What's the best place to eat in Charleston?" This is perhaps the most common query put to a restaurant critic. How does one answer? After all, the definition of "best" or even "good" depends entirely on the questioner, their particular mood and disposition, the time of year, the budget, and myriad other proclivities. While there are certainly those places that one could steer away from, the Holy City has enough delicious food for sale, not to mention an ever-changing menu of options, to preclude a clear-cut winner. One must be content with categorization in the face of such a diverse, fluctuating environment.
There are, however, certain favorites. Places where, over the course of an entire year of eating and writing and eating some more, I have come to expect the finest of all things that make a restaurant shine -- not just great food, but excellent service, obsessive attention to details, a harmony of interwoven movements, and most importantly, an expressive philosophy of what it means to cook and eat. In the end, the greatest restaurants do not merely feed one a delicious meal; they leave the diner contemplating the essence of food and its creative transformation into a beautiful work of art.
`This is not to suggest that the art of food can only be found in the priciest of places. The most memorable meals are often a function of people gathered not around expensive crystal, but empty beer cans and piles of steaming seafood. When I tell someone that the best meals in the Lowcountry involve a bubbling pot in their backyard, I get a strange look. They want to hear about the special place, the choice for an anniversary or birthday dinner, a night out on the town, where money is of little object. They want to hear about foie gras, caviar, and truffles -- "who serves the best stuff?"
Many Charleston restaurants unquestionably deserve high praise. My list comes down to three, each expressive in remarkable fashion, each pushing boundaries of style and composition as they relate to their overriding gastronomic philosophy. These are the restaurants that are taking Charleston forward in the culinary arts. These are the places where I prefer to dine and, in a constantly changing culinary landscape, where I currently tell others to do the same. So you ask me about the best place in town? Not a greasy spoon, you say, but a bona fide restaurant, with white linens and great wine and a bar where you can sit down before dinner?
I give you my favorites: Cordavi, FIG, and McCrady's -- The Charleston Trifecta -- presently, the best restaurants in the greatest of cities.
American/Eclectic -- Casual
Downtown. 232 Meeting St. 805-5900
If you have to take an unfamiliar visitor to one place and want to be sure that they leave duly impressed, FIG (which stands for Food Is Good) is your best bet. Mike Lata's dogged determination to exact flavor from the best local ingredients results in an inspiring seasonal array of delicious, well-executed cuisine. Flavors as fertile and pure as the local soil from which they spring are treated with the deftest touch in Lata's hands. He is the kind of guy who serves five baby beets with a sprinkle of sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil or runs from the kitchen with a plate of heirloom kale, just limp and dressed in a bit of garlic and oil, declares it the best crop of kale he's ever tasted, and leaves you to wonder how he packed in all that flavor. Ask him, and he will laud the farmer who grew the produce, he will tell you all about the land from which the food came, how it was grown, and about the farmer's family who grew it.
It is clear that a lifetime of respect for the food itself also taught Chef Lata a few things about how to handle it over the flame. He is famously dogged and determined, with clarity of vision that consistently translates deliciously onto the plate. His passion for seasonality and freshness, and his support for local sustainable farm production make each meal at FIG a foray into the streams, fields, and forests of the Lowcountry. It also makes the food served there some of the most authentically sincere fare in the city. We may not all be able to get our food from the surrounding countryside, but his delectably honest meals make a compelling case for trying.
American/Eclectic -- Upscale
Entrées $20 and up
Downtown. 14 N. Market St. 577-0090
Who would think that an unassuming little bistro at the end of the Market would house some of the most innovative and delicious food in the entire city? Chefs David Szlam and Cory Elliot push the culinary envelope, earning rave reviews (Esquire named them one of the best new places in the country) and local applause. The chefs are close confidants of Chef Sean Brock over at McCrady's and the relationship proves very fruitful, with Cordavi employing some of the same innovative techniques, if in a slightly less revolutionary manner.
The diverse menu offers the best tasting options in town, with diners able to select from multiple course pairings -- the greater the number of courses selected, the smaller the plates -- resulting in a neverending rotation of amuse-bouches and quirky offerings from the kitchen. Complimentary valet parking and one of the coolest bar scenes in town (featuring an outstanding weekly jazz group) make Cordavi a must-stop for locals and tourists alike. Their extreme skill in the kitchen, coupled with a mission to innovate and astound the audience through unexpected juxtapositions of taste, temperature, and texture, create what many consider one of the most cutting-edge dining experiences Charleston has ever seen.
American/Eclectic -- Upscale
Entrées $20 and up
Downtown. 2 Unity Alley. 577-0025
If Mike Lata at FIG is the slow food maverick of Charleston, then Sean Brock is the rebellious rock star of its cuisine. Speculative rumor about town has it that Brock rarely even fires a sauté pan during service (actually, he uses them all the time) at McCrady's, a location so ancient and venerable that it once served dinner to George Washington. Juxtapose its historical legacy against the cutting edge "molecular gastronomy" that Brock practices and you have yourself one hell of a concept. Charleston's mad scientist certainly entertains the notion, stocking his kitchen with exotic implements and futuristic food.
Laboratory-grade heated water circulators cook vacuum-sealed meats for days, powders and potions turn liquids to gel at high temperatures rather than low ones, vats of liquid nitrogen cool plates of metal that become ultra-cold "anti-griddles," foams and froths abound.
A newly renovated space will bring an even more disciplined focus on high-end food with the successful "wine bar" being radically transformed into an experimental dining room with a menu all its own. Whatever the outcome, one can be assured that the food will be deliciously fried on the edge of space.