For food lovers, Charleston, S.C., represents a culinary riddle wrapped inside a mystery wrapped inside an enigma. Although its population weighs in at fewer than 150,000, the city has long supported what is arguably the most vibrant and sophisticated restaurant community east of the Mississippi River. How this small city came to enjoy such an embarrassment of gastronomic riches is a matter of debate, but the results are clear. Local chefs have invented their own dining culture as they blur the lines between high and low, classic and contemporary, expectation and execution.
No preconceived notions. No dish is safe from creative reinterpretation. A perfect example is bologna, which has been enjoying a renaissance on charcuterie boards everywhere. The popular sausage is totally turned on its head at The Macintosh, where the current menu boasts Swordfish Bologna, a sly, briny wink at the charcuterie craze that is plated with sunchokes, beet-horseradish vinaigrette and shiitake puree. Prior menus have served up similar surprises with Grouper Bologna and Triggerfish Brandade. Spero, a laid-back eatery that invites patrons to socialize and share great food, facilitates matters with an unconventional Scotch egg that plays off the typically hard-boiled English pub favorite. In this version, East meets West as Szechuan peppercorn sausage and a runny egg are accompanied by herb salad. Tavern and Table’s brunch menu includes a tasty take on another British classic: Toad in the Hole here starts with brioche French toast, inserts a fried egg and tops the whole thing with warm bacon-maple syrup.
No holds barred. Conventional Italian elements are ripe for reinvention in Charleston kitchens, like the clever Green Tomato Carpaccio with lump crab meat at The Grocery or Low Country Arancini with house-smoked sausage at Grace & Grit. Porchetta is succulent roasted pork served with polenta or pasta or in sandwiches. At Scarecrow, however, Porchetta Rancheros are a thoroughly modern mash-up that pairs the protein with a fried egg, along with beans, Fresno chiles and the requisite tortilla. Spero looks to Italy for inspiration, too, with the New Potato Puttanesca appetizer replete with capers, olives, anchovies, marinara and the titular potato. Speaking of spuds, McCrady’s Tavern promises reimagined American classics, which translates to the classy, sassy combination of Caviar and Tater Tots. The menu also nods to plant-based cuisine with Beets “au Poivre” with watercress and blue cheese. And Escargot-Stuffed Marrow Bone marries the ingredient of the moment, bone marrow, with rediscovered escargot, a nod to “Mad Men” era Continental cuisine that has set foodie hearts aflutter.
No sacred cows. Grits are fundamental to Low Country cuisine, familiar menu mainstays on tables from breakfast through dinner and at restaurants of all types. Luminaries like chefs Sean Brock, Mike Lata and Robert Stehling have done much to promote artisanal grits milled from local grains. But for other chefs, grits have provided a jumping-off point, as at trendy Butcher & Bee, where Triple Corn Grits are finished with za’atar popcorn. At Grace & Grit, the titular ingredients are offered à la carte or as flights to be shared by the table; sweet or savory grit options include peaches and cream, pimento cheese and Brussels pesto. Corn also figures prominently in other spiffed-up standards like Jalapeño Hushpuppies with sorghum butter at Hominy Grill, Green Chile Corn Pudding at Lewis Barbecue and housemade Cornbread with burnt honey-miso butter at Spero. And in a variation on the corn theme, Cornflake-Crusted Catfish with tomato-onion jam and honey-Tabasco mayo at small-plates specialist Graze taps into the unlikely boomlet in ready-to-eat cereals as go-to ingredients that add taste and texture to restaurant dishes.
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta. As one of LinkedIn’s Top 100 Influencers in the U.S., she blogs regularly on food-related subjects on the LinkedIn website.