As a coastal community, the Lowcountry boasts a host of Charleston seafood restaurants that serve up fresh, locally caught fare and offer unique local favorites like Frogmore stew. The Variety Store and Fleet Landing offer waterfront downtown dining, while outside the city, diners can enjoy water views at Bowen’s Island, Ellis Creek Fish Camp, and Shem Creek establishments. There’s also delicious seafood to be had in historic buildings downtown, and at a resurgence of an early Lowcountry tradition, the oyster house.
Beside shrimp and grits and she crab soup, which are popular local dishes at both soul food and formal sit-down establishments, Charleston seafood restaurants offer additional Lowcountry specialties and plates that are more ubiquitous throughout the nation at coastal spots. Crab cakes, crab legs, and fish and chips, for example, are loved across the nation and beyond. Adding rice to seafood dishes, however, is a “southern thing”, brought with enslaved Africans who knew how to cultivate rice and used it in every dish daily. Rice pilau (often spelled and pronounced perlo or purloo locally) is a fusion dish similar to paella but unique in its use of all-local ingredients. Robert F. Moss explains, “the dish was brought to the Lowcountry by enslaved laborers who grew rice. [It] was made by washing and pre-soaking rice grains then simmering them in an aromatic broth.” Virginia’s, Husk, and several seafood and soul food restaurants offer a version of this flavorful dish.
Frogmore stew, also called Lowcountry boil, is another popular dish found up and down the Carolina coast. Less a stew than a steamed feast, chefs take ears of corn and cut them into smaller sections, and add piles of red potatoes, spicy andouille sausage, and loads of fresh caught shrimp. These ingredients are thrown in a large pot with bay leaves and other secret spices and steamed tender, then dumped into a bowl or onto a paper lined table for guests to pile onto their plates self-serve. There’s differing theories about the origins of Frogmore Stew (named for Frogmore Plantation, invented by Beaufort shrimpers, or by Beaufort native Richard Gay of Gay Seafood Company in the 1960s), but today it’s available at Charleston seafood restaurants including the Crab House and Fleet Landing, among others.
Along with crab, shrimp is a Charleston seafood restaurant staple because the sweet, tasty foodstuff is abundant in our local waterways and the neighboring Atlantic Ocean. East Cooper (Mount Pleasant, Shem Creek, and northward up the coast) has a hearty maritime tradition of boat building, net making, shrimping, crabbing, and fish houses. Though most fishing is done on a large, impersonal commercial scale in the modern world, East Cooper still has a few local shrimping outfits that supply local restaurants, and if you know where to look, local shrimpers and fishermen still offer fresh catches of the day for sale, raw, along the docks. Dine at Red’s Icehouse and the host of other seafood restaurants along Shem Creek and you’ll have a chance to see our local shrimp boats coming in for the day with a catch for the next day’s diners.
Ellis Creek Fish Camp and Bowen’s Island Seafood are perfect for dining waterfront on the way to or from a day at Folly Beach. Bowen’s keeps the intimate oyster roast traditions alive that are more common in Lowcountry backyards than restaurants, offering oysters still steaming on metal trays to be pried open do-it-yourself with an oyster knife and dipped in cocktail or hot sauce, or gobbled up as-is.
Oysters are bountiful in the Lowcountry marshes and have been eaten steamed, stewed, raw, and alongside rice and grits for centuries. It’s no surprise that enterprising restauranteurs have been operating oyster houses since at least the early nineteenth century. Robinson’s Beef Steak and Oyster House at 191 Meeting Street noted in 1808 that “private and select parties can be genteelly accommodated” with seasonal offerings in his long room. The New York Oyster house on Queen Street had “the best oysters that Charleston and its vicinity affords, and when circumstances permit will be supplied with New York oysters”, as well as liquors of the best kind, relishes, and segars [cigars] in the 1820s. Oysters were a big business at the turn of the twentieth century, with shuckers (often poorly paid and badly treated) were processing up to 20,000 bushels of oysters per day in the coastal communities between Charleston and Beaufort. The oysters were canned and shipped throughout the world.
Today’s oyster houses, including Pearl’s (East Bay Street), Delaney’s (115 Calhoun Street in a charming historic single house), Rappahanock (in the Cigar Factory and offering Virginia specialty oysters), The Darling (upper King Street, and boasting an extensive raw bar), and Leon’s (upper King Street) are keeping the old Charleston seafood restaurant traditions alive. Leon’s opened in 2014 in Leon Ravenel’s old body shop, and the building still has large garage doors, letting breezes through the restaurant all the way to the bar, which serves a robust list of local and imported beers alongside salads, fried chicken, fish fry, and their “world famous” chargrilled oysters. Delaney’s is the newest addition and residents sit in the beautiful former parlors of the historic house while enjoying a wide selection of oysters, fusion seafood dishes and classics like hushpuppies, and fine cocktails.
Our seafood tastes have changed, and no one offers terrapin (a cute coastal turtle once viewed as a delicacy) like New Brighton Beach Hotel on Sullivan’s Island any longer, although their other specialty, steamed little neck clams, are still available.
Long-lost (or reinvented) restaurants like the Azalea Room (on the Neck at King and Mount Pleasant Streets) and Harold’s Cabin (formerly at 84 Wentworth Street) offered diners a wide variety of seafood in the 1930s and 1950s. Azalea’s 5 pm dinner, which served “unforgettable food in an atmosphere of refinement, air conditioned for your comfort”, had “creole omelets, perch, batter fried flounder, gulf shrimp, seafood platter (fish, fried shrimp, crab cakes, potatoes), consommé with rice, kitchen made seafood chowder” on the evening menu. Harold’s was known for its crab cakes, “served in our famous balcony.”
Today, downtown Charleston has no shortage of seafood restaurants for every budget. Hyman’s on Meeting Street and Charleston Crab House in the market cater to the tourist crowd and often have a queue because of their wide selection and good prices. The Hyman family have had a business at 215 Meeting for over 120 years, first a wholesale and dry goods store, and then transitioning to a seafood restaurant in 1987 as the Market area transformed to a family friendly tourism mecca. The historic building is constructed of locally made brick, has heart pine flooring, and a cast iron spiral stair shipped from Kenton, Ohio in 1887. Hyman’s Seafood remains an important local Jewish-owned business that employs over 150 people. They serve up po’ boys, fish tacos, sandwiches from their deli, and all variety of fried seafood.
Fleet Landing at the end of the Market on Concord Street is located right on the Cooper River overlooking the Charleston Harbor, housed in a World War Two era navy building called the US Fleet Landing Facility, where sailors embarked and disembarked from their time at sea. Before the building was present, this stretch of the Cooper River waterfront was a popular launching point for the Mosquito Fleet, a group of African American fishermen who sold their wares in the market and to street cries who would bring it door to door. Specialties at Fleet Landing Restaurant include blue crab dip, seafood stuffed hushpuppies, flounder, and great desserts like Huguenot torte.
Hank’s on the landside edge of the Market at Hayne Street brings back the traditions of fine seafood dining in early Charleston. The historic building has an upscale air, with local art and deep stained wooden tables. The servers don white jackets reminiscent of waiters at 1930s oyster houses. Hank’s has been open since 1999 and regularly wins awards for best seafood (Charleston City Paper’s sought-after “Best Of” rating) and was deemed one of America’s best new restaurants by Esquire when they opened. The diverse menu includes seafood platters (variations of fried shrimp, grouper, flounder, scallops, and oysters with fries and cocktail sauce), a raw bar, clams, shrimp and grits, grilled salmon, and meat options. The Seafood a la Wando is a must- “sauteed shrimp, scallops, and fish with sherry, crabmeat, button mushrooms, scallions in a shellfish saffron cream sauce, and served with a fried grit cake.”
Perhaps the best kept seafood secret in the city is the Variety Store at the City Marina off Lockwood Drive, right on the Ashley River next to the boat slips. Established in 1963, it’s one of the oldest seafood restaurants in the Lowcountry, and its unpretentious interior and Salty Mike’s bar are as inviting as the food- sandwiches, she crab soup, seafood platters, and several shrimp dishes. They even offer breakfast on the weekends, a perfect way to start a day off in the Lowcountry. Make sure to ask your https://charlestonempireproperties.com realtor which of these fabulous Charleston seafood restaurants is closest to your next dream home!
- Hymans Seafood. https://www.hymanseafood.com
- Jonathan Poston, Buildings of Charleston. Columbia: USC Press, 1996
- Hanks Seafood. https://hanksseafoodrestaurant.com
- Lee Brothers. Charleston Kitchen. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2013.
- John Johnson. Shrimp Highway: Savoring US 17 and its iconic dish. New York: McFarland, 2017.
- Tressy Magwood Mellichamp and Lily Herndon Weaks. East Cooper: A Maritime Heritage. Charleston: Arcadia Press, 2008.
- William P. Baldwin. Bowen’s Island. Charleston: Evening Post Press, 2016.
- Charleston News and Courier
- Charleston Evening Post.
- “African Passages, Lowcountry Adaptations.” http://ldhi.library.cofc.edu/exhibits/show/africanpassageslowcountryadapt/sectionii_introduction/rice_lowcountry