The Ordinary serves New England clam chowder with sourdough crackers | Photo by Lindsay Shorter

The sight of a simmering stovetop meal on a brisk winter day is one of the season’s most welcome sights. Steaming bowls of hearty stew remind us of the comforts of home. But several Charleston restaurants are doing the work for you, beckoning diners in from the cold with the promise of a cozy dish. From simple braises to complex creations steeped in tradition, these standout dishes are guaranteed to warm you from the outside in.

New England-style seafood chowder
The Ordinary

Though the preparation changes slightly with the seasons, New England-style seafood chowder is a mainstay on this establishment’s menu. For chef Mike Lata, the dish relies heavily on nostalgia — and techniques that keep tradition in mind. “I’m a kid from New England,” he said. “And there’s nothing like a New England-style clam chowder. Between the home cooked version and ours, there isn’t much difference, and I don’t think there needs to be.”

Practicality is another key component. “When your restaurant serves a lot of fish, you always have parts left — pieces that are perfectly delicious but aren’t used in a center-of-the-plate fashion,” he said. In many cases, these scraps are bound for a seafood stew, such as this hearty chowder.

The base recipe is one part clam broth and one part smoked fish stock, or “fumet.” The dish calls for a small dash of flour, but Lata relies mainly on potatoes to thicken the stew. “We don’t boil many things, because it’s typically hard on the food,” he said. “But it cooks the potatoes from the outside in, adding starch that gives the chowder its body.”

The dish is finished with a touch of dairy, though not as much as the classic preparation (which is often milk-based rather than broth based). The day’s fish is simmered to order and added last along with finishing touches like fresh herbs, espelette and cracked black pepper. But Lata’s favorite accompaniment? Fresh sourdough crackers. “Typically you’d serve this with oyster crackers, but we have all this great sourdough from Tiller [Baking Co.], so we cook the croutons to order, like little pieces of toast,” he said. “It really lights up the dish.”

Green chile pozole
Rancho Lewis

Rancho Lewis chef and owner John Lewis also incorporates childhood memories into his recipes. “Our menu focuses on traditional cuisine from El Paso, where I grew up,” he said. “Pozole is a pre-Columbian, Mesoamerican dish, originating before any of us ever got here.” The stew is made with nixtamalized corn: kernels with the tough outer husk removed, making them softer and more flavorful. The resulting product is akin to what Southerners know as hominy.

Rancho Lewis’ green chile pozole brings the flavors of the Mexico and West Texas stew to the Lowcountry | Photo by Rūta Smith

This isn’t just any corn, though. “We use Jimmy Red corn grown here in South Carolina by Marsh Hen Mills,” Lewis said. “Normally, you can only get it as grits or cornmeal, but we have a special relationship.” Part of an exclusive partnership, the restaurant gets its hands on whole kernels, later nixtamalized for use in the pozole and house tortilla chips. “We’re the only place in the world where you can get nixtamalized Jimmy Red corn,” he said.

Traditional pozole has several variations. Red pozole, for example, features pork and red chiles, while green pozole, which Lewis’ recipe closely resembles, relies on green chiles, tomatillos and chicken. “We decided to make ours veggie,” he added, “and I don’t miss the meat at all.

“We add flavor [to the corn base] by fire-roasting the tomatillos, as well as roasted Hatch green chiles for a little char.” Black beans are added for protein, alongside a heap of colorful garnishes  — shredded green cabbage, radishes and sliced avocado.

Braised okra and tomato stew
Millers All Day

Millers All Day’s okra and tomato stew is served over pink grits | Photo by Rūta Smith

For the breakfast and brunch crowd, Millers All Day serves a warm bowl of Southern comfort: braised okra and tomato stew. According to chef Jeff Allan, the beauty of this stew is its simplicity. “We use berbere, an Ethiopian chile that has a lot of sweetness and a lot of spice to it,” he said. “We essentially just toast it hard in a pan with oil, deglaze with hand crushed tomatoes, add the okra and a bit of garlic and braise everything for a good 45 minutes.”

Available at Millers downtown location and its new James Island outpost (which also offers dinner), this dish is served atop a bed of the restaurant’s signature Unicorn Grits, a rosy-hued variety also cultivated by Marsh Hen Mills. “You get these really nice, bright colors — the bright red of the stew and the pink of the grits peeking out underneath,” Allan said. “We finish it with local benne seeds, also from Marsh Hen, and some microgreens, which help cut some of the acidity from the tomatoes.” On its own, the dish is a fully vegan delight, though blackened shrimp can be added upon request. 

Sullivan’s Island gumbo
Sullivan’s Fish Camp 

Since opening in spring 2022, Sullivan’s Fish Camp has drawn diners to the beach with the promise of ultra-fresh seafood and a cozy neighborhood atmosphere. A popular summertime haunt, the restaurant rewards wintertime patrons with cozy dishes such as its Sullivan’s Island gumbo, the perfect companion for a chilly evening on the shore.

Sullivan’s Fish Camp’s West African-style stew is perfect on a chilly day | Provided

“Our gumbo is West African style, so instead of using a roux, we grind charred okra and jalapeños until tacky, and that acts as our thickener,” said chef Davis Hood. The flavorful paste is added to what the kitchen calls a “Frankenstock,” a delicate mix of chicken and shellfish stocks that comes together over the course of three days. “It’s a long process, and every stage adds a different level of flavor,” Hood said. “It’s a really complex stew.”

For the seafood component, Hood is another proponent of the zero-waste mentality. “We try to use every part of the fish and be as sustainable as possible,” he said. “It also comes back to the origins of gumbo. When it was brought to America, it was basically peasant food, made from the scraps no one wanted.”

In this case, those “scraps” are good as gold, added to the stew alongside Tarvin Seafood shrimp and Bull’s Bay clams, served atop Carolina Gold Rice. The result is a richly flavored, deeply satisfying dish. “Gumbo can be really thick, so I actually prefer this version,” Hood said. “It’s really light, but you walk away feeling enriched.”

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