Frequent visitor and professional foodie shares his new restaurant and bar discoveries.
By Chris Chamberlain
I try to get to Charleston, South Carolina at least a couple times a year: once for sure during the Charleston Wine + Food Festival and again strictly for pleasure. Because, y’know, eating and drinking my way around a city is actually my job, so I like to exert my amateur status every now and again. I’ve actually been known to drive the eight hours each way for the festival in March and then turn around and do it again for my girlfriend’s spring break a week later.
But this year I had the opportunity to be a part of the inaugural BevCon, a gathering of spirits professionals including drink writers, distillers, mixologists and distributors.
Believe it or not, the weather wasn’t too horrific, and my go-to cheap lodging at the Not So Hostel Annex provided adequate A/C in my private room. (That’s a luxury in a hostel.) Plus I was less than a five-minute walk away from BevCon headquarters at the new Hyatt House. Although the educational seminars at the conference were fascinating and educational, the organizers were smart enough to leave us attendees plenty of time to explore Charleston on our own, including two nights of organized bar takeovers where our convention badges were good for drink discounts.
So here are some of my favorite new finds of late in the Charleston food and bev scene.
While Sean Brock’s iconic restaurant has been around for quite awhile, the chef has reinvented it as two separate spaces with unique dining experiences. While the new experimental tasting kitchen upstairs had not opened on my last visit, I’ve heard nothing but raves from friends who have sat at that chef’s bar for the multi-course foodgasm. The redesigned McCrady’s Tavern downstairs still houses one of the comfiest bars in Charleston plus a new menu that emphasizes colonial recipes of fascinating historic dishes. For a meal unlike any you’ll probably find outside of that building, check it out!
The Darling Oyster Bar
I’ve actually been to The Darling a couple of times in the past year and enjoyed their food at some out-of-town food festivals. While they are certainly known for their raw bar, don’t miss out on the rest of the menu including ceviches, a fine example of shrimp & grits, and some great down-home fry baskets with shrimp, flounder or oysters. The Darling is also a fine spot for just cocktails and apps, thanks to a dramatic interior design in a refurbished 115-year old storefront. Located right in the middle of the hottest stretch of King Street, The Darling is an excellent place to start your evening, end your evening or, heck, spend your whole evening.
Another lovely spot a little bit more off the beaten path, Cannon Green is a historic property with the airy modern restaurant built around the facade of the former ancient building. Actually, multiple properties have been cobbled together to create this multi-use space including a 19th Century warehouse and a former art gallery. The result is a dining area with lots of light pouring in and an outdoor space that I imagine would be the perfect spot for a wedding reception or private cocktail party. I dined by myself at the bar and it was quite an enjoyable experience. The bartender was entertaining and helpful with food and drink suggestions, and the surrounding patrons waiting for their tables while enjoying a well-mixed cocktail were a lot of fun to hang with. The dinner menu is an eclectic offering of Mediterranean-inspired dishes featuring seasonal ingredients and house-made pastas. For a real treat, sign up for the six-course chef’s tasting menu.
More casual is Prohibition, a swinging speakeasy-style bar/restaurant at 547 King Street. The emphasis is certainly on the hooch, with excellent cocktails and a wide variety of beers and spirits (especially a deep shelf of bourbons,) but don’t skip the food at Prohibition. Small plates like tuna tartare and deviled eggs with trout are great for sharing while you enjoy a few cocktails, Prohibition also makes a fantastic burger that goes with everything! Made with grass-fed Angus beef and topped with bacon jam, cheddar, house pickles and garlic aioli, it’s a humdinger of a hamburger.
Even more down-home is Lewis Barbecue. Admittedly I was skeptical when I first heard about pitmaster John Lewis, a fairly hip young guy who had cooked with Aaron Franklin in Austin, Tex., and was coming to Charleston to show us Southerners a thing or two about how to smoke meat. Plus Lewis is a skinny guy with a beard who wears plaid flannel shirts and looks more like a Brooklynite than the stereotypical Southern pitmaster. Curse me and my preconceptions. I publicly apologize for doubting, even if it was just to myself. Dude can flat-out cook and his brisket is legit! Trimmed perfectly to avoid the cardinal sin of drying out during the smoking process, Lewis’ brisket is the finest I have ever tasted. (Although I’ve never sampled Franklin’s. I know. Bad food writer!) His new restaurant in Charleston is a must-visit addition to any eat-inerary.
The downest and dirtiest spot I discovered may just have been my favorite. Located about a half hour from Downtown on Isle of Palms, the Windjammer is an area institution for its huge open decks that offer views of the ocean while strong drinks offer views of the floor. A tiki paradise, cocktails are served in all sorts of kitschy glassware, or plasticware, ranging from coconuts to Easter Island heads. Although Hurricane Matthew did his best to try to deal a blow to The Windjammer, the resilient club quickly restored itself to its former squalor and bands continue to entertain rowdy crowds on weekends. It’s totally worth the trip to visit this house of fun. Our group fortunately had a bus to get us back to town. You might want to make other arrangements.
– Photos courtesy of Annie Hamnett, Nickie Cutrona, and Chris Chamberlain. Click image for details.
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.