Want to eat like a local? This is your place.
It’s no secret that Charleston, South Carolina, is a food city.
Inventive James Beard Award nominees mingle with just-plain-good eateries that have been there for forever. The city’s culinary scene is heralded as one of the best in the country, and it draws pilgrims in search of killer coconut cake and fresh-off-the-boat seafood from around the world.
In the Holy City, restaurants are a dime a dozen, and with all the options, it can be hard to distinguish the overhyped from the underrated.
I grew up in Charleston, but since I moved away more than six years ago, it’s become hard to keep up with the ever-growing food scene. Every time I pop home for the holidays or a friend’s wedding, it seems there are eighteen new restaurants to try.
Some of those places have quickly become Charleston classics – places that feel like they’ve always been there, that Charleston wouldn’t quite be Charleston without: Take Leon’s, for instance, whose crispy catfish sandwich could, as my dad says, make a fox hug a hound. Or Butcher & Bee, where the whipped feta drizzled in fermented honey is so divine it warrants a return trip or ten.
But when it comes to breakfast, I’ll leave the shiny new spots for other folks.
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Give me breakfast at the Marina Variety Store Restaurant, and I’m a happy camper.
It’s no-fuss, no-frills establishment perched, as its name suggests, right in the marina, overlooking the Ashley River.
The menu is straightforward and simple, and you check in with the hostess at a wood-paneled station built to look like a ship. Placemats are paper, printed with facts about South Carolina (Did you know yellow jasmine is the state flower?), a real education for out-of-towners who manage to stumble upon the Variety Store, or a nice refresher for the local set.
It’s kitschy in that wonderfully nostalgic sort of way, with honey-hued wooden booths and ship’s lights overhead and all kinds of nautical paraphernalia tacked to the walls. They make a mean stack of pancakes, and the standard two-eggs breakfast with toast and grits, add bacon, never fails, either. Your Smucker’s jam and jellies are there for the taking on the end of the table – no house-made preserves here. Those in search of fresh seafood can find that at breakfast with a crab-stuffed eggs benedict or seafood omelet, or they can come back for lunch or dinner.
The lasting magic of the Variety Store is that it doesn’t pretend to be anything that it’s not. Today, they still do what they’ve done since they opened in 1963: They make good, stick-to-your-ribs food, served up with a side of down-home Southern hospitality and a dynamite view of the water. And that’s pretty hard – even for a James Beard Award nominee – to beat.