A travel journal
to Charleston by Taylor Shelby
Quote: The choices for dinner in Charleston can be overwhelming. Here are a few of the places I have been to.
Restaurant | "Meritage"
Although I classified it as Spanish/Portuguese cuisine, that really isn't accurate. Meritage is a tapas bar, which I first experienced in Spain. Their food, however, is certainly not exclusively Spanish. There are influences from all over the world, including Thai, Mediterranean, Caribbean, and many others.
The ordering experience is somewhat unusual. All of the items on the menu are appetizer-style servings, and they all come out at different times. You don't have the traditional break up of the meal. I recommend each person ordering one or two dishes and sharing with everyone. That way you don't have one person eating and the others staring and salivating.
The menu is extensive. I had excellent chicken, pork, shrimp, and portabella satay skewers (about $6), served with a Thai peanut sauce and a brick of white rice. It was actually enough to fill me up, but I wasn't very hungry. The people next to me had big heaping plates of calamari that looked wonderful. Each plate ranges from $4 to $9, so you can try a lot of different things.
Meritage is only open for dinner, and half the restaurant is an always-crowded bar, with people representing every age and social group. If you are looking for a quiet dinner, there is a patio that you could try, but I may try somewhere else. This is a really excellent place to go for an early, light dinner (they don't open until 5pm, though).
The restaurant is located on East Bay, just north of Market Street. It is the yellow Mediterranean-style building.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on February 17, 2005
Meritage Tapas Bar
235 East Bay St
Charleston, South Carolina 29401
+1 843 723 8181
Restaurant | "High Cotton"
We knew it would be a special meal when we asked why the hostess had replaced our white napkins with black ones. She gave a small smile and pointed out the fact that we were all wearing black pants. She switched them so we wouldn't get white lint on our pants. My mother and I glanced at each other, raised our eyebrows, and felt utterly gauche.
Despite our lack of refinement, High Cotton was still magnificent. Their menu is wonderfully creative. I had venison medallions over wild mushroom and fig risotto. It was nothing less than spectacular. My mother had roasted salmon over baby vegetables ("This is the best salmon I have ever had in my life. Seriously."), and my father had stuffed pheasant that smelled incredible.
Whatever you do, when the waiter asks if you would like to order the praline soufflé, shout, "Yes! Yes!" They bring it out to you (one was plenty for two of us) steaming and divine, and the waiter pours hot chocolate syrup into it right at the table. I almost pushed my mother out of the way to get the last bite.
And the waiters! They were spectacular. And I think we had seven different waiters (I promise I'm not exaggerating). You have got to love a restaurant that has a waiter just to switch your wine glasses.
Try to make your reservations as early as possible (or get the hotel to do it), because you do not want to miss this place. It is a wonderful place to go for a special occasion (it's pricey. The total for the three of us with drinks and dessert was upwards of $120). If you are someone who appreciates an excellent meal with wonderful service, then it is money well spent.
High Cotton was an incredible experience. From the wonderful jazz that was playing to the oh-so-Charleston palm-frond fans to those black napkins, it is by far my favorite restaurant in Charleston - and, in fact, the world.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on February 17, 2005
High Cotton Restaurant
199 East Bay Street
Charleston, South Carolina 29401
Jestine's has a great history. It is named after a woman named Jestine Matthews, born in the area in 1885. Jestine moved to the city around 1900 and became a housekeeper for the Ellison family. The woman who owns Jestine's today is the granddaughter of those Ellisons. She was raised with Jestine's warm heart and wonderful cooking. She actually lived to be 112 - ONE HUNDRED AND TWELVE! Incredible! So don't let anyone tell you that fried chicken and mashed potatoes are bad for you.
What I love about the place is the wonderful atmosphere they have managed to create. The walls are decorated with family pictures. The tables and window sills are crammed full of kitschy salt-and-pepper shakers of all shapes and sizes. We had some near us shaped like flip-flops. I had to restrain myself from taking them, they were so great. The back of the restaurant has a big industrial fridge with pictures drawn by kids on it. It feels like you are eating in a bigger, busier version of your grandma’s kitchen. And all the servers call you "sugah" and "darling," so it really hits home.
With all that, it would be devastating if the food wasn’t wonderful, but you won’t be disappointed. Jestine’s is one of those places where I can’t decide what to get. I stare at the menu and invariably change my mind a hundred times. Everything looks so good. It is all traditional Southern soul food. They have all the basics, like fried green tomatoes ($5 for a big plate), meatloaf ($6), fried cChicken ($9), and all kinds of Low-Country seafood. One thing that I hadn’t heard of is pecan-crusted whiting ($5) – a type of mild fish. It is really good! We don’t have that in Alabama. Of course, just about everything comes with fried okra – and it’s done right, battered in corn meal, not flour. You can also get a variety of other sides, like gumbo, red rice, or wonderful mashed potatoes (all $2). For drinks, make sure to try Jestine’s "table wine" (better known as sweet tea). Or, for a real treat, get a bottle of Coke or IBC Root beer, served icy cold.
You will walk out of here with a full belly and a big smile, thanking Jestine.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on April 2, 2005
251 Meeting Street
Charleston, South Carolina 29401
One of the things I love about these restaurants is that they are really low-key. All of them are a little different, but they all have a fish shack, low-country feeling to them. They also all feature a big barrel of roasted peanuts to snack on. We grabbed a scoop and picked a table. It’s always a good sign when your restaurant has a big hole in the table to throw your shells in, and this is a feature of the crab shacks. They also keep rolls of paper towels on the table, thank goodness. That always gets me ready to eat a big meal of oysters, shrimp, or crab.
This crab shack is great because it is located in a restored warehouse. The floors are hardwood, the walls are exposed brick, and the bar has an old-timey feeling to it. It is also pretty small, which gives it an intimate feeling. There is one room off to the side that only has a few tables and French doors that open to the street, but we decided to sit right up front, next to the windows.
The food at the crab shacks is good no matter which one you are at, so don’t even worry about that. They have a lot of great bare-bones seafood like buckets of steamed oysters and clams (both $8.94) or heaps of steamed crab legs and crab claws (both market price). If you want something more traditionally Charleston, try the Beaufort Stew, which is shrimp served up (and boiled with) sausage, potatoes, and corn ($14.87) – this is usually called a low-country boil. My favorite thing at the crab shack is their perfect Shrimp and Grits(11.93). Now, to y'all Yankees, the idea of mixing shrimp and grits may seem odd, but this is something you must try while you are in Charleston – we’re famous for it. There is nothing like a big heap of savory grits, sautéed shrimp, bacon, and rich gravy.
You will find the East Bay Crab Shack right on East Bay, just south of the market. If you want directions to the other ones, visit their website at www.crabshacks.com.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on April 6, 2005
East Bay Crab Shack
205 East Bay St
Charleston, South Carolina 29401
+1 843 853 8600
Just from the exterior you can tell it is a neat place. The sign is painted on, and there are a couple of little ad-like spaces around the entrance. It feels very 1940s, with the style and the patina of the paint being in less than perfect condition. Walking in, the old style is kept up. The restaurant is one big room, with high ceilings held up by distressed cast-iron columns and magnificent dark-wood beams. The floors are huge antique heart-pine boards that were salvaged from the old high school. The bar stretches almost the length of the restaurant and is beautifully appointed. One side of the dining area even has those crescent-shaped booths. It’s very Old-Hollywood.
Hank’s is one of those places where you look at the menu, then look again, then look one more time, until the waiter is finally hovering around. Everything looked so wonderful. I was torn between about six different entrées. To appease myself, I got an appetizer of crispy fried shrimp and calamari ($8). I ordered it for the calamari, which was excellent, but the shrimp was some of the best I have ever eaten. It was lightly battered, slightly spicy, and perfectly cooked. For the main course, I had a big, heaping bowl of bouillabaisse ($22). I had been waiting to try this for ages, and this seemed like as good a time as any. WHAT HAVE I BEEN MISSING??!! I was so good, I almost cried. I could have bathed in it!! It was overflowing with steamed clams, oysters, mussels, shrimp, scallops, and a big hunk of crab meat. The broth was perfection. It was indescribable.
My parents both had combo plates with fried oysters, crumb-fried shrimp, and crab cakes ($18). They are served with these wonderful sweet-potato chip-like things. They sound weird, but were wonderful. They both said everything was great. For dessert, we had a slice of peanut butter pie ($6), which was so rich, I had to take it home and eat it in waves.
So the food is great, but it is served in a setting that is not only beautiful but comfortable. The place is lavish and luxurious, but somehow also manages to be laid-back and casual. We were wearing jeans and the people next to us were wearing suits, but everyone was fine with it. It is unusual to find somewhere like this in Charleston, so I certainly suggest you try it. I can’t imagine you will be disappointed.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on April 23, 2005
10 Hayne Street
Charleston, South Carolina
Tucked away on John Street (in French: Rue de Jean) is the lovely French bistro by the same name. This is one of my favorite places in Charleston for a delicious lunch or a special dinner. I have probably eaten here more than any other place in the city. It is Charleston’s version of a Parisian dining experience, settled in a lovely old burlap sack warehouse.
The ambiance of the place will assert itself as soon as you walk in. The warehouse element is still quite clear, with exposed brick walls and dark wood floors, but it has been taken up a few notches. The decorations inside of Rue include beautiful pressed tin ceiling tiles, large, angled mirrors with a touch of patina, and traditional turn-of-the-century French prints along the walls. The seating is a combination of little wooden tables, high-backed booths, and a lovely outdoor patio, which is wonderful if you are amidst good weather.
All of that stuff is great, but even if it was a hole-in-the-wall where you had to stand, I would still go there. The food is just that good. I have never had a single thing there that I did not think was spectacular. My all time favorite is the steamed mussels (moules). These are served in five different broths, my favorite being Pistou, which is garlic, basil and olive oil. You get a heaping bowl of these for $13.95, and make sure you get extra bread to soak up all the broth. Another perennial favorite is the massive Brasserie Burger, made from fresh ground filet mignon. This is hailed by many Charlestonians as the best burger in the city, all for only $9.95. This is also served with their amazing homemade French fries, which you should order with everything because they are so great. Apart from the traditional French selections, you will also find things like sushi on the menu.
Make sure that you save room for dessert, because the dessert at Rue is unspeakably good. My favorite is the chocolate pate, which is a slice of rich dark chocolate cream served over a lake of cream anglaise and raspberry. It is unbelievably rich. They also have excellent crème brulee, which is always perfect. Both of these desserts are quite large and plenty for two people. All desserts are $7.
If you want to go in the evening, reservations are recommended but not always necessary. You can always wait a bit at the beautiful bar and meet some interesting people. For a different experience, try them for lunch. It is still wonderful but a little cheaper and less crowded. It is a favorite of mine for lunch. Make sure that you have plenty of time when you come here. Sometimes the service can be a tad slow and the food is all made to order so it takes a little extra time. Come for a nice, leisurely meal and you won’t be disappointed.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on December 18, 2005
39 Rue De Jean
39 John Street
Charleston, South Carolina 29403
Charleston, South Carolina