Come hungry. Charleston, S.C., is a town that likes to eat well. The downtown has a variety of options—Mexican, sushi, Korean, Mediterranean, Thai, Italian, delis, burgers—and range from pizza joints catering to the student crowd to fine dining.
But when I'm in Charleston, I like to explore local twists on standards of South Carolina Low Country cuisine. Like fried green tomatoes.
At Jestine's Kitchen, a casual eatery reproducing the recipes of Jestine Matthews, who lived to 112 and worked for 70 years with the restaurant owner's family, the lightly battered fried-green tomatoes ($5.25) are served piping hot and have a lemony flavor. Don't leave Jestine's without trying the melts-in-your-mouth, sticky sweet Coca Cola Cake, $5.95 (251 Meeting Street, no website, no reservations). Nick's Barbecue—along with huge portions of good pulled pork, brisket, and chicken, topped either with a vinegary barbecue sauce or a smoky hot habanera sauce—serves fried green tomatoes with a thick cornmeal crust heavily seasoned with salt and pepper. Delicious. My husband's favorite, though, was Nick's sweet potato pecan pudding, a side dish that could easily be dessert (nicksbarbq.com, lunch for two about $25).
Shrimp grits are another staple of Low Country cuisine and are perfectly seasoned at Anson, an upscale splurge. Prepared with shrimp stock, tidbits of bacon and bacon drippings, sprinkled with scallions and roasted tomato, every bite was heavenly. A diner at the next table so enjoyed tasting her daughter's shrimp grits, she persuaded her daughter to swap entrees (ansonrestaurant.com, dinner for two, with wine & dessert, about $120). No surprise that grits are widely available, and even at a no-nonsense diner like Sweetwater Café, the cheesy grits are a bowlful of comfort food at $5.99 (but skip Sweetwater's biscuits, which seemed straight from a supermarket).
Great fresh seafood is a Charleston tradition. The culinary emphasis of Fish is no secret. While it offers a variety of French/Asian fusion, a popular dish is the Naked Fish, the catch-of-the-day prepared simply with olive oil, salt, and pepper, to showcase its freshness (fishrestaurantcharleston.com). Or go early for the Fish happy hour specials, beginning at 4:30 pm.
Fortunately for those of us who love to burn calories almost as much as we love to eat, Charleston is also a walking city. On three visits, I've never rented a car, since the airport is an easy taxi ride ($14 to share a van, about $38 for a taxi) and downtown Charleston is pedestrian-friendly.
Pack comfortable walking shoes to fully appreciate the architectural splendor of the area South of Broad Street. It is a neighborhood of 18th- and 19th-century mansions located close to one another, close to the waterfront, and within walking distance of the downtown shopping and dining area. Many houses have two story open-air porches, called "piazzas," situated to capture the prevailing breezes. Many houses have carefully cultivated gardens that can be glimpsed behind elaborate wrought iron gates. A handful, such as the Edmondston-Alston House (edmondstonalston.com), are open for tours by local docents, who can tell you about the family, the furnishings, and the architecture.
Downtown Charleston is also home to the lovely historic campus of the College of Charleston, where you can stroll the brick walkways and admire the architecture and trees draped in Spanish moss. The campus welcomes visitors and offers student-guided tours, a map for a self-guided tour, and even a downloadable app for a self-guided tour (cofc.edu/visit).
The Charleston City Market is four blocks of covered, open-air buildings, where local artisans sell pottery, wood carvings, soaps, wearable art, and other crafts. At the Market or on the sidewalk in front of the federal courthouse, you might see weavers turning sweet grass into baskets, and selling them on the spot. You can window shop at the many art galleries, upscale retailers like Jill St. John, or mid-price chains such as Urban Outfitters, or visit Butterfly (butterflyconsignments.com), a consignment shop filled with deals on fashion-forward women's clothing.
For a free rest stop for tired feet, try people-watching from a plush chair in the lobby of the Embassy Suites hotel, the pink fortress-like structure that formerly housed the Citadel Military College and where some guest rooms feature gun ports (embassysuites3.hilton.com). Or cross Marion Square, a welcoming public park that hosts a farmers market on Saturday mornings, and find a comfy chair in the grand lobby of the Francis Marion hotel, built in 1924 and extensively renovated in 1996. If you stay at the Francis Marion, a weekend getaway package offered until December 2014 includes $50 per night of certificates for the hotel restaurant, The Swamp Fox, or for any participating restaurant on Upper King Street, most located within easy walking distance of the hotel (francismarionhotel.com).
Nightlife on upper King Street has picked up in recent years, and now features lively upscale lounges with dress codes and lines that spill out onto the sidewalk. The bars' success has caused some tension with their neighbors over limited parking and the noise of patrons leaving at the 2 a.m. closing time.
On every visit to Charleston, I am again struck by the friendly service. And that unpretentious hospitality is another draw for a lovely walkable city with great food.
Sarah Ricks is a Clinical Professor at Rutgers Law School—Camden and a lifelong travel junkie.