By Marisa Marsey
It took three passes along fabled East Bay Street in a driving rain and a blur of antebellum manses before I finally espied tiny Unity Alley, home to McCrady’s – the historic restaurant where James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock launched his upward professional trajectory – but GPS-stress evaporated the instant I entered its handsome, wood-beamed dining room and was greeted warmly by the hostess. “How are you enjoying your stay in Charleston,” she asked, her civic pride brimming as if she’d been elected mayor. And why not? South Carolina’s chart-topping “Holy City” is the Fatima of foodies, an Our Lady of Guadalupe for gastronomes. And so quaint, compact, and dripping with Southern charm, it lacks the intimidation factor of blustery, restaurant-rich rivals like New York City and Chicago.
“With non-stop eating,” I gushed. In less than 24 hours I’d hit a bunch of the big names and an off-the-eaten-path gem, working up as much of a sweat as a flapper engaged in the port town’s knee-swiveling, namesake dance. Here’s where:
Retaining his role as executive chef at McCrady’s, Brock opened a place of his own five years ago called Husk in a beautifully-restored 19th century Queen Anne where he could be monogamous to regional ingredients. “If it ain’t Southern, it ain’t coming in the door,” he famously vowed. Hence everything on the plate unequivocally hails from the likes of an organic local cheesemaker or a Kentucky smokehouse, or was just fished from the Cooper River. He even assumed acreage on a nearby farm where virtually-extinct heirloom grains and vegetables flourish and pigs forage. From a menu that changes twice daily, offerings such as cornbread stuffed South Carolina quail with wood-fired chestnuts prove he’s not just whistlin’ Dixie. Inspiration, though, knows no borders. Lettuce wraps, for example, showcasing pig’s ears – perfectly crisped, like the best bacon – sweetened with marinated cucumbers and red onion, and dotted with Sea Island benne seeds, bow to Asia with components entirely from below the Mason-Dixon. The porcine pleasure was so addictive, I had to chase it with a sandwich of smoky ham and Tennessee deckle (the juicy second cut of brisket), beribboned with spicy garden greens and caramelized onions, smeared with roasted pepper mayo. Brock has a second Husk in Nashville that’s equally as faithful and just started rolling out tacos in Charleston (and soon Atlanta) at Minero.
Husk, 76 Queen St., 843-577-2500, huskrestaurant.com. Lunch and Dinner daily, Sunday Brunch.
With white-washed walls and an original tin ceiling from the days when this building housed a barber shop, Hominy Grill looks the quintessential, languid Southern café. But it possesses a breezy efficiency, evidenced the second you sit down and your waitress delivers a dish of boiled peanuts to your table. You’ll pop them as you weigh your options: breakfast plates like a high-rise biscuit with a luxurious sausage gravy (or a “Charleston Nasty” including fried chicken breast and cheddar cheese) or classics such as sautéed chicken livers and catfish creole. But what captivates most is the chalkboard scrawled with the day’s vegetables – tomato pudding, stewed cabbage, cheese grits, collard greens, okra and tomatoes, squash casserole, mac and cheese – that’ll lure you into ordering a vegetable plate (choice of three or four, plus cornbread). Once you dig in, you’ll realize this is no run-of-the-mill greasy spoon, but a rightly legendary culinary bastion with a friendliness preaching peace and hominy to all.
Hominy Grill, 207 Rutledge Ave., 843-937-0930, hominygrill.com. Breakfast and Lunch daily, Dinner Mon.-Sat., Weekend Brunch.
Slightly North of Broad
Despite the acronym, S.N.O.B.’s appeal as a bustling bistro is its graciousness. A congenial cacophony of decorator patterns and prints, recalling the charm of Gigi’s grandmother’s Parisian apartment, suits its French Quarter location. It’s a place where professionals handily mix business with pleasure. If available, opt for the chef’s table, six seats looking into the open kitchen with its crates of squashes, onions, and lemons adding still more color to the scene – and flavor to the menu which favors globalism through a local lens: beef carpaccio, steamed clams, pan-seared duck breast with savory blue cheese bread pudding and fig jam, roasted lamb rack with rosemary reduction. S.N.O.B. touts locally grown bounty, practically elevating farms on Wadmalaw Island and Edisto Island to the landmark status of Fort Sumter and the Battery.
Slightly North Of Broad, 192 East Bay St., 843-723-3424, slightlynorthofbroad.net. Lunch weekdays, Dinner nightly.
While unabashedly proud of their city’s gustatory reputation, Charlestonians weary of waiting two months for reservations and battling swarming tourists so you’re likely to find them at neighborhood restaurants like the estimable, family-run Sweeney’s on Johns Island. Just 15 minutes from the heart of downtown, the mood is easygoing and on-point service is friendly while the food – American classics such as Cobb salads, New England lobster rolls, glazed beef short ribs and grilled pork chops brought home by strong relationships with nearby farmers – is downright serious. Sweeney’s shrimp and grits bested, hands-down, all versions of this emblematic dish (available in these parts for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight snack). The chef scrapes the juice from cob-cut corn into the pan for extra sweetness, reminding Hampton Roadsters of the splendid tamales at Norfolk’s Luna Maya. The décor is delicious, too; a fabulously funky turquoise chandelier sums up the happy coexistence here of good taste and fun.
3157A Maybank Hwy., Johns Island, 843-559-5633, sweeneysrestaurantsc.com. Lunch Tues.-Sat., Dinner Tues.-Sun., Sunday Brunch.
Oft cited as one of the best restaurants in not only Charleston, but also the U.S., white-tablecloth McCrady’s offers a $65 four-course prix fixe solely with a few options per course. The menu laconically lists just ingredients of each dish; polite, earnest servers interpret for diners and introduce the landing of each preening plate in hushed, reverential tones: “Cox Farms beef tartare, farro, mustard seed, chervil.” “Red porgy, brassicas, red onion, pickled clams.” “Pumpkin panna cotta, bitter orange, black malted barley.” At one table, a server points out celeriac, geranium flowers, sunchoke, country ham and asks the guests: “Recognize anything?” Just that there’s a genius in the kitchen who rightly imagined these precious flavors would work together.
McCrady’s, 2 Unity Alley, 843-577-0025, mccradysrestaurant.com. Dinner nightly.
Got restaurant, food or beverage news? Contact Marisa Marsey at email@example.com