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Best Charleston Restaurants

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Charleston has long been known as one of the South's best food cities. For much of the 20th century this meant fancy, formal cuisine: sherried she-crab soup, surf n' turf, frothy brandy cocktails. Those things are still around, and still delicious, but the best Charleston restaurants have evolved. The 1980s and '90s brought an influx of New Southern cuisine—chefs giving creative, upmarket twists to old classics. Call it the "era of shrimp and grits," a reference to the standby South Carolina fisherman's breakfast that's now on the menu of any New Southern restaurant worth its salt, often tarted up with bacon, leeks or other fripperies. A number of Charleston's best restaurants follow this model, giving modern makeovers to authentic local ingredients. In the Historic District, there's a top-notch restaurant on nearly every block. This is the kind of city where people come for weeklong eating vacations, so get ready to loosen your belt buckle. Charleston has plenty to offer in the mid and lower price ranges as well. If you're looking for good old-fashioned fried seafood, try the area around Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant. Gullah food, a mashup of West African flavors and Southern ingredients, can be found if you know where to look (we suggest Gullah Cuisine in Mount Pleasant). Young, foodie-minded Charlestonians have been opening an increasing number of bakeries and fancy handmade sandwich shops, many within walking distance of the historic district. Wander around the trendy Upper King district to find some of the best.

FIG

Neighborhood: Historic District Price: Expensive
Though this corner restaurant aims for a low-key, neighborhood bistro feel, the crowds of trendily-dressed twenty- and thirty-somethings gathered outside waiting for their tables makes the vibe a little less than laid-back. They're lined up for a good reason, though. FIG has earned a reputation as one of Charleston's best locavore restaurants, serving creative Lowcountry cuisine with farm-fresh ingredients. A bowl of green garlic soup might be followed by Caw Caw Creek Pork Trotters (yes, you guessed it, that means pig's feet) and rice flour-battered triggerfish. Vegetable side dishes, served family-style, are wonderful. Cocktails are also a specialty. Decor is pretty and unpretentious, evoking a latter-day Parisian cafe.

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Peninsula Grill

Neighborhood: Historic District Price: Expensive
For an old-fashioned ritzy Charleston meal, head to this hushed palace of Lowcountry cuisine. The menu mixes the delightfully retro—oysters Rockefeller, steak au poivre, whole lobster—with the modern—foie gras with peach jelly, lamb with coconut-mint pesto. Low-lighting, dark wood and antique oil paintings give the dining room a classic early 20th century ambiance. If you're looking to impress a date, this is the place. The crowds are well-dressed and skew slightly older than some of Charleston's more modern New Southern restaurants.

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McCrady's

Neighborhood: Historic District Price: Expensive
McCrady's chef, Sean Brock, just won a 2010 James Beard Award for being the best chef in the Southeast, and it's easy to see why. This farm-to-table restaurant serves innovative New Southern cuisine with ingredients sourced from the finest area farmers. Case-in-point: the fried sweetbreads with Sea Island red peas and the local suckling pig with wheat berries and pine. The chef's tasting menu is a major treat and is perfect for special occaisions. The crowds are well-heeled but informal, and serious about food. The high-ceilinged space, with warehouse-y exposed brick and burnished wood floorboards, keeps things from feeling at all stuffy. Reservations are a must and we recommend calling at least three days in advance.

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Fat Hen

Neighborhood: Johns Island Price: Moderate
This new Johns Island bistro serves Southern comfort food with a French flair (the menu is a delicious combination of items like barbecued quail, big bowls of mussels in white wine sauce, duck confit with local butter beans). The atmosphere is farmhouse-chic, with wooden tables and pale yellow walls. Crowds are mixed-age and mostly local, dressed in trendy but casual attire. Brunch is popular—we're strong advocates of the crab crepes,but the French toast with Grand Marnier and strawberries is also a decadent treat. The restaurant is about a 20 minute drive from downtown Charleston.

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Hominy Grill

Neighborhood: Historic District Price: Moderate
A favorite with in-the-know local foodies, this casual New Southern cafe is tucked away slightly north of the Historic District. Shrimp and grits are the house specialty, dressed up with mushrooms, scallions, bacon and plenty of cheese. Fried chicken and sesame-crusted catfish are also hits. Brunch may be Hominy's best meal, with homemade sausage, buttermilk pancakes, and a deliriously tasty item known as the "big nasty biscuit"—a biscuit with fried chicken, cheese and gravy. You know you want it. In an old storefront, the restaurant retains a chic country store vibe, with wooden floors and blackboard menus on the walls but if you can, snag a table in the shady outdoor courtyard.

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Basil Thai

Neighborhood: Upper King Price: Moderate
This longtime Upper King establishment is one of Charleston's most popular Thai restaurants. In a city not known for its ethnic cuisine, its soups and curries are a refreshing change from shrimp, grits and fried chicken. Crowds tend to be arty locals fueling up before a night on the town. Try the fresh basil rolls, a light appetizer of shrimp and veggies rolled in a rice paper wrapper. The deep-fried boneless duck is another favorite. Atmosphere is upscale urban casual, with mustard yellow walls and a slick wooden bar.

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Hyman's Seafood Restaurant

Neighborhood: Historic District Price: Moderate
One of Charleston's most iconic restaurants, Hyman's has suffered from the curse of popularity. Lines for dinner can stretch halfway down the block; lunch can be nearly as bad, especially when tour groups come through. Still, the old gal's got a lot of atmosphere and is one of the Historic District's more family-friendly establishments. When your name is finally called, you'll be led to a table in one of sprawling Hyman's wood-paneled dining rooms. The vast menu ranges from fried seafood to...more fried seafood, with the occasional broiled, steamed or pan-seared item thrown in for good measure. Always start with the she-crab soup, a Charleston favorite.

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The Wreck of the Richard & Charlene

Neighborhood: Mount Pleasant Price: Moderate
The Wreck, as locals call it, serves some of the best fried seafood we've ever had in our lives. Hidden away down a dirt road by Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant, it's a bit of a trick to find. Don't expect a traditional restaurant, either—the Wreck is housed in an old bait warehouse. Locals sit at plastic tables eating boiled peanuts and waiting for platters of delicately fried scallops, shrimp, oysters and flounder. You'll see businessmen in ties sitting next to truckers in greasy John Deere caps; it's that kind of place. Finish with a dish of banana pudding.

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Dixie Supply Bakery and Cafe

Neighborhood: Historic District Price: Budget
This super-casual cafe is quickly becoming a local favorite for meals on the go. Items like tomato pie with sweet potato cornbread are nice for an outdoor picnic. Breakfast is possibly the bakery's most popular meal, with overstuffed omelets, croissant French toast, and, of course, shrimp and grits on order. Don't miss the house-made chips either, they're soooo much better than anything you'll find in a foil bag at the grocery store.

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Dixie Supply Bakery and Cafe  

Gullah Cuisine

Neighborhood: Mount Pleasant Price: Budget
Gullah Cuisine, a friendly highway-side restaurant in Mount Pleasant, is one of the best places to try the food of the Gullah people, the descendents of West African slaves who inhabit South Carolina's Sea Islands. The food combines Southern ingredients with West African techniques, resulting in dishes like oxtail stew, candied yams and jambalaya-like rice dishes. Come for the lunch buffet to maximize your tasting experience. Crowds are mostly local, and the atmosphere's nothing to write home about—fluorescent lighting, bland framed art prints. But after your first bite of spiced cabbage or fresh succotash, you won't notice a thing but the food in front of you.

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