12 restaurants vital to Charleston

Welcome to The Greats, a series on the restaurants around the country that define their cities. Here now, a guide to the Charleston Greats.

In a city where dinner reservations outweigh historical tours on many travelers’ itineraries, there’s a high bar for restaurants. These dining stars—some city stalwarts, some newer entrants—demonstrate the constant emphasis on innovation required to succeed and stand out in Charleston.

Lowcountry cuisine reaches new heights at a refurbished Victorian-era home on Queen Street. A 26-year-old hotel grill serves a dessert so popular that it has trademark status. A laid-back King Street barbecue joint scored James Beard nods for its sumptuous, slow-cooked pork.

These world-class restaurants use the Holy City’s culinary heritage as a springboard for vibrant and inspiring menus. Read on for a guide to Charleston’s 12 greatest spots to book now.

Peninsula Grill (Downtown)

Peninsula Grill wowed Charleston with its plush setting and exemplary food from the moment it opened in 1997. At the time, chef Robert Carter was the hot young chef in town, and Peninsula Grill was shaking up the fine-dining scene. Fast forward 20-plus years, and Peninsula Grill, now helmed by chef Kalen Fortuna, has reached classic status. The restaurant has resisted trends and instead hewed close to what made it great from the start: attentive service, an extensive wine list, and a menu of decadent Southern-accented classics. Indulge in oysters, caviar, lobster, and steaks along with expertly prepared local heirloom vegetables. Don’t miss the traditional she-crab soup, and end your meal with the Ultimate Coconut Cake™, a cake so famous it has its own trademark and a robust mail-order business.

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Husk (Downtown)

South Carolina shrimp at Husk in Charleston
Hyperlocal sourcing means the Southern-inspired menu changes on a daily basis at Husk. | Credit: Andrew Cebulka

Say you’re from Charleston, and folks are likely to comment on the city’s dynamic restaurant scene. That wasn’t always the case, and Husk was the harbinger of a turning tide. James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock’s Southern passion project drew flocks for its “farmers first, flavors will follow” philosophy when it opened its doors in 2010. And though Brock left for Nashville in 2018, this Queen Street landmark still adheres to the hyperlocal sourcing—and frequently changing menu—he championed. Executive chef Ray England is a proud proponent of regional produce and modern Southern fare. Since taking the reins in March 2022 at this refurbished Victorian-era home, he’s put a focus on the abundant seafood from Lowcountry waters but maintains the philosophy that cemented Husk’s enduring legacy.

39 Rue de Jean (Downtown)

Classic French brasserie 39 Rue de Jean—or Rue, as it’s affectionately known by locals—has anchored the downtown food scene for more than two decades. Its expansive menu features French favorites including onion soup, steak frites, sweetbreads, and coq a vin. But you’re really here for the moules (a.k.a. mussels). It’s hard to pick a favorite among the five preparations (pistou, red curry, chorizo and tomato, mariniere, and vegetable cream), but you’ll need some extra bread for soaking up the delectable sauce no matter which option you choose. The atmosphere here is convivial and relaxed, with a big bar, cozy booths, and a gorgeous outdoor patio nestled alongside a brick-lined alley. Allow yourself to order a French 75 or two and linger at this charming Charleston mainstay.

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The Darling Oyster Bar (Downtown)

A seafood plateau with a glass of rosé at The Darling Oyster Bar in Charleston
It’s near impossible to stroll by this Upper King Street hotspot and not be tempted to duck in for a few local oysters. | Credit: Aleece Sophia

This Upper King Street hotspot had a plan when it placed a raw bar inside a glass wall fronting the sidewalk—it’s near impossible to stroll by and not be tempted to duck in for a few local oysters. Once seated at the sophisticated bar, framed by exposed brick and black-and-white tiles, you glance at the menu and realize you’re staying for dinner—the lobster roll just can’t be resisted. By now, it’s 9 pm and you’re in the midst of one of downtown’s most buzzing nightlife scenes. Order a 513 (tequila, agave, lime, blood orange) and settle in.

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Tempest (Downtown)

For most of the 2010s, dining on Market Street was largely the realm of tourists. Tempest changed that perception, giving locals an incentive to brave the Market for phenomenal dishes such as sheepshead served with shrimp and pirlou, a traditional Lowcountry rice dish. Tempest is a sibling restaurant to the neighboring Church and Union and has its origins in the Charlotte-based 5th Street Group. These investors know to put the food first—Top Chef veteran Jamie Lynch guides Tempest’s menu, and USA Today gave the restaurant an enthusiastic nod in 2020. The dining room’s ceiling is a showstopping stained-glass mosaic, but it’s also worth grabbing a table on the patio where you can slow down and watch the bustling streetscape.

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Maison (Downtown)

This charming bistro is steered by Vandy Vanderwarker, the former chef de cuisine at locally loved oyster bar The Ordinary. Maison is a city favorite for Parisian-inspired modern plates. Expect creative dishes such as octopus bourguignon and diver scallop schnitzel alongside tarts and escargot on the ever-changing menu. The modestly sized wine list, which leans French, hits all the right notes, featuring Chenin Blancs, Chardonnays, and Cabs carefully selected by vintage. Black-and-white barstools and tiles complement navy blues to set a posh tone, whether you’re dining at the welcoming bar or on the cozy patio.

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The Establishment (Downtown)

The Establishment swept into town in 2018 with a luxurious approach to dining just as Charleston diners were tiring of the rustic farm-to-table trend. They transformed the historic James Gregorie home on Broad Street into a lush and welcoming dining room that quickly attracted the city’s upper crust. Ever since, the restaurant has treated guests to a seafood-focused menu that showcases fresh local catch such as golden tilefish, grouper, and snapper. Grab a seat at the bar overlooking the open kitchen, order something special from the extensive whiskey list—consider the 10-year Pappy Van Winkle—and get ready for the kitchen to woo you.

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Indaco (Downtown)

Wood-fired pizza, cured sausages, and housemade pasta at Indaco in Charleston
Italian flavors meet local bounty at Indaco. | Credit: Andrew Cebulka

When Indaco debuted in 2013, the open kitchen was novel—tucking into braised pork cavatelli while watching the chef prepare your wood-fired pizza was considered a new indulgence. But now that handmade pastas, open kitchens, and deliberate local sourcing are the norm for restaurants in Charleston, early trendsetter Indaco still hasn’t let off the gas. Charleston native chef Mark Bolchoz prepares crispy clam strips with aioli and creamy burrata with butter beans, combining classic Italian flavors with the area’s best ingredients. Cocktails are brought to life with housemade sodas, and the wine list is extensive. Whether you’re eating on the porch or in the bustling dining room, Indaco shines thanks to a lineup that insists you try at least a bite of everything on the table.

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Rodney Scott’s BBQ (King Street)

In rural Hemingway, South Carolina, the Scott family’s pit-style pulled pork has long beckoned motorists far down swampy backroads for a divine taste of sweet and vinegary meat. After scoring attention at Charleston events and in publications such as Garden & Gun, Rodney struck out from his parents’ business and took his skills to the city. He opened his laidback downtown Charleston joint and promptly received a Best Chef: Southeast award from the James Beard Foundation in 2018, making him the second pitmaster to win a Beard award. And even as he’s expanded to Alabama and Atlanta, Rodney hasn’t fiddled with what works: Slow-cooked whole hog pork, ideal for mopping with sauce, served with white bread. Although diners may be inclined to branch out—the catfish king platter and the spare ribs are also worth writing home about—save it for your second visit.

JackRabbit Filly (North Charleston)

Chef and co-owner Shuai Wang describes his food as “new Chinese-American.” At JackRabbit Filly, he riffs on traditional Chinese fare, throws in influences from Japan to Korea, and uses modern preparations and local ingredients to create a whole new genre. The restaurant has broken new ground for Charleston diners who flock to JackRabbit Filly in the burgeoning Park Circle neighborhood for crispy Sichuan karaage fried chicken, pork smash burgers, crab bao, and veggie dumplings. The house special fried rice might be the perfect representation of Wang’s approach to food. The savory dish combines Nueske’s bacon and local shrimp with bites of peas, carrots, pineapple, tempura crunch, and mayo-based sauce for an explosion of taste. It’s fried rice, but like no fried rice you’ve ever had.

Oak Steakhouse (Downtown)

Today, Oak Steakhouse is the flagship of a growing chain of restaurants. But before outposts mushroomed across the Southeast, Charleston’s Oak Steakhouse distinguished itself by offering one of the most hospitable experiences in the city. Set in a renovated bank building on Broad Street, the three-story steakhouse caters to diners looking to satisfy their meat cravings. Splurge on the 24-ounce dry-aged bone-in ribeye, add some truffle butter and maybe a lobster tail or some bearnaise sauce, and let your server suggest the perfect bottle of red to pair with your feast. You’ll be in for an unforgettable dining experience that will have you returning again and again.

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Bar George (James Island)

This hip bar is the brainchild of owner Alex Lira, the nephew of Virginia’s late, great “Hot Dog King” George Bacalis. Lira honors Uncle George while spotlighting his own casual approach to food with a small but quirky menu. Start with a dozen raw oysters with yuzu jalapeño mignonette sauce, chase them down with a Greek dog slathered in Uncle George’s famous chili, and finish with a Boston cream doughnut. You can also dig into a whole Peruvian-style roasted chicken or just stop in for some crudo and a Raspberry Painkiller cocktail. You’ll be greeted by a crowd of regulars enjoying some of the best bites in town.

Tried them all? Check out other options here.

Stephanie Barna is a food writer based in Charleston, SC. As the former editor of Charleston City Paper, she has chronicled the Charleston food scene for two decades and has been to every single Charleston Wine + Food Festival since it started. You can follow her dining exploits (and—fair warning—her Weimaraner’s misadventures) on Instagram @stef_barna.

Stratton Lawrence contributed to this guide.

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