a through all the culinary tastes of Charleston. So many wonderful choices it would be difficult to get through it in a few days. I guess we’ll need to put Charleston on our must-eat list.

  • Reply
    Carole Terwilliger Meyers
    June 1, 2015 at 6:22 pm

    I am ready to eat my way through Charleston! I’d also like to visit that City Market. Sounds like a tasty town.

  • Reply
    Muza-chan
    June 2, 2015 at 11:42 am

    Lovely place…

  • Reply
    Kay Dougherty
    June 2, 2015 at 4:02 pm

    Charlestown’s cuisine looks very tempting! I was only there once and too briefly – I need to go back. I have some friends who are retiring in that area and I’m starting to wonder about whether I should reconsider Marco Island as my “final resting place”!

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      June 2, 2015 at 4:06 pm

      Our friends “semi-retired” to Charleston and that’s who we went to visit. They absolutely love it there. They live on Johns Island.

  • Reply
    The GypsyNesters
    June 2, 2015 at 7:13 pm

    We absolutely love Charleston, not only for the cuisine, but the cityscape is incredible too.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      June 3, 2015 at 5:35 pm

      Agree! The water views of Charleston Harbor are smashing!

  • Reply
    Rossana
    June 2, 2015 at 10:23 pm

    Have never been to Charleston, but it is certainly on our list to visit. Great post- makes me want to go even more!

  • Reply
    Susan Moore
    June 2, 2015 at 10:35 pm

    Irene, all your posts about Charleston have me wanting to go and spend some time in the area. Charleston cuisine looks tempting to me!

  • Reply
    Denis Gagnon
    June 3, 2015 at 3:48 am

    Thanks for reminding us of the wonderful meals we had in Charleston in years past. We lived in Hilton Head Island for a dozen years and regularly drove up to Charleston for a weekend of southern charm and southern food.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      June 5, 2015 at 10:24 am

      One of the nice things about the foods of Charleston is the rapidly changing and expanding restaurant scene! While I’m sure you would find many of your old favorites, there also will be new tastes!

  • Reply
    Christian P
    June 3, 2015 at 6:17 am

    Charleston is indeed rich in historic places. I will definitely bring my parents and kids to this place. Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply
    Lyn aka TheTravellingLindfields
    June 3, 2015 at 7:13 am

    I love the mural on the City Market.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      June 3, 2015 at 10:08 pm

      The same artist has several murals around town. I love this one, too!

  • Reply
    Kristin Henning
    June 3, 2015 at 9:51 am

    How have I passed by Charleston when visiting family in South Carolina. I’ve been wanting to see the architecture and neighborhoods, and now I have a culinary target, too.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      June 5, 2015 at 9:37 am

      Having family in South Carolina is such a great excuse to visit Charleston! Hope you seize the opportunity~

  • Reply
    Michelle da Silva Richmond
    June 3, 2015 at 5:33 pm

    Charlestons sounds so charming! I’ve always wanted to go. Great article.

  • Reply
    santafetraveler
    June 3, 2015 at 5:49 pm

    I love your Charleston food posts! I want to go there for the culinary experience.

  • Reply
    Shelley
    June 4, 2015 at 10:10 am

    We only had a few days in Charleston, but I really loved the history, architecture and the amazing food. I’m sure we’ll be back!

  • Reply
    Karen Warren
    June 4, 2015 at 11:22 am

    I’ve been wanting to visit that part of the US for a long time, but I didn’t realise the food was so interesting. Even more reason for me to go!

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      June 7, 2015 at 11:58 am

      Hope your travels bring you to Charleston! I think you’ll love it~

  • Reply
    Elaine J. Masters
    June 5, 2015 at 12:29 am

    Lovely to hear about a city from another ‘walker.’ I love food tours and taking the time to stroll neighborhoods. I hope to explore this area one day.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      June 5, 2015 at 7:06 am

      Charleston is eminently walkable! So much beauty all around~

  • Reply
    jenny@atasteoftravel
    June 6, 2015 at 11:17 pm

    I didn’t realise Charleston was a food city either. You’ve now got my taste buds salivating and wanting to try some of the dishes you pictured! Hopefully one day I’ll make it there!

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      June 7, 2015 at 8:27 am

      Yes, it’s definitely a food-centric city with many great dishes, chefs and dining establishments!

  • Reply
    alison abbott
    June 7, 2015 at 11:52 am

    I loved that mural introducing you to the Market, you’ve captured it beautifully. We had such a nice visit there last year to celebrate my birthday, I can see why it’s such a popular destination. It’s a great spot to walk and take in all the history.

  • Reply
    Patti Morrow
    June 7, 2015 at 10:37 pm

    Charleston is one of my favorite places to visit in the U.S. It’s such a great walking city, filled with history and great architecture, unique eateries, and of course the City Market. You really nailed the best places to go and eat!

  • Reply
    Sand In My Suitcase
    June 8, 2015 at 12:39 pm

    We’ve had a hankering to visit the Carolinas one day. (We write occasionally for AAA Carolinas GO magazine.) Seafood and southern pralines could be just the lure to get us there :-).

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      June 8, 2015 at 3:23 pm

      Long trip for you, Janice, so I would tie it to a visit to Savannah, another great city in the American South.

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