Budget and time constraints make it hard to sample all that Charleston’s dining scene has to offer, whether you live here or you’re just passing through for the weekend. The list of must-try restaurants seems to grow longer by the week, making it impossible to whittle it down to just one or two. That said, you don’t have to be a high roller with unlimited stomach space in order to get a proper taste of the Holy City. You just have to head to the bar and embrace small plates.
We’ve got nothing against sitting at a table and enjoying multicourse meals, but bar dining is quicker, more casual, and — most importantly — allows you to fit multiple stops in one night. Best of all, small plates are often where the chefs really let their talents shine. So follow your gut, take your time, and enjoy an appetizer tour of local hot-spots — cocktails included, of course.
We recommend starting your tour early, because if you do it right, you’ll be consuming a lot of food and beverages over the course of the evening. And there’s a bonus if you head out before the dinner rush: Some places offer happy hour specials, like The Macintosh on Upper King. One of the city’s most buzzed-about new restaurants with a hot chef to match, the Macintosh offers the Bacon Happy Hour (named for James Beard nominee Jeremiah Bacon) weekdays between 5 and 7 p.m. There you can snag a pork-based dish for just $5, like chorizo on a baguette with lemon-Thai butter. If you miss the deal of the day, just choose something from the starters menu; we’re partial to the housemade ricotta gnudi with mushroom, arugula, pecorino, and bacon. Although the menu changes daily, the rabbit with slow-roasted tomato, ricotta salata, potato cake, and caramelized shallot has been a mainstay since the beginning, a real testament to its popularity.
A few blocks up the street and around the corner, The Grocery is another popular new addition to the area. Chef Kevin Johnson gives diners plenty of choices with a menu divided between Snacks, Bites, Tastes, Plates, Table, and Sides. Snacks are a good place to start, with choices like pickled fried green tomatoes and chicken liver mousse with onion-apricot jam on toast. For something a little more adventurous, turn to the Bites menu, where you’ll find our favorite Grocery dish: fried oysters served with a dollop of deviled egg sauce, topped with bread and butter pickles.
Hop on a bike taxi or take a 15-minute stroll to continue your tour at Cypress, where the upstairs mezzanine bar boasts its own menu filled with Chef Craig Deihl’s renditions on classic bar food. Pull up a loungey chair at a table overlooking East Bay Street and take your time choosing a cocktail to start — the bartenders mix a mean lavender martini. As for the food, Deihl (another Beard nom) is known for his housemade sausages, so the charcuterie plate is always a good bet, and our server also recommended the steamed buns filled with sirloin, spicy hoisin sauce, pickled peppers, and butter lettuce. You’ll also find everything from a mini chili dog to crispy pork belly with kimchi fritters to some truly addictive fried cheese curds with pepper jelly. Plan ahead and stop in on a Monday to take advantage of the bar’s $5 Burger Night.
Down a nearby cobblestone alleyway, McCrady’s also offers a selection of bar snacks separate from the regular menu. A chalkboard hanging at the end of the bar lists the daily specials created by Chef Sean Brock, and there’s usually no shortage of pork. Recent choices have included pumpkin pork rillettes with apple butter, Korean barbecue pork rinds, and General Tso’s Pig Ears, which are sliced thin like noodles and bathed in a sweet sauce. The grouper fritters with tomato jam and malt vinegar are a nice twist on fish ‘n’ chips.
On the other side of the street at the cozy Gin Joint , cocktails are the main focus, and you should start perusing the clipboard menu as soon as you grab a seat — it’s long and can take awhile to get through. Your best bet is to ask one of the bow-tied barhands for a recommendation and then let him get to work hand-crafting your cocktail while you choose your eats. The food menu is on the small side, but it’s diverse, with everything from a big, salty, soft pretzel with a sriracha cheese sauce to buffalo-style duck hearts, served with celery and blue cheese, that taste just like chicken.
Charleston Grill’s laid-back lounge is a perfect place to cap off a night of indulgence, although the comfy seating, smooth live jazz, and low lighting might make you feel a bit sleepy. Choose something from the appetizer menu — like the dramatic foie gras and peaches or the flavor-packed tuna sashimi — or just finish things off with one of Pastry Chef Emily Cookson’s creations. The deconstructed s’mores or chocolate and white truffle ganache cake with popcorn ice cream and salted caramel will ensure your night ends on a sweet note.