Discover everything you need to devour in Charleston, South Carolina, including Southern staples like sweet tea and fried chicken.
If you want a taste of true southern cooking, you need to visit Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston cuisine is defined by its coastal location and soul food influence, with foods as rich in history as they are in flavor. Although the Holy City has grown and evolved in recent years, classic Southern foods like shrimp and grits and she-crab soup remain staples of the Charleston food scene.
Shrimp and Grits
If Charleston had an official dish, it would be shrimp and grits. This classic Lowcountry dish tells the history of the region in every bite, combining traditional Native American and Gullah cuisines with modern Southern flavors. Grits, a food made from ground corn, have been a staple in the Southern diet for hundreds of years. Don’t be surprised if you see grits served for every meal of the day–they’re a standard Southern breakfast food as well. Each restaurant has its own take on shrimp and grits, but you can find a great example of this iconic Charleston dish at Husk.
She-crab soup is another classic Southern food you need to try in Charleston. Traditional versions of this bisque-like soup include crabmeat, crab roe, sherry, and plenty of heavy cream. Think of it as Charleston’s answer to New England clam chowder. You can find this luxurious soup on countless menus throughout Charleston, but 82 Queen in downtown Charleston has a particularly famous recipe.
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Southerners love their fried chicken, and Charleston has some of the tastiest. People in the south have strong opinions about the best way to make fried chicken, with secret recipes passed down for generations. This Southern dish is normally soaked in a buttermilk mixture before it’s deep fried to golden brown perfection. Visit Leon’s Oyster Shop for killer fried chicken and hush puppies, another Southern snack made of fried cornmeal batter.
Although New Orleans claims ownership of the sandwich, you can’t beat a Charleston po’ boy stuffed with fried local shrimp or oysters. In Charleston, po’ boys are almost exclusively seafood sandwiches, unlike the roast beef or fried chicken versions located in other parts of the south. Check out a classic interpretation of this tasty seafood sandwich at 167 Raw.
You can’t visit South Carolina without trying real soul food. The term “soul food” encompasses a wide variety of foods with African, Native American, and colonial origins that are popular in the South. Some examples of traditional soul food dishes include fried fish, collard greens, fried okra, cornbread, and more. Any grandma in Charleston will tell you that even though this food isn’t great for your waistline, it sure is good for your soul. You can find all the soul food standards at Martha Lou’s Kitchen, a tiny pink restaurant that’s been open for over 30 years.
South Carolina Barbeque
Every state in the south has a different recipe for barbeque, and South Carolinians will proudly tell you it’s their sauces that make their version unique. Pulled pork is the barbeque meat of choice in South Carolina, and you’ll find it topped with either mustard-based or vinegar-based barbeque sauce at most local BBQ joints. Head to Rodney Scott’s BBQ, located on Upper King Street in downtown Charleston, to try some delicious South Carolina barbeque.
Fresh Charleston Oysters
Seafood is a huge part of Charleston cuisine, and fresh oysters from the Charleston area are worth a try if you can find them! Lowcountry oysters are normally sweet and briny, and they’re often smaller than oysters from the Northeast or West Coast. You’ll see Charleston oysters prepared a variety of ways, including roasted, raw, fried, and stewed! Try your hand at shucking your own oysters at an outdoor oyster roast for an authentic Charleston experience. You can find a selection of local oysters (and other local shellfish) at Amen Street Fish and Raw Bar.
INSIDER TIPThere’s an old saying that you should only eat oysters in months that have an “r,” meaning oysters are best September through April. This is particularly true in Charleston because the hot summers allow bacteria in the ocean to grow more easily. Charleston oysters are in greatest supply during the winter months.
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Start your day in Charleston with a hot buttermilk biscuit for breakfast. Top your biscuit with butter and jam for a sweet treat, or grab a breakfast sandwich with biscuit buns for a heartier meal. For a true taste of the South, try a biscuit smothered in creamy sausage gravy. Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit is the most popular place for biscuits in Charleston. The menu features artery-clogging favorites like the pimento cheese, sausage, and egg biscuit.
Frogmore Stew, also known as Beaufort Stew or Lowcountry Boil, is a meal normally found at family gatherings in South Carolina. The stew is traditionally comprised of corn, sausage, shrimp, and potatoes, all boiled together with seafood seasoning. Frogmore Stew is simple, delicious, and filling. Although it’s normally made for crowds, you can find it offered at some Charleston restaurants, like Fleet Landing, which also has a stunning view of the Charleston Harbor.
Fried Green Tomatoes
Fried green tomatoes are a simple and addictive Southern snack made with unripe tomatoes. Tangy green tomatoes are sliced, dipped in seasoned cornmeal, and deep-fried, creating a crunchy crust with a juicy interior. You can find fried green tomatoes offered as an appetizer at several Charleston restaurants, including Poogan’s Porch.
While you can still find plenty of traditional Southern cocktails like mint juleps in Charleston, there are several new options worth trying in the Holy City. Try a cocktail infused with modern Southern flavor at one of the many bars on King Street in Charleston. Proof is known for a cocktail called the “Knuckleball,” which features whiskey, coke, and pickled boiled peanuts. Check out The Captain Bloody Mary at The Darling Oyster Bar for a cocktail with a side of seafood; the drink is topped with crab, shrimp, and hushpuppies!
All Charlestonians know that a large glass of iced sweet tea is the best way to cool off on a hot South Carolina day. You can find sweet tea at practically every establishment in South Carolina. Firefly Distillery, located in nearby Wadmalaw, South Carolina, even makes sweet tea flavored vodka!
INSIDER TIPVisit Charleston Tea Plantation, the only operating North American tea plantation, for a first-hand look at the history of tea cultivation in the United States.
Southern Bread Pudding
Southern bread pudding is everything you want in a Southern dessert: it’s sweet, rich, and buttery enough to clog your arteries. Each restaurant has a different recipe, but they’ll often include bread, butter, sugar, spices, dried fruits, and a touch of brandy. Hall’s Chophouse serves a mouth-watering version, featuring macerated cherries and a bourbon crème.
Hummingbird cake is another classic Southern dessert that you must have in Charleston. This cake is made with pineapple, banana, pecans, and cinnamon, and it’s normally topped with a delicious cream cheese frosting. Hummingbird cakes can be hard to hunt down because they’re normally made for family gatherings, but you can find them offered seasonally at Carmella’s Café and Dessert Bar!