With an ocean and two estuarine rivers lapping at Charleston, South Carolina's hem, it's no surprise that this lively, historical city is awash in seafood. But that piscine bounty is only half the story of low-country cuisine, which also leans heavily on regional crops to create the staples that still anchor many a Charleston menu - shrimp and grits, hoppin' john, she-crab soup, okra and rice-based pilaus. Today, an infusion of bold chefs are building on the old recipes passed down from Gullah slaves, and it's tough to walk far - and walk you should here, to take in the architectural and natural beauty of the city - without melting in the aroma of a locally famous restaurant.
Walking into Husk (huskrestaurant.com; 76 Queen St.; 843-577-2500) is like entering the home of a wealthy, tasteful friend who happens to be a top chef - in this case, multiple award-winner Sean Brock. Set in the historic French Quarter, the restaurant is in a restored, 1893 Charleston single-style house, with a sleek, modernized first floor and, upstairs, the more relaxed feel of sturdy wood features and exposed brick and ceiling trusses. If your party's small, angle for one of the tables on the second-story porch. Open with a bloody mary, garnished with shaved country ham, house-made pickles and hot sauce (trust me: it works), and then set to the hard work: picking an entree from among a suite of temptations. The choices vary daily - Brock buys food "only when it's ready" - and insists on fresh, local, sustainable ingredients. Upgrade a late brunch with two of the regular highlights: the shrimp and grits and Husk cheeseburger.
Okay, so Middleton Place at Middleton Plantation (middletonplace.org/restaurant.html; 4300 Ashley River Rd.; 843-266-7477) is 15 miles from downtown Charleston, but it's worth the drive for three reasons: The plantation, a 65-acre National Historic Landmark, offers unflinching exhibits of Charleston's history with slavery. It also has the country's oldest landscaped gardens (1741), with a dizzying array of flora, including willows, azaleas, camellias and magnolias, some of which sit on a sculpted bluff overlooking the Ashley River. And there's the restaurant: A former guesthouse modeled on the old Middleton mill, it features a cozy, cypress-paneled bar area that leads to the main glass-paneled dining room, with generous views of the moss-draped trees and gardens. Start with a bowl of she-crab soup and a tomato-and-cucumber salad, then flip a three-sided coin over the blackened Carolina catfish, Southern fried chicken or shrimp and grits - all part of a culinary tribute to Edna Lewis, the famed Southern chef who vaulted Middleton's menu to fine-dining heights as the resident chef from 1987 to 1989.
At the Macintosh (themacintoshcharleston.com; 479B King St.; 843-789-4299), the bacon happy hour - $5 a plate for creative pork-based apps - is a not-so-subtle nod to Executive Chef Jeremiah Bacon, a five-time James Beard semifinalist who opened the Macintosh with a partner in 2011 in a historical brick building in the upper King Street neighborhood. Bacon (the man) sources locally as much as possible - for example, in starters such as Toragashi cheddar sausage with whole-grain mustard, and the house-made ricotta gnudi, with red pepper, eggplant, holy basil and almond, and the popular seared grouper entree with rainbow chard, bagna cauda, snap peas and potato. Sitting a floor below its sibling, the Cocktail Club, the Mac features its own long bar, bustling dining room and airy, tented patio. A rotating seasonal cocktail menu complements such classics as the bourbon smash (with lemon and mint) and a laudable pisco sour. The beer list is loyal to regional brews, and the wine list is respectable, with north of a dozen pours by the glass.
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Briley is a writer based in Takoma Park, Maryland. His website is johnbriley.com.