The South's Best City 2022: Charleston, South Carolina
While Charleston is celebrated for its elegant row houses, cobblestone streets, and treasure trove of historic sites, the Holy City is far from frozen in the past. A vibrant community for over three centuries, Charleston hums with the energy of a cosmopolitan coastal enclave—one with an undeniable and irrepressible Southern accent.
The New Stays
Hotels are abundant these days around town. Notable among them are The Ryder and Emeline, both located in the historic district and both boutique renovations of existing properties that had lost their luster. What makes these two distinctive—besides their impressive designs and superb food and drink offerings—is their emphasis on engagement and sociability.
At The Ryder Hotel, Cortney Bishop Design has reimagined a 91-room property as a relaxed and decidedly beachy resort in the heart of the peninsula. Warm earth tones, light-stained woods, and bold art set the stage. The centerpiece of the space is Little Palm, a bar adjacent to the pool deck (created by the team who opened famed Death & Co in New York City). It's a tropical dream tinted with pinks and teals, serving elevated cocktails and offering a see-and-be-seen vibe. Since its opening in 2021, it has become a prime spot to relax, have a drink, and chat on a sunny afternoon.
A short walk away is Emeline, which overlooks the Historic Charleston City Market. This property includes amenities like complimentary bike rentals and has 212 guest rooms (all with king beds) that have special touches, from handheld clothes steamers to turntables. The warm dark grays, smooth woods, and plush robes create a sense of calm in a part of town that's often buzzing with traffic and tourists eager to see the sights. The result is a best-of-both-worlds experience for travelers, who can enjoy the city's energy without getting overwhelmed by it.
Especially inviting is Emeline's local hot spot, Frannie & The Fox. With an open dining room as well as a courtyard with cafe seating under twinkling lights, this restaurant draws in locals and visitors with its Southern-meets-Italian dishes by chef Tim Morton, served in a setting that makes you want to linger.
"There's a feeling here that Emeline is a breath of fresh air for Charleston," Morton says. "I'm proud to be part of a place that doesn't have a cookie-cutter atmosphere. Frannie & The Fox is shifting the idea of the hotel restaurant because we have an independent sensibility." Locals are once again returning to this area of town for Morton's hand-rolled tortelloni, marinated olives, wood-fired pizzas, and seasonal specialties.
In the past two years, celebrity chef and author Vivian Howard (of the PBS series A Chef's Life) has made her first forays outside North Carolina with two restaurants at the Renaissance Charleston Historic District Hotel. Handy + Hot, which serves breakfast and lunch, has jaunty red booths where diners savor pimiento-cheese grits and traditional North Carolina Apple Jax Hand Pies, along with plenty of biscuits and coffee.
Next door at Lenoir, Howard can often be found in-house, greeting guests as they enjoy blueberry-barbecue chicken wings, fried collards, pork chops, and carrot cake with mocha icing. It's a flexible menu that reflects how she likes to eat: sometimes with friends, sometimes with kids in tow, and all the time with people who have varying palates.
Howard's story comes through in the decor, which includes her butter bean-shelling pans as artwork on a back wall and part of her cookbook collection on the oval-shaped bar in the center of the space. Lenoir walks the line between neighborhood spot and tourist draw, a difficult task made easy with a seasoned front-of-house staff and an atmosphere that's bright and welcoming.
Also worth attention are the servers at Chubby Fish, a local gem tucked away on Coming Street. Led by general manager Yoanna Tang, the employees exude a relaxed air that belies their thorough, carefully honed knowledge of the wine list and menu items. Here, an average wait of more than an hour on the sidewalk feels more like a party than an imposition. Guests sip funky pét-nat wines and chat while awaiting any and all of the seafood-centric dishes that chef James London and his staff prepare from an improvisational menu.
London's approach to ultraseasonal seafood is inspired by his tenure with sushi chefs in San Francisco and New York City, but when the time came to open his own spot, this Charleston-born cook could imagine no better place than his hometown. While there's no guarantee exactly what will be on the menu on any given night, the chili-garlic shrimp have been served since the doors opened in 2018, so be sure to order some for the table—and a caviar sandwich or two.
A Booming Beer Scene
If your tastes lean more toward beer and brats than caviar and Champagne, then it's time to seriously consider Charleston as a brewery destination. Although the city has long had an established cocktail scene and is growing into one of the best wine towns in America, beer drinkers have often had to settle for something light from a large-scale producer.
But that has all changed now. In a largely industrial area where Meeting Street becomes Meeting Street Road, you'll find 10 spots to enjoy a dizzying array of craft options right from their sources. From the hiding-in-plain-sight Lo-Fi Brewing (its only identification is a single small changeable-letter sign) to Revelry Brewing (the rooftop bar features sunset views and a DJ), taprooms now dot this neighborhood. There are also many more to discover throughout the metro area.
On weekends, many tourists catch the free Charleston Brewery District hop-on trolley (the route begins at Tradesman Brewing Company) or another shuttle so they can sip safely.
For family time, a couple's outing, or a bachelor party, crabbing on an Ashley River marina dock with Tia Clark and her staff is just plain fun. Slowly pulling up a handline from the bottom and catching the reflection of the late-afternoon sun in a drop running along the line is pretty enough, but the real beauty is that the crabs are usually biting. The crew from Casual Crabbing with Tia act as fishing concierges to make sure you get to try pulling baskets, handlines, and fishing rods and throwing a cast net. All of these methods—especially using a cast net—have cemented Clark's role as an ambassador for her family's Gullah Geechee culture, but it was something she had to grow into.
"I started out feeling fear and intimidation about sharing my passion for this," recalls Clark, a former bar manager. "That has all changed, and I have nothing but pride. What I do every day has brought me closer to the food I eat, my family, and especially my culture. I hope folks leave the dock with love and respect for the water and all that resides in it."
Like Clark, Charleston wants visitors to leave with respect for its current and former residents. The city is growing into a new, more truthful interpretation of its complex past, of enslavement and its indelible marks.
The McLeod Plantation Historic Site on James Island, conserved and opened to the public in 2015 by Charleston County Parks, was honored in 2019 as a Site of Conscience by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. Among the first places in South Carolina to be so designated, it was acknowledged for its groundbreaking interpretation and social engagement. What truly matters, of course, aren't the accolades themselves but the restored pride in culture that they represent—and the sense of hope they bring for the future of this great Southern city.