DINING

Craig Claiborne at Kiawah Island                                                                                 John Wilson

Charleston Dining

An Embarrassment of Riches

It is my highly speculative belief that Charleston boasts more restaurants per capita than any city in America. They include native Southern, of course, French traditional and bistros, Italian, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, seafood establishments, steak houses, coffee shops and more. For the most part, dress is casual and a preponderance of customers, primarily women, drink iced tea. But many of the best restaurants also have impressive wine lists.

Two of the most famous dishes of Charleston (and they should not be overlooked) are she-crab soup and shrimp and grits. The soup is made, as the name implies, with the female crabs and this is essential, for a genuine she-crab soup must contain crab roe, which is most abundant during the winter months.

 

All in all, I found Charleston to be a remarkable city in which to dine and imbibe. And it has clearly earned preeminence as one of the great "restaurant" cities in the South. The old world ambience combined with fresh local ingredients and even fresher ideas from resident chefs and gastronomes makes dining an irresistible affair. I like to think of it as a culinary renaissance, sans the Medicis. Rich, artful, and mildly decadent. Definitely worth a trip, with the added and sublime satisfaction of knowing there will be no wasted calories.  Mmm - good!   Bon appetit, y'all.            Craig Claiborne

 

When Craig Claiborne arrived at the Charleston Airport from Manhattan, at noon on a Saturday and got in the car to head to the Peninsula, the first thing the Sunflower, Mississippi native said was, "please take me to your best Bar B Que place. I am famished." He knew I was from Alabama and he was going to be in Charleston for 7 days writing a food article for Legend's magazine. Five of the days would be downtown staying at the Belmond, (Charleston Place) dining and writing and two on Kiawah Island, which at the time only had the Kiawah Island Inn. Though you could rent any number of villas or small houses, the Kiawah Island Inn was lovely but nothing compared to the grand Sanctuary Hotel that exists on the island today. And also today the Mississippian would have loved the Bar B Que at Rodney Scott's place,  or John Lewis of Austin fame or even the Alabama father and son Jim & Nick's on King Street would have worked just fine. One of his main directives of his dining out for lunch and dinner for the seven days was to not tell anyone he was going to be at their restaurant. But he was so well known that once he was seated, the kitchen and front of the house began the process of coming over to the table and introducing themselves one by one. Food Royalty is really quite something to watch unfold in front of you. The order of things is just a whole different experience. The wine list and menu take on a new life. Though he would look over the menu and fold it up and place it in his jacket pocket when he was able to do so, the chef would always say that he would like to prepare something special for him. Claiborne would mention the standards of she crab soup and shrimp and grits when he first got to Charleston but then moved on to the chef suggestions. Claiborne's wildly popular cookbooks were numerous and his relationship with Julia Child and the world class chefs alone was enough for his fame before his invention of food writing for publications such as the New York Times perhaps put him at the top of the food chain anywhere on the globe. He loved Charleston. And he was more excited each day to try something new.  As the Editor in Chief of Legends Magazine I had a budget for the seven days and I was paying him New York rates. He loved good red wine. And he knew what he was doing when he looked over the wine list. It was always just the two of us as I had not included my girlfriend nor the owner of Kiawah, Buddy Darby. Once he got settled and the wine delivered to the table he assumed the role of the great Southern storyteller. And did he ever tell a good story at the dinner table!  And the story never had a discouraging note or a negative moment of silence. Some took place in Manhattan or in one of the great cities of the world.  And after dinner the walk back to Charleston Place as it was called then was always what seemed a short walk. Only a few times did we take public transport.  And shaking his hand at the end of the evening he never inquired about the future as he seemed to have such a hold on the present.      John Wilson

Karl Bissinger

Server Virginia Reed in the garden of Cafe Nicholson, in New York City in 1949 where Edna Lewis was the chef  (l to r):   ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq,  the novelist Donald Windham,  artist Buffie Johnson,  the writers Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal.  All the big names in the arts went to Cafe Nicholson in the late forties and  fifties in the city.       

Click here    to view the 2018 Middleton Place Restaurant menu and for information and directions.

In the 1980’s, Edna Lewis came to Charleston and was the chef at the Restaurant at Middleton Place at Middleton Plantation. Her fried chicken was world famous.  Today, you can have the “Edna Lewis Lunch” at the Restaurant at Middleton Place.  What an amazing talent Ms. Lewis was at Middleton.

Although Charleston cuisine has been famous since colonial times, it was mostly enjoyed behind closed doors in the grand houses and gardens.  Always fresh, plentiful, and savory;  it combined the best of West Africa with Europe and raised fine dining to heights unknown in the colonies at the time.  In the last thirty five years, Charleston has developed a reputation for its fine restaurants; which has proliferated enthusiastically.  And, as the king of food writing, Craig Claiborne,  said, Charleston has more fine dining places per capita than any other city in America.  The Peninsula has a total of about sixty;  but,  in our view, there are twenty one or so that are world-class. We will not attempt to rank them in any general order.  They are all unique.  They each have their own distinct personality and never disappoint and most if not all source their menu ingredients locally.

 

Middleton Place is a wonderful destination for lunch or dinner. It is about 16 miles from the Historic Peninsula. Try to give yourself a little extra time if you are driving out from the Peninsula or close by so that you can walk the paths close to the Middleton Place restaurant before and after dinner. Short walks or long. The restaurant is located next to the formal gardens and the paths through the old growth are breathtaking. And along the Ashley River that is also right behind the restaurant there is a path that goes by giant Live Oaks that are easily 300 years old with the river a stones throw away. If it is dinner then you can experience a sunset that will forever be a fond memory any time of the year.

The Middleton Place Restaurant on the left with America's first formal landscaped gardens in the back of the restaurant.  Every year the Spoleto Festival has their finale evening on the stepped terrace of the formal gardens with a stage by the Ashley River. It is spectacular.  And to the right of the terrace the old growth garden paths meander through ponds filled with resident swans. It is so worth your time to visit and if you are a wise planner you can book your stay at the Middleton Inn  for the Spoleto Finale in May of 2018 and walk to the concert. Get your tickets now for the sunset event. In January of 2018 Spoleto will announce the lineup.

The Middleton Inn is a short walk along the Ashley River path  from the terraced landscape where the Spoleto Finale takes place. The 2018 festival runs from May 25 thru June 10th.

 

https://spoletousa.org/    The Spoleto event schedule is announced in January.  Middleton Place is the best of both worlds. You are in a living museum and the Inn will organize transportation to festival events and dining experiences.  If you make your plans early there are also cost benefits and guarantees that can happen in January and February.

NECESSARILY

THE BEST

Dining on the Historic Peninsula

 

HENRIETTA"S

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SLIGHTLY NORTH OF BROAD

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OAK

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FULTON FIVE

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MCRADY'S

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GRILL 225

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39 RUE de JEAN

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RAPPAHANNOCK OYSTER COMPANY

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THE GROCERY

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FLEET LANDING

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HANKS SEAFOOD

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PENINSULA GRILL

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CHARLESTON GRILL

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CHEZ NOUS

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XIAO BAO BISCUIT

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METROPOLITAN PORTAL PROJECT

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All in all, I found Charleston to be a remarkable city in which to dine and imbibe. And it has clearly earned preeminence as one of the great "restaurant" cities in the South. The old world ambience combined with fresh local ingredients and even fresher ideas from resident chefs and gastronomes makes dining an irresistible affair. I like to think of it as a culinary renaissance, sans the Medicis. Rich, artful, and mildly decadent. Definitely worth a trip, with the added and sublime satisfaction of knowing there will be no wasted calories.  Mmm - good!   Bon appetit,

In