Low-Country Dining Redefined

Why you’ll want to chow down at Charleston’s hottest new restaurants

By Bill Addison | Photography by Stacy Howell

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Like the courtly, nearly 350-year-old South Carolina city itself, Charleston's dining scene receives lavish attention. The praise tends to zero in on an elite group of restaurants - Husk and its philosophy of hyperlocal food, swank bistro FIG, McCrady's with its elegant tasting menus - that opened in the last decade and helped usher in a Southern pride revival. These dining gems elevate bacon-riddled corn bread and pork headcheese to artful levels and coddle local seafood like triggerfish and grouper. Meanwhile, still-thriving favorites such as Hominy Grill and Slightly North of Broad prepare evocative versions of peninsula classics such as she-crab soup, fried green tomatoes, and, of course, shrimp and grits.

But a new class of restaurants just now emerging makes the Charleston feast worth discovering afresh. Using local, seasonal ingredients and beloved dishes as a launching pad, these upstarts (some casual, some upscale) look beyond the Low Country to charter bold flavor combinations and explore cuisines, from regional American to southeast Asian, previously overlooked in the Holy City. In this modern fusion frontier, Indian spices mingle with pickled shrimp. Kimchi perks up pimento cheese. Bratwurst adds oomph to collard greens. The pioneering chefs in these kitchens reflect an organic evolution of the South as it embraces outside culinary influences. After all, Charleston's gastronomic history simmered from a complex stew of multicultural origins, including African, European, and Caribbean.

The core of these next-gen enticements resides on Upper King Street, a hub of development about one mile north from the tourist area centered around the Historic Charleston City Market. Along this once-forlorn stretch of King, dilapidated department stores and rundown antique malls have morphed into glamorous dining rooms and come-hither bars.

THE ORDINARY
On the scene:
Don't be misled by this restaurant's name. Mike Lata, who won the 2009 James Beard Southeast Chef award for FIG ("Food Is Good"), devotes his extravagant sophomore restaurant to seafood's glories. He transformed the two stories of a stately, circa-1920s bank into a breathtaking dining hall with 22-foot ceilings that frame a sleek, always-packed bar and partitioned tables made of reclaimed walnut. An imposing steel vault surrounded by gleaming white tile now acts as a kitchen window behind an oyster bar where staffers madly shuck bivalves stacked on crushed ice.

Why it's unique: Sure, Charleston boasts many seafood houses dishing out fried-fish platters and garlicky sautes. But Lata dives into regional seafood more deeply than many other Holy City chefs, working directly with area fishermen to serve seasonal species and rarities such as local octopus. (He dubs his obsession "merroir," a seafaring riff on French culture's "terroir," the idea that geography affects food's flavor.) Lata also serves dishes inspired by the entire Eastern seaboard - from New England on down - and Louisiana, a clear departure from the city's typical provincial menus.

Don't miss:
Small plates, including silky fish chowder and pickled shrimp heady with cumin and coriander, rule the menu to encourage sharing. Lata's Maine lobster roll, piled into a buttery hoagie and dappled with celery leaves, puts all other versions to shame.

Essentials: 544 King St.; 843-414-7060; eattheordinary.com. Small plates $11-$25.

STARS RESTAURANT ROOFTOP & GRILL ROOM
On the scene:
Two parts Manhattan chophouse and one part New Orleans 1920s speakeasy, Stars lures with a butterscotch glow that shines through picture windows and onto the sidewalk. Inside, black leather booths line dark, wood-paneled walls lit by handblown glass fixtures and green-and-gold deco chandeliers. Diners arrive early to gather at the central, three-sided bar to sip wines served on tap from metal casks, or to imbibe cocktails such as the Capone (Templeton Rye whiskey with a splash of anise liqueur and Peychaud's bitters). After dinner, the well-heeled clientele ascends to the rooftop bar, with its dramatic 360-degree downtown view.

Why it's unique: Charleston restaurants, like the city itself, tend to be intimate and mannerly. Stars shatters that convention with its over-the-top, cosmopolitan glamour.

What to savor: Executive chef Nathan Thurston commands the kitchen's massive, oak-fueled grill, which he calls the "Grates of Hell." It includes a rotisserie for roasting chicken, which emerges moist and crackly skinned and comes nestled in warm bread salad with mustardy dressing. But the true showstopper proves to be lobster and grits, a Low-Country fever dream that zigzags between smoky, earthy, sweet, and piquant: The whole grilled crustacean arrives bathed in lobster bisque and studded with bacon, cauliflower, and golden raisins over a bed of creamy, locally milled grits.

Essentials: 495 King St.; 843-577-0100; starsrestaurant.com. Entrees $21.75-$37.

THE LOT
On the scene:
A 15-minute cab ride from downtown across the Ashley River delivers you to quiet James Island, fringed with verdant marshland. In-the-know food lovers are buzzing about this hidden gem, painted in sunny primary colors, that adjoins a live-music venue called the Pour House.

Why it's unique: "Farm-to-table" dining has become a vague, hackneyed expression. But the Lot's chef, Alex Lira, lives up to the ideal of the term: He prepares produce (grown on nearby farms) with reverential restraint, using an unusually light touch so flavors remain sunny and vivid. He also crafts his own charcuterie from South Carolina hogs.

Don't miss: Lira hand-rolls cavatelli, a miniature shell-shaped pasta, and tosses the shells in rotating sauces, maybe a silken carbonara with house-cured bacon or a sultry beef ragu lightened with fresh ricotta. Look out for a duo of meatballs and local octopus, whose toothy textures play off each other brilliantly.

Essentials: 1977 Maybank Highway; 843-225-0094; thelotcharleston.com. Entrees $15-$24.

THE GREEN DOOR
On the scene:
A glimpse beyond the chartreuse entryway reveals a small restaurant with neon orange walls, blue plastic booths, framed renderings of pigs and cows, and a squat wooden statue of Buddha on one shelf. This psychedelic playroom clues you in to the no-boundaries brain behind the operation. Chef-owner Cory Burke first hurtled onto the Charleston dining scene with his Roti Rolls food truck, serving eccentric ingredients (choices included spicy mac and cheese, curried peaches, and pickled vegetables) wrapped in Indian flatbread.

Why it's unique:
Burke's imagination hasn't dimmed now that he owns a brick-and-mortar. It astonishes that so many of his outré-sounding combinations hold universal appeal, mesmerizing Charlestonians and visitors alike.

What to savor: Start with an East-West salad of lettuces, pickled radishes, goat cheese, and fish sauce vinaigrette, served in a Mason jar. For the GD burger, Burke grinds a blend of short rib, brisket, and chuck; a flavor blast of pimento cheese, house-made kimchi, hoisin aioli, optional fried egg, and arugula crowns the patty. For more refined options, look to nightly specials such as lettuce wraps filled with fried oysters or, to share, whole grouper roasted with citrus.

Essentials: 251 E. Bay St.; 843-754-9914; thegreendoorchs.com. Noodle bowls, salads, and sandwiches $7-$14.

XIAO BAO BISCUIT
On the scene:
In Cannonborough-Elliotborough, a leafy neighborhood a few blocks off the city's main thoroughfares, owners Joshua Walker and Duolan Li launched their cheeky boîte in a former gas station after traveling throughout Asia and then hosting sellout pop-up Charleston dinners. On a balmy day, snag a seat at one of the green picnic tables under the covered patio. Walker and Li originally intended to include Southern inspirations on their menu, but the array of dishes from China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam drew such crowds that they left Dixie out of the mix altogether.

Why it's unique:
Charleston could never have foreseen such a feisty blend of dishes from the East all served under one roof. Smashing cocktails like the Hanoi 75 - made with gin, lime, cucumber, Velvet Falernum, and green Chartreuse - only boost the allure.

Don't miss: No biscuit appears on the menu, but a Japanese pancake does. Okonomiyaki combines shredded cabbage, kale, carrots, and scallions with optional fried egg and pork belly (say yes to both) and squiggles of mayonnaise and chili sauce: It's a Jackson Pollock on a plate. An exceptional ramen, the food world's obsession du jour, soothes with springy noodles, unctuous broth, and the gentle crunch of seasonal vegetables.

Essentials: 224 Rutledge Ave.; xiaobaobiscuit.com. Entrees $12-$18.

2 Just-Opened, Must-Try Bars

Clubby speakeasies where bourbon flows remain an integral part of the Charleston vibe. But a new generation of watering holes looks to urbane influences beyond the South, approaching cocktails with refreshing originality.

THE RAREBIT

Midcentury-modern swank — a curvy, white marble bar with gray leather swivel stools; booths upholstered in gray plaid cloth; a sunburst light fixture near the entrance — gives this deep, narrow room a retro vibe. But skip Mad Men martinis in favor of one of four juleps made with different liquors (try the rum or gin versions) served in pewter cups. The Rarebit also serves an Americana menu of patty melts and tomato soup, but the drinks hog the spotlight. 474 King St.; 843-974-5483; therarebit.com

REPUBLIC GARDEN & LOUNGE
A line into this glittery lounge often forms behind a red rope on weekends (weekdays see less throngs), but once you’re inside, the experience happily skirts pretense: Diverse crowds sprawl on royal-blue banquettes or sidle up to the bar lit by a gold chandelier of tear-shaped icicles. Home in on the carafes of prosecco- or sparkling-wine-based cocktails, or try the Manhattan offered on draft. 462 King St.; 843-724-7400; republicreign.com

And For Something Sans The Alcohol, Dellz Vibez
Need a healthy pick-me-up after a long night of imbibing? Nicole Brown runs Charleston’s first stand-alone juice bar (her mother, Maudell Grayson, operates Dellz’s Deli nearby), and her irrepressible warmth energizes as much as her smoothies. Slurp down the “Halla Berry,” made with strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, bananas, spinach (you won’t taste it), lime, and coconut water. 569-C King St.; 843-577-8900; dellzvibez.com

2 Especially Cozy Lodging Options

Both these small, chic, and modern Charleston hotels break away from the antebellum formality that defines many of the city’s guesthouses.

ZERO GEORGE STREET
(which opened just this year)
Disappear into this 18-room enclave of five restored buildings (the oldest dates to 1804), whose architecture encapsulates Charleston style: tranquil piazzas (the city’s jargon for side porches), handsome heart pine floors, and a meticulously manicured courtyard garden that weaves through the property. The rooms exude surprising contemporary coziness with marble bathrooms and sleek, carved wooden bed frames. Foodies can learn to prepare Low-Country staples at on-site cooking classes. From $395. 0 George St.; 843-817-7900; zerogeorge.com

RESTORATION ON KING

The double-entendre name of this 16-suite inn, located on a shop-filled corner in the city’s historic district, refers to both the street on which it resides and the 17th-century period of British history during which Charleston was first settled. Exposed brick, hardwood floors, and fully equipped kitchens create a big-city loft atmosphere. But the staff’s graciousness (expect freshly baked cookies each evening) reminds that you’re in the cradle of Southern hospitality. From $299. 75 Wentworth St.; 877-221-7202; restorationonking.com

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