2006 DISH Summer Dining Guide » Dining Guide

DISH DINING GUIDE ‌ The Nine Top

Dressed up or down, these are Jeff Allen’s favorite places to dine

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How do you narrow a selection as diverse as the entire Charleston dining scene into a best of the best? It is virtually impossible. As a city, we are blessed with such a compendium of unique eateries that every mood, each singular occasion, could be satisfied by a place tailored specifically to those needs. To that end, the following selections constitute an exceptional list of places currently leading the way in a variety of genres. They represent a wide spectrum of style and price, not chosen merely because they serve expensive food, authentic Lowcountry cuisine, or imaginative applications. These restaurants represent the soul of the culinary scene. They are places that we take out-of-town guests who want to experience the best of everything that Charleston has to offer, a quintessential tour of the current gastronomic landscape and the benchmarks for what we look for when searching out the best eats in the Holy City.

Al di La
Italian
Entrées $10-$15
West Ashley. 25 Magnolia Road. 571-2321
Dinner
The word "trattoria" means something very specific to Italian food, and Chef John Marshall understands its connotations very well. Al di La, a favorite haunt of numerous "star chefs" around town, serves up delicious handmade fare at more than reasonable prices and never fails to deliver an authentic, soulful experience. The dining room has been packed from day one (reservations are almost always necessary), so Marshall created a new wood-oven wine bar, or "bacaro" (which never accepts reservations), next door to handle the overflow. When that filled up with eager diners, he ripped up the outdoor plants and installed two patio areas beneath the stars. One day he will realize that with food this good, at these prices, in such a beautiful space, he could fill a Super Wal-Mart.

Bowens Island Restaurant
Seafood
Entrées $5-$10
James Island. 1870 Bowens Island Road. 795-2757
Lunch and Dinner
From the funky, junky décor to the walls stained with generations of graffiti, there is no better place to suck down cold beers and eat fresh, steamed oysters in the entire Lowcountry (and perhaps the entire world). Bowens has been shucking and sucking creekside for over 60 years, providing several generations of Charlestonians with their shellfish fix. You can eat in the "oyster room," with hot, steamed mollusks shoveled atop your table until you say uncle, or try a fresh selection of local catch straight from the smoking cast iron. No matter what you order, dinner at Bowens is always unforgettable.

Charleston Grill
American/Eclectic — Upscale
Entrées $20 and up
Downtown. 224 King St. 577-4522
Dinner
This is the place that started it all — proving that urban redevelopment is not as evil as some would have you believe. What is now the Charleston Place Hotel complex anchored the revitalization of the entire peninsula above Broad Street, which is to say that almost every fine dining establishment in town owes its very existence to the pioneering that took place in this location. Fittingly, Chef Bob Waggoner still leads the way. His elegant showpiece of a restaurant effortlessly choreographs an exemplary experience, weaving Southern influences within the framework of classically-inspired cuisine and impeccable service (they are one of the few establishments in town that can correctly decant a wine). Chef Waggoner is unafraid of unusual items, such as beef tongue and offal, nor luxury items like foie gras, truffles, and exotic shellfish, regularly featuring them on the nightly menu. His innovative cuisine has been hailed far and wide and continues to make Charleston Grill a primary destination for those wishing to experience the finest food that Charleston has to offer.

Cordavi
American/Eclectic — Upscale
Entrées $20 and up
Downtown. 14 N. Market St. 577-0090
Dinner
It may be brand new, but Cordavi made a big splash when it cannonballed into town. Who would think that this unassuming little bistro at the end of the Market would house some of the most innovative and delicious food in the entire city? The guys and gals at Cordavi didn't worry about food costs when they designed the multi-course tasting menus. They toss around Kumamoto oysters, Wagyu beef, and Beluga caviar like they've got a stash of gold hidden away somewhere. Combine extreme skill in the kitchen with a mission to innovate and astound their audience through unexpected juxtapositions of taste, temperature, and texture and you have all the ingredients for what many consider the most cutting-edge dining experience Charleston has ever seen.

FIG
American/Eclectic — Casual
Entrées $15-$20
Downtown. 232 Meeting St. 805-5900
Dinner
If you had to take an unfamiliar visitor one place and wanted to be sure that they left duly impressed, FIG would be your best bet. Mike Lata's dogged determination to exact flavor from the best ingredients possible results in an impressive seasonal array of delicious, well-executed cuisine. He is the kind of guy who serves you five baby beets with a sprinkle of sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil 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. We may not all be able to get all our food from the surrounding countryside, but his delectably honest meals make a compelling case for trying.

McCrady's
American/Eclectic — Upscale
Entrées $20 and up
Downtown. 2 Unity Alley. 577-0025
Dinner
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 does not even fire a sauté pan during service 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. They have started to call him "the mad scientist" in Charleston foodie circles and he 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. New ownership and management leaves the future direction of McCrady's a mystery, but if Brock has anything to do with it, one can be assured that the food will be deliciously fried on the edge of space.

Peninsula Grill
American/Eclectic — Upscale
Entrées $20 and up
Downtown. 112 N. Market St. 723-0700
Dinner
They may not have been the first high-style "grill" to open in the market area, but they are certainly one of the best. Chef Robert Carter headlines this delicious Southern belle with creative dishes that sing from the plate. Lowcountry influences intertwine with contemporary preparations in a symphony of flavors that lead flawlessly from arrival to dessert. Start at the champagne bar (which serves six selections by the glass); perhaps indulge in a few oysters, a tartare dish, or one of the most scrumptious foie gras plates in the city. Move on to your table, where the signature "Wild Mushroom Grits," still amazing in a town overrun with coarse ground hominy, can start the meal; order up the creative lamb chops encrusted with sesame seeds, called by the West African moniker "benne seed" in the vicinity of the market. We sometimes stop by just to have the now famous coconut cake, which, after being featured in the national media numerous times, is a mail order extravaganza — and it really is that good. At 12 pounds per cake, these monstrosities will set you back a couple inches in the waist but are worth every indulgent bite. Peninsula does not lay claim to the most expensive, extravagant, or formal tables in town, but they do enjoy one all important categorization — they are simply one of the best.

Red Drum Gastropub
American/Eclectic — Upscale
Entrées $15-$20
Mt. Pleasant. 803 Coleman Blvd. 849-0313
Dinner
Need a great meal after work in Mt P., a place to take the office out for crowd pleasing drinks and dinner? This is your place. The Gastropub serves up a delicious blend of Southwestern-inspired cuisine, microbrews, and classic French bistro fare in a gorgeous, laid-back atmosphere. It is a synergy that has wowed a plethora of regulars that now inhabit the bar, swilling down killer margaritas and munching on Chef/Owner Ben Berryhill's awesome chicken enchiladas with red mole and some of the best ceviche that we have ever tasted; if you are lucky, you will get to eat it all in the cozy little wine cave. It dresses down like a pub, but serves fine cuisine like a grande dame of the restaurant scene — hence the moniker Gastropub. We don't really care what they call it — it's just plain good.

The Wreck of Richard & Charlene
Seafood
Entrées $10-$15
Mt. Pleasant. 106 Haddrell St. 884-0052
Dinner
Welcome to the only place that you should be eating huge platters of fried seafood in the greater Charleston area. It has the crispy crunch, the impossible-to-find location, that authentic shabby milieu, and the tattered shrimp boat just off the creekside rail. You go to "The Wreck" for one thing only — the best deep-fried platters in town (they serve other stuff, but who orders that?). They have been doing seafood since Hurricane Hugo grounded the eponymous trawler on the site and they have been doing it well. The actual shipwreck is long gone, but the remembrance lives on at the end of the world along Shem Creek. We keep worrying that the shrimpers will disappear, and along with them, The Wreck, victims of another gentrifying condo project. Until that day, you can bet that the fryers will be hot, dispensing shrimp, scallops, oysters, flounder, and other local fish. Get good directions before you go. We still get lost in the dark trying to find the place.

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