Downtown. 251 Meeting St. 722-7224
Every year, thousands of tourists make the pilgrimage to Charleston in search of relaxation, American history, and Southern charm. Locals and tourists know just where to find it. Celebrating its 10th consecutive victory in the Best Sweet Tea category as well as back-to-back wins in the Best Meat and 3 Veggies and Best Fried Chicken categories, Jestine’s Kitchen has truly captured the soul of the Holy City with its own special dish of Lowcountry cuisine, Southern hospitality, and Carolina drawl. This local gem even won the heart of $40-a-day Food Network philistine Rachael Ray, who toured Charleston in 2004.
One foot in the door and the accolades all make sense. The aroma of frying chicken and baking cornbread greet you as you pass the kitchen doors on the way to a hand-painted wooden table. As you order your sweet tea, a complimentary serving of cucumber slices doused in vinegar gets set down in front of you. On the inner fold of the menu, patrons can peruse mouth-watering Blue Plate Specials as well as an endless assortment of irresistible comfort foods and, most importantly, read the story of the woman who inspired it all.
Jestine Matthews was born in the Lowcountry in 1885. “Soon after the turn of the century, Jestine moved to Charleston, where she went to work as a laundress and later as a housekeeper.” The menu explains, “In 1928, she went to work for Aleck Ellison and his wife, who were then expecting a baby. It was a start of a lifelong friendship between Jestine and the Ellison family.” The proud owner of Jestine’s Kitchen, Dana Berlin, is the granddaughter of the Ellisons and has made it her career to carry on the tradition of Jestine’s character through her cuisine.
The biography ends with an invitation to raise a glass of Jestine’s “Table Wine,” or what the uncultured among us know as sweet tea, in her honor. After just one sip, there’s no question as to why the loyal patrons of Jestine’s Kitchen have been raving over it for years. “We get the tea shipped to us from a distributing company called S&D and steep it fresh for every batch,” explains waitress Ally Floyd. Steeped to perfection, Jestine’s sweet tea looks just as good as it tastes — rich auburn brown and not completely translucent, “which means it’s not watered down,” informs Floyd. At the precise level of sweetness and missing that all-too-common bitterness due to oversteeping, it’s certain that glasses will be up in the air in honor as long as this table wine is on tap.
The down-home kitchen gets busy churning out baskets of fried whiting and chicken. “Jestine’s uses peanut oil in frying,” explains Floyd. “This leads to added flavor, crispier skin, juicier meat and fish.” Favorite dishes among the staff include the chicken and the meatloaf. Each plate is served with two veggies and the choices leave many patrons in a permanent state of indecision, with sides like mac & cheese, red rice, and okra gumbo. While enjoying the veritable feast, guests are encouraged to season their dishes to their liking with ceramic salt and pepper shakers in all shapes, sizes, and styles ranging from tropical cocktail glasses to picnic tables.
The brick-red walls are lined with articles, both local and national, testifying to the deliciousness of Jestine’s Kitchen. Yet family remains the emphasis at Jestine’s. Once a customer enters the checkered-floor dining room, they become honorary members of the family.
Dana Berlin’s goal was to share with the public “the wonderful style of home cooking and the warm atmosphere that Jestine provided for generations of friends and family.” She seems to have succeeded and continues to dish up the perfect serving of Southern charm.
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