Clockwise from top left: Xiao Bao Biscuit, The Ordinary, the Maine urchin at McCrady’s, Fig, the Blu-82 at Fig. | Photo Credit: Olivia Rae James (Xiao Bao Biscuit). Andrew Cebulka (The Ordinary, McCrady’s, Fig)
Charleston, S.C., has managed to freeze time. Candy-colored mansions have the same facades they did before the Civil War, and streetlamps flicker with flames fueled through a subterranean gas system. Transporting visitors to a different era is its draw, but the food is what turns a tourist into a Charleston cheerleader.
Unlike its landmarked avenues, the town’s restaurant kitchens are awash in change, with resident chefs like Mike Lata redefining coastal Southern cooking. His seafood-centric hot spot, The Ordinary (544 King St.; EatTheOrdinary.com), is located in a former bank north of the historic downtown, where you’re likely to find a mix of denizens and traveling history buffs. “Locals don’t want to eat traditional food all the time, even if it’s cleverly reinterpreted,” Lata says. “They’re looking for riffs on ethnic food and less formal, more casual spots.” His menu is decidedly modern, showcasing the “merroir” of local seafood (that’s like terroir, but for fish). Diners feast on gigantic shrimp from the surrounding waters and dig into clams from nearby Capers Inlet.
Lata and his team also run Fig (232 Meeting St.; EatAtFig.com), a slightly fussier venue flaunting local ingredients, but one that tested the city’s long-held white-tablecloth model. Fig’s flexible, playful vibe—Lata describes it as a hub for “guys and gals in their 20s and 30s who know good wine and service”—has turned it into a neighborhood favorite and the Charleston food scene’s new norm. Meanwhile, McCrady’s (2 Unity Alley; McCradysRestaurant.com) is a temple of progressive down-home cooking, with chef Sean Brock applying molecular techniques to Berkshire pork and duck that’s sourced from area farms.
For a Southern biscuit sandwich with a subtle twist, hit up Two Boroughs Larder (186 Coming St.; TwoBoroughsLarder.com), which stuffs artisanal scrapple and chicken boudin blanc between its buns. And for a go-big-or-go-home take on comfort food, check out Xiao Bao Biscuit (224 Rutledge Ave.; XiaoBaoBiscuit.com), where S.C.’s best ingredients meet bold Asian flavors in dishes like sweet-and-sour smoked mussels.
All this isn’t to say that old-style Southern cooking is going anywhere. Despite all the experimentation, Charleston will always be rooted in tradition. But in a town this vibrant, a few steps forward are more than enough.
Everything you need to know to navigate the Palmetto State’s coolest city
If there was ever a city built for Airbnb, this is it. Camp out in a historic kitchen house in the French Quarter ($197 a night), a two-story artist’s loft space ($338 a night), or a five-bedroom mansion on the water ($705 a night).
The horses and carriages all over town aren’t a tourist trap. Take one and you’ll learn about Charleston’s rich history. Heads up: The guides at the Old South Carriage tours (OldSouthCarriageTours.com) aren’t afraid to give an honest account of how the slave trade played a central role in the city’s past.
Departing at least twice a day, 30-minute boat rides will take you through Charleston Harbor, offering scenic views of the city and Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.
Head to Ann Street. Start with a beer at the pub-like Dudley’s on Ann (42 Ann St.; DudleysOnAnn.com) and then follow the locals to Club Pantheon (28 Ann St.; ClubPantheon.net), where the weekend crowds gather to dance like it’s the debutante ball of the decade (but with lasers).