The Charleston Restaurant Scene has grown quite a bit over the last several years. Not too long ago, one's choices in Charleston were relatively limited. Not true today. Whatever you have a taste for; there is a perfect choice for you in Charleston. Charleston is especially known for seafood, so you would think that freshness and good preparation would be a given. I can tell you from several personal experiences that quality seafood is anything but a given no matter how close you are to the ocean. There are two quite busy seafood restaurants on the city market that serve frozen, imported shrimp that you can get at Red Lobster at most any city in the country.
On the other hand, I know of a restaurant with seafood so fresh, the only thing the freezer has in it is ice cream; and ice. (It's not in the historic district, but in Mt. Pleasant.) The tricky part for a visitor picking a local restaurant is consistency. Also, some restaurants seem to be better at marketing than they are at serving consistently high quality food, so just because you see a big crowd, doesn't guarantee anything in Charleston. My wife and I are in regular communication with most of the concierges, desk staff, and inn owners in Charleston, and restaurants are a frequent topic of conversation, so these recommendations are not only based on our own experiences, but reports of dozens of local Charlestonians.
"Money is no object" $$$$$
Charleston Grill - $$$$$ This is one of my true favorites, especially for their unique seafood preparations. Seafood is my personal favorite, but there are plenty of choices whatever your preference. I can't imagine anyone not being able to find something that they would find wonderful. The chef offered us a sample of Tempura Lobster tails, and they were too rich for words. Located at the Luxurious Charleston Place, Charleston Grill has an inviting atmosphere nicely complemented by The Frank Duvall Jazz Trio. The staff is plentiful and most attentive and warm. We had no less than five people serving us at one time or another whether it was to bring us more bread, or our fifteenth fork. And they stayed on top of things without being intrusive. I think I caught one of them out of the corner of my eye waiting for an appropriate moment to approach as my wife and I were engaged in conversation. All of the sauces and presentations were absolutely exquisite; each a work of art in its own rite. A friendly warning; don't order the Chocolate Quintet dessert unless you really, really like lots of Chocolate. One more warning, the bread is also incredible, so if you want to be able to walk to your car without assistance, watch yourself. Everything I've ever tried here from my five or six visits has been beyond perfect.
Peninsula Grill $$$$$ - It's been some time since I've experienced Peninsula Grill. I'm reporting on it here because I've spoken to so many people after their trip that have thoroughly enjoyed it, I wanted to pass it along to you. Peninsula Grill has won award after award, and if you appreciate great tasting food with artistic presentation, then you can't miss with Peninsula Grill. I also know that Peninsula Grill is usually booked several days to as far as three weeks in advance, so if you want to plan a special weekend getaway, make sure to call well in advance for reservations. Weather permitting, they also offer outdoor dining, which is quite pleasant on a cool early Spring Evening.
Circa 1886 $$$$$ - Circa 1886 is one of Charleston more formal, elegant choices. The great thing about $$$$$ restaurants, is that everything is given so much attention and care. Circa 1886 is located in what used to be the carriage house for Wentworth Mansion, circa 1886; thus the name. The Scallops were the most memorable dish I experience recently. I also remember being surprised that I liked a salad that had watermelon in it. I don't even much like watermelon, but it nicely complimented the greens and dressing. I think this simple example highlights the chef's ability to come up with unique creations that are both unexpected and extremely enjoyable.
$$$$$ - That's it for our top of the line restaurants in Charleston. A great deal of training and time go into the presentation of each dish at $$$$$ restaurants to say nothing of premium and fresh ingredients. I think the greatest thing about Charleston is the fresh local seafood, and every chef has his or her own ideas on how to make it even greater.
$$$$ - These are great choices with nice presentations and sauces, but not as elaborate, perhaps as the $$$$$ choices. As much as I enjoy $$$$$ choices, I have to admit that it's a bit "over the top" for me. I can appreciate the time and talent that going into serving an edible work of art, but when I go out to eat, I'm really more about the taste. So, if taste is what you want, and you don't care as much about the show, $$$$ might be for you.
Magnolias $$$$ is one of Charleston's more established restaurants and is a favorite for both visitors and locals. That being the case, you'll definitely want to plan ahead, especially on the weekends. The Shrimp and Grits are the best I've had. I prefer the varieties with Tasso ham over the more traditional Andoille Sausage. It gives it a nice subtle kick that I especially enjoy. Tuna and Grouper are also very good choices here. Make sure you save room for dessert. Parking is convenient and free.
Hank's - $$$$ - Other than the fact that the food is terrific, what I appreciate about Hank's is that you can choose between a straight ahead fried or broiled seafood platter, and they also have some more elaborate chef's choices if you want something fancier and more complicated. Also important is that the batter is lighter than what I've tried at most places; not exactly low fat, but easier on the body than the heavier varieties. Another popular aspect of Hank's is the community table. I think it seats about 15 on each side, you'll be seated with other guests in various stages of dining so there's the opportunity to have a more social experience if you like. Don't misunderstand me; they have plenty of other tables if you'd like to have one to yourself. I've tried all of the Seafood Restaurants around the market including the chains, and my advice to visitors is to plan ahead and make sure you get your seats at Hank's. Because unlike life, Seafood is not, "like a box of chocolates (where); you never know what you're going to get." You're going to get great food and great service at Hank's.
T-Bonz Gill and Grill $$$ - T-Bonz has great steaks and the like and is probably the best spot in its class. It's right on the market, and they have a wide variety of selections from salads and sandwiches to Surf and Turf. The atmosphere is very casual and festive. Don't miss the desserts and if you don't make it to T-Bonz; make sure you stop in to Kaminsky's Cafe; for coffee and dessert. It's out of this world, that is if you love desserts like we do.
Coast $$$ - Coast is on the north end of the historic district just past Marion Square between streets King and Meeting. Regardless of the time of year, Coast has fresh oysters; the local oysters are available in months ending in R. They have plenty of local seafood selections, I've tried the tuna and the grouper and they were both very good. The atmosphere is more casual and there is a bit of a nightlife scene with live entertainment at the bar.
39 Rue De Jean $$$ - Rue De Jean is French for "John Street". Cute, huh? Cara and I eat here at least a couple times a month. It is our favorite place for a fabulous "Caesar Salad", for lunch or evening dining. Also, We've heard nothing but good things. We like the atmosphere. The bread is yummie; an important plus to me. More on this one later. I'm sure we'll be eating here again soon. They also have great hamburgers!