The many charms of Charleston

I’m just back from three days and nights in beguiling Charleston, South Carolina and let me go on record by saying that I have NEVER eaten so well on a vacation. Every single bite was on point and unforgettable.

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Charleston in a word? Heady. I felt half-drunk wandering through the historic district, populated with soaring church spires and storied three-story homes of all shapes, sizes and styles, some dating back as far as the 1700s and each brimming with a pedigree all its own.

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Everywhere, ancient oak trees reach lazily across the sky, draped with ghost-like wisps of Spanish moss and alive with the near-deafening buzz of cicadas. Everywhere, the scent of the city wafts a surprisingly pleasant hybrid aroma of sea and swamp. Everywhere, genteel parks and squares offer quiet benches and shady respite from the staggering summer humidity. The Battery brims with history and panoramic views of the harbor out to Fort Sumpter and beyond. And the Old Slave Mart Museum offers a sobering taste of the past, and a stark reminder of what we must never become again.

Then there’s the food. The lure that drew me to the Holy City in the first place. Intrigued by the much-lauded culinary scene, I booked a solo vacation with the intent of eating, and eating well, here. (There’s a reason the city hosted a recent season of Top Chef.) Deserving of every accolade, yet somehow still unspoiled and unpretentious, Charleston more than lived to up to my expectations. I asked for recommendations, did my homework and mapped out a hit list ahead of time.

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So let’s get to it. Here’s what and where I ate in Charleston:

First meal after rolling into town late in the afternoon — an early dinner at Butcher & Bee. Several folks recommended this place, and it totally delivered. I sat at the bar in full view of the open kitchen, which provided all the entertainment I needed after a six-hour drive. With a sleek modern farmhouse aesthetic and a soaring open dining room, I felt like I could breathe again. The glass of rose helped, too. What I loved here was that, in addition to a full menu of starters, mains and sides, B&B offers a mezze option that lets you order three choices from a dazzling list of small plates for $15. Sold.

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The house specialty is whipped feta, a creamy mound of spreadable goodness with a hollow of honey and chopped chives, served with a puffy loaf of housemade pita. I’m a sucker for bacon-wrapped dates, so that was a given, and to round out my trio? An al dente snap bean salad with corn and buttermilk dressing. Just the right amount of food for a well-balanced meal, and every bite delicious.

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I’d seen Carrie Morey’s appearance on the Charleston Top Chef season, and sought out her Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit enterprise specifically for that reason. Callie’s Charleston location sits pretty inside the 200+ year old City Market (where I spent a fun hour browsing the wares, particularly the handmade sweetgrass baskets and bowls painstakingly woven by women with Gullah blood running through their veins). The egg/bacon/cheddar breakfast sandwich on a biscuit I ate was, quite simply put, the best I’ve ever had. Light and tender, yet toothsome and crusty… this was the quintessential Southern biscuit. With a side of grits and a fresh squeezed lemonade, it was a breakfast of champions. Callie’s also offers a sampler of sorts where you can get three mini-biscuits in varieties like blackberry, country ham, cinnamon and black pepper. I’m kicking myself for not going back and trying more.

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167 Raw served up yet another memorable meal. With only a couple dozen seats, you’d better time your trip right if you want to grab a table here. Lucky me… I pulled up and parked within 20 feet of the front door, and was rewarded at once with the one empty seat at the bar. Living right! This newish place on East Bay is known for its oysters, and they were stunning. Ironically, while I find the concept and cache of raw oysters fascinating, I’m not a fan of actually eating them. (Kinda like how I love to travel, but hate to fly. Go figure.) Anyway, there are other seafood-centric items on the menu — I went with a shrimp po boy washed down by a glass of sparkling rose. I can’t tell you how perfect this pairing turned out to be. The po boy was laced with some kind of beet coulis I wasn’t expecting, but turned out to be crazy good.

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By all accounts, Hominy Grill is a smart local stop for breakfast, lunch or brunch. I did actually have a dining companion here, which was a nice change-up from my solo stints at the bar! My friend Amanda and I arrived right on the cusp of breakfast and lunch, and were given the option to order from either menu. The lunch menu seemed more plentiful and appealing, and our server dropped off a sampling of hot boiled peanuts while we considered our choices. Amanda went with the fried chicken and a homey side of pickled cucumbers, while I selected a fried green tomato BLT with a side of broccoli salad that would have heartily passed muster with any church lady in the land.

The No. 1 target on my must-eat-while-in-Charleston list was Husk, and I’m happy to say it did not disappoint. I had the pleasure of meeting up with a couple of tourism colleagues for pre-dinner drinks on a patio between the restaurant and the detached bar that looked like something straight out of New Orleans. (Husk happens to make its home in Charleston’s bewitching French Quarter. Coincidence?) The two-story residential-style restaurant allows for dining on the upper and lower levels, not to mention an airy bespoke patio.

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My friends and I kicked things off with a starter of pimento cheese and housemade benne, a cracker-thin flatbread sprinkled with sesame seeds. It was nearly impossible to decide on dinner, which ended up being a handful of starters — gorgeously presented rose-like furls of country ham with miniature biscuits, pickles and a Dijon-based spread; a summery grilled corn salad studded with blueberries and brie; and a quartet of pork ribs with a peach-based barbecue sauce and puffy pork skins. Fantastic food, service and ambiance, from the first bite to the last.

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In retrospect, Charleston feels like a sweet dream. In three days, I feel like I only scratched the surface of the countless delights this bewitching city has to offer, and I cannot wait to go back.

For more information, check out Charlestoncvb.com.

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