Charleston Appetizer Crawl
One Appetizer at a Time
We’re writing this from our treadmills.
After all, eating heaping amounts of rich Lowcountry cuisine at nearly every restaurant in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, is no small task. But we sacrificed our waistlines to map out a fun way for you to taste the town: an appetizer crawl.
The cast of characters in this adventure includes Lyda, culinary school graduate extraordinaire; Jennifer, pork enthusiast and all-around food maven; and Shannon, a registered dietitian with a weakness for mac and cheese. We dove palate-first into one of the South’s foremost culinary meccas, tasting literally 197 dishes―we swam in shrimp and grits, slept on beds of plump foie gras, and all but bathed in she-crab soup. All for you, dear reader, to arm you with everything you need to sample the best of the best in Charleston.
Here’s your road map to choosing your own roaming culinary adventure.
photo: McCrady's long bar
This Lowcountry retreat, with distressed columns, buttery yellow walls, and oil paintings of palmetto trees and crumbling lean-tos, gets portion sizes just right. It’s a great place to sample a host of regional specialties without overloading on the fried factor.
Don’t Miss the traditional favorite, shrimp and grits. Anson masters simplicity with perfection: grits (stone-ground in-house) married with tender certified Wild American Shrimp, shrouded in a light sauce, studded with bacon and roasted tomatoes. 12 Anson Street; www.ansonrestaurant.com or (843) 577-0551
Local boy chef Jeremiah Bacon brings a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and seven years of experience in lauded New York restaurants, such as Thomas Keller’s renowned Per Se, back to the Lowcountry. This is the place to try a variety of dishes. We happily chomped through our personal buffet of seasonal foods: shad roe with blue cheese grits, glazed quail, and a delightfully tender chunk of honey-lacquered bacon. The kitchen is open for lunch, but the real culinary magic doesn’t happen until the 5 o’clock witching hour.
Don’t Miss the Magnolia Plantation Old Fashion cocktail. Made with Russell’s Reserve bourbon, peach nectar, muddled orange, and lemon, this refreshing libation is a sip of Southernness. Be careful though―it’s so easy to drink, you might forget it packs a punch. 10 Exchange Street; www.carolinasrestaurant.com or (843) 724-3800
photo: At Carolina’s listen to your server call out the specials of the day so you don’t miss out on delights such as shad roe over blue cheese grits.
This is fresh food like it was meant to be served. Pay attention to the in-season specials, and listen to server suggestions. We were talked into ordering a veggie plate and were aptly rewarded for taking the advice. Consider making FIG as your last stop; while many kitchens close earlier, it’s late-night friendly.
Don’t Miss the cauliflower, seared in a cast-iron skillet and roasted with mustard butter, is a revelation. 232 Meeting Street; www.eatatfig.com or (843) 805-5900
photo: Mike Lata, executive chef and co-owner of FIG, has helped strengthen the local food movement in Charleston with fresh fare and a respect for the seasons.
Gaulart & Maliclet French Café
Quirky in design, with a long bar of communal seating and lots of French flair, the restaurant was made with a crawl in mind. This great-value favorite is an ideal spot to indulge that sweet tooth with a smorgasbord of desserts and a French-pressed café crème, served with a scoop of ice cream in place of heavy cream.
Don’t Miss the chocolate mousse cake. Its chocolate cookie crust and fluffy filling hit the spot, without sending you into insulin shock. 98 Broad Street; www.fastandfrench.org or (843) 577-9797
photo: Stop for dessert at Gaulart & Maliclet French Café, also known as Fast & French. The warm Bourbon Butterscotch Cake is crunchy on the outside and moist on the inside, served with a scoop of ice cream. Enjoy it even more with a cup of café crème.
Local food at its finest―homegrown, organic, and delicious. Chef Sean Brock is so dedicated to quality control he and the staff tend to a farm daily to biodynamically raise 21⁄2 acres of vegetables and a posse of pigs. “We start the day playing with tractors, and then we come here and play with the food,” says the ruddy-faced Sean. We like the bar area, which used to be part of an alleyway, with alcove table seating crafted from converted horse stables.
Don’t Miss the charcuterie platter. There really wasn’t anything that didn’t elicit a “Wow, you have to try this!” but Sean’s selection of house-cured meats (salami, coppa, soppressata) is a porcine dream. 2 Unity Alley; www.mccradysrestaurant.com or (843) 577-0025
photo: McCrady’s long bar and alcove seating offer guests room to mix and mingle.
Although the mahogany-paneled, three-story monolith is dressed to impress, froufrou dining this is not. Chef and owner Brett McKee, with his cue ball haircut, Brooklyn twang, and landscape of tattoos, has an almost cult following among local patrons for his brash (but endearing) attitude and killer steaks.
Don’t Miss the decadent lobster-and-shrimp mac and cheese. Gooey, rich, packed with buttery tail and claw meat―it disappeared fast at our table. Technically it’s not an appetizer, but with a crawl, you can order any dish to share. 17 Broad Street; www.oaksteakhouserestaurant.com
photo: Chocolate Indulgence is the name of this dessert at Oak Steakhouse. It’s six layers of devil’s food cake and chocolate buttercream served with a shot of ice-cold milk.
Pearlz Oyster Bar
Beams of natural light paint the crowded oyster bar in this happy hour go-to. Start your crawl here with a glass of Champagne (a steal at $3) and a selection of fresh raw oysters, including briny Carolina Cups from nearby waters and creamy Quonset Points from coastal Rhode Island.
Don’t Miss the corn fritters. With a fried crispy coating and a dusting of powdered sugar, they taste like a funnel cake at the fair. 153 East Bay Street; www.pearlzoysterbar.com or (843) 577-5755
photo: Don’t leave Pearlz without trying the melt-in-your-mouth corn fritters, served piping hot in a wire basket lined with faux newspaper.
Virginia's on King
If you’re in the mood for down-home flavor, this is the place. The menu, a collection of family recipes and Southern cooking traditions, offers everything from fried chicken to deviled crab. Go hungry―the portions are generous, something to consider when planning your crawl.
Don’t Miss the tomato aspic or the fried chicken livers. The aspic envelops a poached shrimp and takes us back to Sunday lunch on the grounds. The chicken livers with caramelized onions and bacon lardons showcase why sweet and bitter work so well together. 412 King Street; www.virginiasonking.com or (843) 735-5800
photo: Comfort food at Virginia’s is what we all crave. Fried chicken and deviled crab were two of our favorites when we visited.
How to Crawl
- Three’s a charm: Limit your crawl to three stops. Any more than that, and you’ll end up racing the clock, not to mention reaching for the Pepcid.
- Keep it small: Tables for eight aren’t routinely available at a moment’s notice. Go with a small group―or be willing to split up.
- Make a reservation: Every place we recommend readily accommodates walk-ins. However, if you don’t want to risk eating at the bar, reserve at least one table along your route.
- Money matters: Crawling for appetizers can be cheaper than eating a full meal at a single restaurant (but not always). For the evening, expect to pay about $65 per person for a group of four. Cock¬tails and wine can escalate the bill significantly.
- Dress code: Charleston restaurants range from white tablecloth haute cuisine to laid-back cafes. Business casual is dinner-appropriate no matter which combination you choose. Just be sure to wear comfortable shoes―cobblestones and stilettos aren’t friends.