Get a taste of the South at these spots in Charleston, Hilton Head and Savannah.
Southern culture is amazingly diverse, and nowhere more so than in the Low Country kitchens of South Carolina and Georgia, where food lovers gather for shrimp and grits, fried chicken, pork ribs, Gullah rice and fried green tomatoes—dishes that have evolved over more than two centuries. Here’s a triangle of culinary pit stops—in South Carolina’s Charleston and Hilton Head, and in Savannah, Georgia—where dining traditions are infused with regional ingredients, eccentric chefs and a whole lot of soul.
Travelers staying in Charleston’s historic district, where 18th-century houses line cobblestone streets, can taste-test Low Country staples at the Saturday farmers market in Marion Square. Here, stalls overflow with okra, butter beans, rutabagas, whole pigs and chickens—as well as sandwiches and pies. Foodies scope out the scene at 8 a.m.; before you join them, get a café con leche at Hope & Union Coffee Co., six blocks away.
For lunch, venture out of the downtown area to Martha Lou’s Kitchen, a Charleston institution in a bright pink cottage on a nondescript four-lane thoroughfare. After over 30 years in the biz, Martha Lou herself still runs the kitchen, a spotless corner with well-loved pots and pans visible from the dining room. Tables fill up for her famous fried chicken, well seasoned with just salt and pepper, as well as sides like buttery cornbread and cabbage simmered with hunks of ham. A glass of sweet tea, in this case extra sugary, is a must.
Five o’clock cocktails are a serious tradition here, and Charlestonians happily celebrate it at F.I.G., or Food Is Good. At the restaurant’s bar, expert mixologists craft cocktails such as the Marfa Daisy, made with Espolón tequila and elderflower, and the Green Thumb, a blend of Mississippi Cathead vodka, chartreuse, mint, cucumber, celery bitters, aloe and lime—both chart-toppers on the winter drinks menu.
Over the years, many of the city’s chefs—Ken Vedrinski of Trattoria Lucca, Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill, Sean Brock of McCrady’s—have been singled out for prestigious James Beard Awards. The latest is chef Brock’s Husk, set in a historic house with wide porches, antique-glass windows and a 10-foot chalkboard menu that details ingredients and their provenance. His dishes are daring: chicken skins poached in buttermilk and hot sauce, then fried till they’re crisp; sliders made with pig ears—pressure-cooked, sliced and fried—and pickled heirloom squash, tucked inside warm buns.
At Cypress, Craig Deihl mixes Low Country foods with Asian ingredients: oysters, for example, are topped with tuna sashimi and pineapple wasabi. End your evening with a Lady Baltimore cupcake, a Southern specialty made with sherry-soaked raisins and figs, at Sugar Bakeshop, owned by New York transplants Bill Bowick and David Bouffard.
This South Carolina island is one of the most visited vacation destinations in the country. Luckily, it’s blessed with wide stretches of sand and a low-rise oceanfront, so beachgoers never feel packed in like sardines. In town, bikes rule the streets, which are lined with shops, art galleries and more than 150 restaurants.
Seafood, of course, is the thing to order. Devoted customers of the unassuming Sea Shack insist that no one does fresh fish, oysters and clams better. The question “Fried, grilled or blackened?” applies to everything from shrimp po’boys and crab cakes to locally caught wahoo and triggerfish. Meals are served on plastic blue-checked tablecloths in a kitschy dining space dominated by a mural of a jaunty shrimp relaxing with a cocktail in a hammock—seemingly unaware of its fried, grilled or blackened fate.
While restaurants in Hilton Head cater to varied taste buds—sushi bars and pizza joints stand side by side—travelers committed to a Low Country food pilgrimage should book one of the front-room tables at Red Fish (8 Archer Rd.; 843-686-3388; dinner for two, $130). The menu isn’t strictly South Carolina–inspired, but some of the best dishes on it are. Try the seared scallops with lobster mac-and-cheese, the Low Country shrimp and grits, or the Berkshire pork chop served over grits and kale. The space also doubles as a wine store, so you can buy a bottle, open it to drink with your dinner and cork the rest for later.
Savannah is known for being quirky and mysterious—and for its 22 lovely park squares, framed by Federal-style and 19th-century Greek Revival houses and shaded by trees hung with Spanish moss.
Crowds line up early to snag a family-style table at Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room, which has been serving many of the same dishes since 1943. Servers bring out bowls piled high with Deep South fare: sweet stewed rutabaga, fried chicken and peppery red rice and sausage. Marcia Thompson, Mrs. Wilkes’s granddaughter, circles the room, encouraging conversation between diners.
In-the-know locals stop by Emerald City, a handful of 6-foot-long pits next to a car wash, for tender pork, beef ribs and rack of lamb. The smoky meat is pulled off the barbecue and slathered in tangy tomato-based sauce. Down the street at Back in the Day Bakery, the cheerful staff turns out old-fashioned cupcakes and banana pudding with house-made vanilla wafers.
Most of Savannah’s cafés and restaurants are on the redeveloped waterfront, a grid of redbrick streets lined with boutiques, a few blocks from the Savannah River. A discreet sign marks Alligator Soul, a cavernous downstairs space that feels like an elegant wine cellar, with its stone walls and arches. Dive into Christopher DiNello’s reinvented Low Country classics: Squash blossoms are sautéed with lobster and crawfish; shrimp and grits are livened up with cheddar and lemon butter; and green tomatoes are tossed in Parmesan before being fried.
A Hendricks gin martini at Circa 1875, expertly made and garnished with a cucumber slice, might sound like a dangerous conclusion to the night. But in this bistro, where artists and designers sit deep in conversation in the dark wood booths under pressed-tin ceilings, it feels just right.