The last stop on our culinary road trip across the U.S. south landed us in Charleston, South Carolina. One of the American cities that was always on the top of my list of places I wanted to visit. I never thought that we would be ending such an amazing road trip in Charleston. And, I never thought we would do it by eating some of the best food in Charleston.
Best Food in Charleston – Halls Chophouse Gospel Brunch
We woke up early in Athens, Georgia and raced to Charleston. We had a deadline: to partake in a Charleston, low country tradition, Sunday Gospel Brunch at historic Halls Chophouse. Halls is a family-run restaurant, with a focus on service and hospitality. We saw it first hand when a member of the Hall family held the door open for us as we entered.
Halls was hopping. Every table filled to max capacity. The Gospel choir sat just inside the front door. Just after we stepped in, they broke out into When The Saints Go Marching In. It doesn’t get more Gospel than that.
Because we raced to Charleston, and the atmosphere inside Halls was electric, I felt a little on edge. That feeling quickly abated after I started in on one of their famous Bloody Mary’s, complete with pickled okra and a crisp, cool shrimp. Brunch was on.
Halls Chophouse is not only known for steaks, and their Bloody Mary’s, but for classic low country cuisine. Low country cuisine is the phrase used for the dishes traditionally served in South Carolina, and along the Georgia coast. It is heavily influenced by the sea, but differs from traditional southern cuisine in its more refined tastes. It’s referred to as low country because the area is, well, at low elevations.
One of the most typical low country dishes is She Crab Soup. Just a few days before arriving in Charleston, we learned about She Crab Soup while watching a program on the Travel Channel. I’m glad we did because otherwise, I had never heard about She Crab Soup. We probably wouldn’t have ordered it.
It’s a thick, lump crabmeat soup with sherry cream, similar to a bisque. What makes the soup unique is that it is topped with crab roe, which is what makes the crab soup “she” soup. I am generally not a fan of roe, and find it too fishy for my taste. In this case, though, the soup was creamy enough, and the roe not strong at all. It was the perfect way to start our meal at Halls.
We also couldn’t pass up the Oysters Rockefeller. Since we spent a few weeks eating along the Gulf Coast, we began a love affair with both grilled and fresh oysters. These oysters were beefy, and loaded with spinach and bread crumbs.
Another typical low country dish is shrimp and grits, a dish with sautéed shrimp, pepper, onions, cured ham, and, in this case, pepper jack grits.
In order to make the Sunday Gospel Brunch feel truly like brunch instead of lunch, we also ordered one of the traditional breakfast dishes. In this case, the server delivered a giant tower of French toast. The French toast included lavender scented brioche, Vermont maple syrup, and espresso mascarpone cream set precariously on the top of the stack. Long, crispy strips of applewood smoked bacon crowned the tower. The sweetness of the French toast perfectly offset the spiciness of the shrimp and grits.
After these four dishes, a Bloody Mary, and several glasses of mimosas, plus the long drive from Athens, I was stuffed. I wanted to check into our hotel and pass out in a food coma. The staff at Halls Chophouse had something else in mind. When offered dessert, they would not accept no for an answer. Our server delivered a delicious, warm bread pudding, which just put me over the edge. After that, nap time was ensured.
Best Food in Charleston – Circa 1886
For our final meal of the #USChowDown culinary road trip, we went historic by dining at Circa 1886, another top restaurant in Charleston. Circa 1886 is known for it’s seasonal menu, of low country cuisine with a modern twist. It is also well-known for being located in the original carriage house of an historic mansion in the middle of a residential neighborhood in downtown Charleston. It is a romantic location, and was the perfect choice for the very last night of our culinary road trip.
Because this was our last supper, of sorts, we tried to choose our dishes strategically. We started with a fried quail with typical collard greens, but served with coconut rice and pineapple lacquer. Here was our first example of low country cuisine gone modern.
Next, a dish of seared sea scallops was served over ham and field pea succotash, flavored with pimento. I try to order scallops whenever I can. The fact that they were paired with succotash was a bonus.
Next, Eric went traditional with a pork chop. He generally cannot say no to a pork chop. This version was served with crispy sweet potatoes, crisp cabbage, and bourbon apple butter.
I went off the reservation, so to speak, with my entree choice – antelope. Yes, antelope served in a Southwest style with achiote rub, avocado, cole slaw, and tequila cilantro. It was a unique Southwest flavor that I was not expecting from the food in Charleston. But, the antelope was tender, well prepared, and not at all gamey in taste. It was a beautiful dish.
We finished up the evening with some tasty, and unique desserts. A apple crisp soufflé was flavored with salted caramel (my favorite) and ginger ice cream. I enjoy anything with ginger, and this dessert was no exception.
Eric went for a Circa 1886 classic dessert, the sweet potato donuts, served with pecan praline glaze, molasses marshmallow, and cinnamon ice cream.
Where to Have a Nice Drink in Charleston
So, our trip to Charleston wasn’t entirely about the food. It rarely is. We visited to two unique places for drinks as well.
Mira is a Napa Vally, California winery, with a tasting room in the heart of Charleston. Set inside a historic building, their goal is to introduce quality Napa Valley wines to South Carolina. Flights at the Mira Napa Valley Tasting Room start at $35. Although it’s possible to find less expensive wine in Charleston, glasses at other bars do not come with the wine education that Mira provides. It’s a unique option for wine lovers, or groups. And, it’s possible to find Mira on the wine list of many of the top restaurants in Charleston.
We also enjoyed some classic, and not so classic cocktails, at The Victor Social Club. Of course we had to test out their gin and tonic and a classic old fashioned. This was particularly important after a very disappointing series of old fashioned cocktails while in Savannah the week before. Both classic cocktails at The Victor Social Club were expertly prepared. I also enjoyed a Basil Cucumber Lemonade, which was prepared with cucumber infused vodka and basil. Eric, of course, ordered a drink called the Men Without Women, made with fig infused bourbon. The Victor Social Club is a perfect place to enjoy a cocktail before or after a dinner in Charleston. Cocktails start at $9.
How to Eat Some of the Best Food in Charleston
We were only in Charleston for 2 nights, a very quick trip indeed. Of course these were not the only two meals we ate, but these were simply the best of the meals. It helps that both Halls Chophouse and Circa 1886 are perennially on the list of not only some of the best restaurants in Charleston, but the best in the U.S.
I also want to make a note about the service at Halls Chophouse. Just as we finished our meal, one of the managers asked us to fill out a card for their mailing list, which is pretty typical at a lot of restaurants. When we explained that we live in Thailand, they told us not to worry about it. A few months after we returned, we received a lovely handwritten note from the owner of Halls thanking us for dining with them. Now, that’s some good service.
Halls Chophouse is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, and the bar stays open until 2:00 am. Sunday Gospel Brunch runs from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm every Sunday. Starters average around $15 and entrees around $40. Reservations are pretty much required for Sunday brunch.
Circa 1886 is open for dinner six days a week starting at 5:30 pm. They are closed on Sundays. Starters average around $15, entrees around $35. The tasting menu at Circa 1886 is $75 per person, or $110 with wine pairings. Reservations are strongly recommended.
We were supported by the Charleston CVB during our visit to Charleston, but all view points are my own.
While in Charleston we also stayed at the historic John Rutledge House Inn, where rooms start at $270 a night, including breakfast. Considering how classic and historic our dining experiences were, the John Rutledge House Inn was a perfect compliment to an historic stay in Charleston.