Erin Van Der Meer

What are the best US cities for foodies? New York, to try some of the world’s top restaurants, LA for crazy-healthy cuisine or New Orleans for southern style?

All three are worth your time and appetite. But one place a lot of food-lovers overlook when visiting the States is Charleston, the capital of South Carolina.

On my first trip there in January, the weather was cold. Like, cold. So although Charleston offers a lot of things to do in the warmer months, I mostly found myself inside, researching the city’s culinary scene.

In other words, eating. A lot.

What I discovered is that many eateries in Charleston are taking traditional southern food and giving it a thoroughly modern twist.

And I’m not the only one who’s impressed. The Washington Post recently ranked Charleston as one of the country’s top 10 food capitals, and a successful NYC restaurateur told me he was eyeing the city for his next opening.

With Charleston being just a one hour and 40-minute flight from NYC, I suggest you take a side-trip there next time you take a bite out of the Big Apple. Make sure you save some room.

Smoke BBQ

I spent two months in the south, and Smoke BBQ was the best barbecue restaurant I found across five states. And trust me, I went to more than a few.

Photo from Charleston's Smoke BBQ - wings


At Smoke BBQ, it’s as if they’ve applied the techniques of a fine-dining restaurant to casual fare, and the result is delicious. The crispy confit chicken wings were fall-off-the-bone tender, and the pastrami Reuben sandwich with homemade sauerkraut, Russian house dressing, and Swiss on marbled rye was food-gasmic. This place has ruined me for chicken wings and sandwiches and just all food in general, forever.

Photo from Charleston's Smoke BBQ - pastrami Reuben sandwich



Whenever a restaurant is an ‘institution’, I tend to be a little wary. Often places that have been around for ages build a reputation that’s impossible for them to meet. But McCrady’s, which has been a favorite Charleston dining spot for over a decade, lived up to the hype.

Photo from Charleston's McCrady's - Clams with English peas


The modern-Southern menu features ingredients sourced from local farmers and uses them in cutting-edge ways. My favourite dishes were the clams with English peas, wild onion and begonias, and the American red snapper with polenta di Riso, rhubarb, celery and green almond. The cocktail menu is also unique, with each bartender serving their signature mix alongside the classics.

Photo from Charleston's McCrady's - American snapper with polenta


Mercantile and Mash

Charleston’s food scene summed up in one place. Southern traditions like a chicken biscuit and roast meats are served alongside fresh, tasty salads at this breakfast and lunch venue.

Photo from Charleston's Mercantile and Mash - meat & cheese platter


The uber-modern menu also incorporates international cuisine via the Mexican grilled Mahi tacos, Vietnamese banh mi roll and traditionally French croquet-monsieur. The charcuterie and cheese plate is a must – wash it down with one of the craft beers or sodas, and finish off with some housemade gelato.

Photo from Charleston's Mercantile and Mash - chicken biscuit



This recently-opened restaurant is yet another place doing seriously inventive stuff with traditional Southern cuisine, and throwing in a little international flavour for fun.

Photo from Charleston's Spero


The focus at Spero is on share plates, so bring lots of friends to sample as much of the menu as possible. Be a true southerner and start with some cornbread. But this is no ordinary cornbread – it comes with burnt honey miso butter.

Photo from Charleston's Spero - Dem Buns Though


I couldn’t go past menu item Dem Buns Though for the sassy name alone and wasn’t disappointed by the combination of house-smoked wagyu pastrami, braised cabbage, and 1000 Russian island dressing. Southern food can tend to be heavy, so I was delighted by healthy sides of red Russian kale served with cucumbers, red peppers, and garlic miso vinaigrette, and the broccoli with roasted garlic puree, white anchovies, bread crumbs, and smoked chilli oil.

I wish I had more places to recommend, but I’m only one woman, with one stomach, with one pair of jeans that haven’t fit since I got to the US of A. Thanks for the food hangover, Charleston. I’ll be back.

Things you should know:

  • Charleston is the capital of South Carolina, located on the south-east coast
  • It’s a one hour and 40-minute flight from New York City, or a little over six hours flight from Los Angeles
  • Be sure to head out of downtown and explore the Folly Beach, Mt Pleasant and West Ashley neighbourhoods
  • Charleston is home to one of the most informative exhibitions in the country on the history of slavery, The Old Slave Mart Museum
  • Stay at Belmond Charleston Place which offers a convenient location in the centre of downtown and a complimentary daily happy hour in the bar.

*Images supplied and printed with permission

Erin Van Der Meer is an Australian travel writer. Right now she's in the US drinking too many free refills of Dr Pepper.

Follow her adventures: Instagram @erinvandermeer, Twitter @erinvandermeer

The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and are meant as travel inspiration only. They do not reflect the opinions of Cover-More Insurance. You should always read the PDS available from your travel insurance provider to understand the limits, exclusions and conditions of your policy and to ensure any activities you undertake are covered by your policy.