The 7 Best Downtown Charleston Restaurants for First Timers

On vacation, there is nothing better than being able to skip the car and head straight to fun things to do and restaurants from wherever you’re staying. Charleston, South Carolina, is a perfect destination for that kind of vacation. 

With so many incredible things to do and restaurants in the historic district, half the fun is walking the old cobblestone streets from one place to another. After several trips, these are a few of my favorite places, with a few other notable restaurants still on the list for future visits. 

Best Restaurants in the Charleston Historic District

The historic district of Charleston, South Carolina, comprises five neighborhoods. The Boroughs, located roughly northwest of Marion Square, Harleston Village south of St. Phillips Street, The business district primarily comprising King Street, the French Quarter stretching from Meeting Street to the waterfront park, and finally south of Broad, which includes the very point of the peninsula. 

Most attractions and restaurants are in the Boroughs, Business District, and the Historic French Quarter. But don’t let the delineation of neighborhoods discourage you from exploring all over the Holy City. You never know what kind of surprises you may encounter along the way. 

If you’re newer to Charleston, this list includes walkable restaurants within the historic district and covers the gambit of high-end fine dining establishments to casual, well-loved spots.

Coast Bar & Grill

Tucked off an alley in a converted warehouse, it is a great spot for seafood and locally sourced fish. They offer an intimate setting for outdoor seating and a spacious interior. However, the restaurant regularly books up despite the many tables, so it is wise to reserve a spot in advance.

Some of my favorite menu items include the lobster tail or surf and turf entree, which is enough food for two people to share a lighter meal and sample a little of everything. A salad may be included with your meal, depending on your order. I consider myself a Caesar salad snob, and theirs passes with flying colors, so that would be my suggestion.

Coast Caesar Salad
Image Credit: Marly Garman.

The Peninsula Grill

White tablecloth establishment tucked into the private courtyard of the Planters Inn Hotel right across from the historic Charleston city market. The Peninsula Grill is known for serving elevated southern fare and traditional favorites like steak, scallops, and asparagus.

 This is an excellent place to celebrate a special occasion and finish your meal with an enormous slice of their famous coconut cake. Reservations are required and can be challenging to secure, so making arrangements as soon as you know you will be heading to Charleston is wise. 

Fleet Landing Restaurant Bar

This restaurant boasts a snappy casual atmosphere with a great bar and indoor or outdoor seating with views over the water. However, they stay busy, so reservations are recommended.

But if the reservations are booked, you may be lucky enough to snag a table the day of by getting on the evening waitlist. It’s not guaranteed, but stop by the restaurant any time after 3 pm to have your name added.

Unfortunately, you must stop by in person to get your name on the waitlist. However, there are several nearby spots, including the Vendue rooftop bar, where you can enjoy a cocktail and appetizer to pass the time.

When you do get a chance to place your order, I highly recommend the seafood pasta. It’s probably one of the most satisfying pastas I’ve ever had. It is not too heavy, not too light, but bursting with flavor and generous helpings of seafood. Finish it off with a slice of key lime pie, and it’s a nearly perfect meal.

Fleet Landing Seafood Pasta
Image Credit: Marly Garman.

FIG

A fine dining restaurant known for garnering several James Beard awards for two of its executive chefs, one of whom is chef Mike Lata, who is still behind the menu and delicious items being served today. The third award was given for the restaurant’s impressive wine curation. Touted as a neighborhood restaurant, diners can expect a cozy atmosphere and dishes filled with seasonal and local ingredients.

Bumpa’s

This pub is a relaxed family-owned establishment inspired by generations past. Their unique variety of game and flavor combinations sets them apart from any other restaurant in the area. I like this place as something unique and unexpected among the traditional southern fare and fresh seafood you find at most other restaurants in the area. 

Bumpas Burger
Image Credit: Marly Garman.

Ru Ru’s

For a walkable Mexican restaurant in the historic Charleston district, Ru Ru’s is a great choice. They have a generous dining room and bar perfect to accommodate groups of all sizes. Though they don’t take reservations, you can order take-out food if your accommodations are nearby. But, since you’ll likely be walking around the area anyway, consider popping in to put your name on the waitlist as you shop some of the nearby galleries and retail outlets. 

167 Raw Oyster Bar

We would be remiss in our duties if we didn’t include at least one long-standing hot spot for raw oysters. Love them or hate them, these little morsels have been an East Coast mainstay both on menus and as an industry for generations. You’ll pay the market rate for your oysters and many other fresh fish options that change daily. 

Their contemporary nautical decor welcomes patrons with indoor or patio seating options. The central location of the raw bar cannot be beat. Within a few minutes walk from just about anywhere in the historic district, you’re there. If the idea of raw makes you nervous, don’t fret. They have plenty of cooked seafood and other delectable menu options. 

Popular Southern Fare to Try in Charleston, South Carolina

When you travel somewhere new, having a short list of notable menu items you want to try on your visit is always a good idea. The tricky thing is figuring out when and where to order each item. 

Just like restaurant experiences can vary for dishes you already know and love, there’s a little luck that goes into trying a new dish prepared in a way that will delight your taste buds. 

I recommend ordering some of the same items at different restaurants to better understand what you like and dislike. Here are a few of the most loved southern favorites you can find done exceptionally well in Charleston, South Carolina.

Fried Green Tomatoes

They’re so good you can make a meal out of them, but they’re often served as an appetizer or add-on to a burger. I was skeptical at first because how good could unripe tomatoes really be? The firm and tart flavor is a much different experience than eating a ripe tomato. You may find green tomatoes a much more enjoyable menu item if you don’t often eat tomatoes because of their texture.

Fried Chicken

You may have had it elsewhere, but the care and style of fried chicken in the south is unlike any other, making it a favorite southern food. Many of the most famous restaurants make special preparations, like marinading or bringing the chicken hours in advance, to ensure the most tender and flavorful meat with an exceptionally crispy crust. You can find it hot, but true Southern fried chicken is more likely to be served with syrup or honey and a waffle than doused in a red hot sauce or a fiery spice blend. 

Okra

Prepared fried, boiled, or oven-roasted, this traditional vegetable of the south looks a little like a cross between a jalapeno and zucchini, but it is not spicy and is more hollow than a zucchini. Okra can be served as a side, mixed into a stew or gumbo, or prepared as part of a seasonal mixed vegetable.

Grits

Grits are to traditional southern cuisine what quinoa is to the health-conscious millennial diet. Initially, grits rose to popularity as affordable subsistence, but they have evolved into one of the well-loved Southern comfort classics over time. This starchy substance is made of ground corn and looks somewhat like mashed potatoes but with a more coarse texture. Grits can vary in thickness and be flavored differently based on the recipe. Though not entirely devoid of nutritional value, the amount of butter and or cheese added to grits often outweighs the benefits. It is frequently listed on menus as a side option or part of a main dish like shrimp and grits. 

Hush Puppies

Cornmeal Batter shaped into bite-sized portions and deep fried until crispy is what hush puppies are made of. No two recipes are ever quite alike, so trying them at different places to compare can be fun. Hush puppies are another popular appetizer choice or served to compliment a traditional main dish like BBQ. 

Pimento Cheese

Another typical Southern food item. Pimento cheese can be a dip to enjoy before a meal or added to various foods like burgers and crab cakes. The closest equivalent to pimento cheese would be a bar cheese. Pimento cheese has a strong tangy flavor thanks to the mayonnaise and pimento added to the recipe. 

Top Restaurants in Charleston, SC, Outside Historic Downtown

You are bound to find wonderful restaurants in any direction from downtown Charleston. With such a rich culinary history, there is a lot to explore. Below are some notable options for taking day trips away from the walkable downtown area. 

Taco Boy

With two locations in the area, one outside downtown and the other on Folly Beach, there are more ways to enjoy the eclectic style and welcoming atmosphere of Taco Boy. Their menu offerings are almost as colorful as their decor. Diners can expect traditional and local-inspired tacos, lighter salad options, and a great selection of margaritas.

Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ

This restaurant is not one to miss. Restaurant and Chef have both been recognized as James Beard Award recipients. Their claim to fame has been their mastery of the painstakingly laborious task of whole hog BBQ. In addition to their pork, Rodney Scott’s BBQ offers turkey, chicken, and beef options on the menu paired with generous helpings of classic sides like mac and cheese, collard greens, coleslaw, and more. 

Loggerhead’s Beach Grill

Sometimes, after a long day playing on the beach or kayaking, all you want is a low-key place for some fried seafood and french fries. Loggerhead’s is a perfect place for that kind of meal and a fun atmosphere for relaxing on their raised deck. They also feature live music if you visit in the evenings or on weekends. 

Fried Shrimp Basket
Image Credit: Marly Garman.

Final Notes on Downtown Charleston Restaurants

I can safely say this is a list I will gladly revisit and add to with each additional trip to Charleston. This only covers such a small part of the culinary experience the city has to offer. 

Remember to check out some of the restaurants and bars tucked into the hotels around town. Frannie & The Fox, Eleve, and Zero Restaurant & Bar are a few great examples. Some of these restaurants or bars have the most incredible decor and settings, often on the roof!

There are also plenty of cafes and places to indulge your sweet tooth. Off Track Ice Cream, Harken, and Saffron are superb choices for ice cream, coffee, and sweets.

It is exciting to see so many of the notable restaurants in the area expanding to add additional locations in Charleston and growing cities like Greenville, South Carolina, Asheville, North Carolina, and beyond. If you visit any of these areas, you may find some familiar names of historic downtown Charleston restaurants. 

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Marly is a lifestyle writer and creator of simplylivinghappy.com, a site dedicated to helping readers improve their health, wealth, mindset, and overall happiness. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her listening to audiobooks while gardening, visiting with family, or traveling.