Charleston Could be the Best Small City for Food

Any “foodie” who has travelled along the east coast is likely familiar with the Charleston food scene. So, if you’re a foodie who hasn’t been, then stop what you’re doing and buy flights there immediately.

I do think it’s worth saying, that the sheer size of New York City and the large number of immigrants bringing in cuisines from around the world will always make it perhaps the best food city in the country. But I’m not the first to say that Charleston (pop 150k) has made a case for being the best small city for food. I think Portland, Maine with a population of just 67k can also make this claim on a per capita basis.

I’ll put out more comprehensive posts about the best places in Charleston in the future. But in this video I visit just a few of my favorite places. And while I hit up several places for food, my first stop getting into town was for vodka.

Firefly Distillery

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Firefly Distillery

The south is known for sweet tea. But even better than that, is sweet tea vodka. Firefly Distillery introduced their sweet tea vodka to the market (the first such vodka) and it became their signature spirit. It’s made with tea from a local plantation and is typically mixed with either lemonade or water for a great southern cocktail.

You might not even know their other products, which include a classic, ruby red, and lemonade vodkas. They also have a line of moonshine, and other spirits that include rum, whisky, and bourbon.

A few years ago they built this new location in North Charleston where they have in indoor tasting room, outdoor tables with frequent live music, and even rent out the property for gatherings such as weddings and large concerts.

The CODfather, Proper Fish & Chips

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Fish & Chips at the CODfather

You probably don’t think of South Carolina as a destination for fish and chips. And you are generally correct. Except that an Englishman moved into the area and opened up a traditional fish & chips shop right across from Firefly Distillery. They also serve meat pies, sausage rolls, and even mushy peas.

And don’t forget that salt and malt vinegar are the classic toppings for fish & chips. But they also serve brown gravy (popular topping for chips in northern England) or curry (popular in Wales). F%$k tartar sauce, mayonnaise, or ketchup.

Recommendation: When you’re in North Charleston, I also highly recommend EVO Pizzeria for what’s probably the best pizza in the city.

Husk

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Husk didn’t start the elevated culinary scene in Charleston, but it was certainly a great addition. Bon Appétit named Husk the 2011 best new restaurant in America (edging out Mission Chinese in San Francisco, which I’m a HUGE fan of). And HUSK has been a staple of Charleston ever since. They only serve foods that are indigenous to the south, but explore new way so of showcasing them. The menu changes daily, but recent items have included wood fired North Carolina oysters, cornmeal fried catfish, and Blue Ridge rabbit. In early 2022, Ray England (formerly of Tavern & Table) has taken over as the head chef at Husk. He remains committed to sourcing of only local ingredients, but has added his own style that includes an emphasis on wood fired dishes to the menu.

Husk also has a solid brunch. But probably my favorite is to sit at the bar. They converted an old stone building that was in ruins into a free standing bar with century old brick. The bar is on the first floor and then there is a cocktail lounge up the set of stairs. Currently the full dinner menu is offered here, as is the burger (which is known as one of the best burgers in Charleston) that is not on the main restaurant menu. Top it off with a great Bourbon selection and some great cocktails, and this is my perfect place to spend a couple hours.

In case you happen to be in Nashville or Savannah, they have opened locations in those cities as well.

Leon's

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Chargrilled Oysters at Leon's

There’s no shortage of oyster bars here, and everyone likely has their favorite. But my favorite oyster bar in Charleston is easily Leon’s. Technically it’s not just an oyster bar in an old auto body shop…. it’s a “fine poultry and oyster shop” as they also serve some great fried chicken as well as sandwiches, salads, fish, and small plates. But the oysters are the main draw. And the char-grilled oysters in particular with some rose on draft are my happy hour favorites.

Also recommended: if you want oysters, you can’t go wrong with Rappahannock Oyster Bar, the Ordinary, Darling Oyster Bar, Pearlz, or Nico (over at Shem Creek in Mt Pleasant)

Rodney Scott's Whole Hog BBQ

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Rodney Scott's BBQ

When walking around downtown you’ll find plenty of oyster bars, seafood, and elevated dining establishments. But you’ll need to head north up to Central Charleston to find some of the best BBQ in the state. The Carolinas are whole hog country, and Rodney Scott does whole hog BBQ as good as anyone.

Rodney started learning how to smoke whole hogs in middle school, as he worked in his family’s BBQ stop for 25 years until finally opening his own place in 2017. Because I come here every time that I’m in town, I feel like it has been around for longer. But the pictures on my phone confirm my first time here was in early 2018. After picking up several awards, he has now expanded to several other cities, but the original will always be my favorite location.

Recommendation: While Rodney Scott is generally regarded as having the best whole hog BBQ in the area, there’s another place just a few blocks away that also contends for being “the best.” Lewis Barbecue does Central Texas BBQ and could serve the best brisket in the state. But they aren’t really in competition, because pretty much everyone will tell you to go to Rodeny for whole hog and Lewis for brisket.