Across the Lowcountry, you can find dozens of mediocre shrimp and grits plates. But to really know—and love—a city like Charleston, you have to eat where the locals do.
Southern seafood shines at a forward-thinking, family-run joint in Edisto Beach. In downtown Charleston, a 15-year-old Mediterranean stalwart wins local hearts for top-notch tagliatelle Bolognese. Though it only opened in 2021, an Indian-inspired Cannonborough-Elliotborough spot already earned neighborhood gem status for its innovative fusion plates and signature okra negroni.
These Charleston restaurants happily serve tourists. But they’ve persisted thanks to strong local support. Read on to make a reservation at 12 neighborhood favorites right now.
Sorghum & Salt (Cannonborough-Elliotborough)
Most noteworthy restaurants in Charleston patronize local farmers and fishermen, but this Cannonborough-Elliotborough star puts sourcing at the front and center of its operations. The menu changes daily (the best way to experience it is via the four- or six-course tasting menu), and the servers are eager to tell you about where your triggerfish was caught. Over half the menu is vegan (or available in a vegan preparation), and every dish is beautifully presented to highlight the kitchen’s creativity. It’s fancier than your average neighborhood joint, but the white-washed wood interiors set a casual, easygoing tone.
Indaco (Downtown Charleston)
It’s easy to forget that seemingly ubiquitous restaurant concepts, such as the open kitchen and farm-to-table menus, once felt novel and exciting. Indaco’s approach to casual but refined Italian food has served as a template for other restaurateurs since 2013. Fortunately, the rustic-chic spot continues to shine. Its fig pizza, adorned with caramelized onions, prosciutto, and gorgonzola, leaves a distinct flavor memory. The venison osso bucco over polenta is a perfect base for a night of bar hopping on King Street. Weekend brunch is especially popular—if you can, reserve a table on the patio a week or two in advance.
The Refuge (Isle of Palms)
When summer crowds descend on the Isle of Palms, residents know to rely on this strip-mall spot where the serene dining room reflects the restaurant’s name. In the morning, the Refuge is a coffee shop with an impressive breakfast spread that hits all the marks, from inventive Benedicts to stellar shrimp and grits. Lunch, available during the same hours as breakfast, is all about hand-held classics such as signature Reubens and crab cake sandwiches. After 5 pm, the Refuge transforms into a fine-ish dining establishment. Must-tries include the cioppino (shellfish stew) and the Lowcountry etouffee.
Ella & Ollie’s (Edisto Beach)
Edisto Beach’s history could be broken into “before E+O” and the delicious half decade since 2016, when this forward-thinking, family-run eatery took over the clubhouse at the island’s golf course. Chef Brandon Rushing and his wife, Katherine, turned it into a neighborhood gem. The couple did more than bring creative, thoughtful dining to the island—they strengthened a community by sourcing from Edisto suppliers and providing residents a place to enjoy that local bounty. Don’t miss the Marsh Hen Mill grit puppies with andouille and pepper jam. Other worthy entrées include fried flounder with grits and collard chow chow, shrimp gates with butter pea perloo, and lamb sausage and local clams over linguini. The good news: there’s no wrong order.
Coterie (Downtown Charleston)
When this Indian-inspired restaurant opened in 2021, it signaled a sea change for Charleston’s dining scene. Despite all of the national accolades the city’s restaurants have earned, they’ve long lacked international flavors. Thanks to recent openings including Jackrabbit Filly, Pink Bellies, and, of course, Coterie, that’s no longer the case. Set in Cannonborough-Elliotborough, Coterie also fills the role of neighborhood bistro and watering hole. Locals sip innovative cocktails, such as the signature okra negroni, and gather over fusion dishes including country captain tikka and tandoor-spiced steak.
The Kingstide (Daniel Island)
This Daniel Island destination draws regulars for its wraparound porches and open-air deck, made for happy hours and sunset views. People also return for its wood-fired grill staples: Oysters Rockefeller, prepped with hollandaise, bacon, and breadcrumbs, are among the city’s best. If you’re with a crowd, splurge on the signature seafood tower (oysters, clams, shrimp, crab). If you’re just grabbing a bite with drinks, don’t overlook the trout Reuben, brought to life with pickled cabbage and caraway.
Muse Restaurant (Downtown Charleston)
Muse, which opened in 2007, feels like the old guard in Charleston’s dynamic dining scene. Its success lies in a combination of dependability and creativity. Dining rooms in the historic Society Street home take their inspiration from Pompeii’s Villa of the Mysteries, with bold colors summoning an old world vibe. Staples including merguez (lamb) sausage and tagliatelle Bolognese complement seasonal fish and the always-available flash-fried sea bass. With 75 wines served by the glass, pairing options are endless. Tucked off King Street, Muse expertly serves both a loyal contingent of walk-to-dinner locals and an ever-changing stream of visitors.
Neon Tiger (Downtown Charleston)
Omnivores shouldn’t fear the Neon Tiger, an all-vegan restaurant that opened in 2021. The deeply innovative food that emerges from this kitchen serves as a window into what’s possible when animal proteins aren’t an option. A Philly cheesesteak (made with black pepper and Dijon seitan) or a “Big Buffalo Chicken” sandwich aren’t typical vegan options, even at restaurants that cater to their plant-friendly audience. This dimly lit spot (reservations are essential) reminds people that eating vegan doesn’t mean sacrificing. If you don’t tell your meat-loving dining companion, they might not even notice the difference.
Jalisco Taqueria & Tequila (James Island)
The building housing this Mexican restaurant has endured nine lives, morphing from an Applebee’s to short-lived concepts such as a budget meat-and-three. Jalisco, which opened in 2020, may be the one that sticks, thanks to local enthusiasm for its mole enchiladas, grilled ribeye carne asada, and an array of tacos with veggie options such as mushroom chorizo and avocado with queso fresco. The savory goodness emerges from an open kitchen that fronts a long, welcoming bar, framing the dining room in between. Daily specials on margaritas, tacos, and a salsa trio keep James Islanders coming.
EVO Pizza (Park Circle)
In 2005, EVO (Extra Virgin Oven) helped transform the Charleston dining scene. The founders left their jobs at FIG, a Southern bistro downtown, to launch a wood-fired pizza truck that sourced from local farmers. That quickly led to a permanent location in Park Circle, where they’ve continued to serve a simple menu of the city’s best pizzas and salads to a loyal following of diehards and newcomers. The homey, brick backdrop is the ideal place to sip a glass of wine or local beer with friends. Before EVO, local sourcing was the realm of FIG and a few other high-end Charleston restaurants. EVO made sustainable, local flavors more widely accessible, and the restaurant still carries that torch.
Cru Café (Downtown Charleston)
Wedding planners in Charleston know that if you want guests to rave about the food, Cru Catering delivers. Fortunately, you don’t have to wait for an invitation to dig into the four-cheese macaroni, truffle parmesan fries, and fried green tomatoes at the business’s beloved café. The charming spot, set in an 18th-century, single-style home, sees a mix of visitors and regulars, courtesy of its signature Southern hospitality. Enjoy global takes on Southern comfort food—basil shrimp with kielbasa, crispy duck leg, pork schnitzel with lemon caper cream sauce—on the patio or in the white-walled, wood-floored dining room.
LowLife Bar (Folly Beach)
Owner T.J. Lynch—a co-founder of New York City cocktail bar Mother’s Ruin—relocated to Charleston and opened this lovable dive in 2018. LowLife quickly became an outdoor hub in Folly Beach’s post-Covid era social scene. Locals flock here for the laid-back vibes, but the kitchen is anything but lax. It turns out stellar, island-accented bar food, such as marinated jerk chicken served with smoked pineapple and a killer grilled cheese and French onion broth combo. Wash it down with the “Erik Estrada” piña colada, served with a rim of allspice, clove, and cinnamon.
Stratton Lawrence is a Folly Beach-based food and travel writer, and an enthusiast of oyster roasts, glassy waves, and sunset cocktails.
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