The Lowcountry has so many amazing deli and quick lunch options that this is just installment one, highlighting Charleston delis and cafes on the peninsula to enjoy a sit down or to go lunch. Brown Dog Deli, Queen Street Grocery, Groucho’s, and Market Street deli offer custom sandwiches with traditional sliced deli meats and loads of breakfast options that can be enjoyed in their cafes or taken to go. Caviar and Bananas, Ted’s Butcher Block, Mozzo on Meeting, and Mercantile offer all that plus deli counters with to-gos and ready-made entrees, butcher cuts, and sides for enjoying later at home. These fabulous delis and cafes keep a longstanding urban lunch tradition alive and well in the Palmetto City.
Delicatessens, or “delis” for short, became a phenomenon in American cities in the mid nineteenth century. Often operated by European immigrants, these shops sold exotic, foreign, and gourmet prepared foods. In Charleston, many deli proprietors were German, Jewish, Greek, or Italian, like the famous Vincent Chicco or the Cantini Brothers establishment. Chicco’s Delicatessen had two locations by 1920 (on King Street and in the Market) selling olive oils, olives, imported cheese, spaghetti, and Italian, Greek, French, and Spanish specialty foods. By the twentieth century, many delis offered sandwiches and lunch options ready-made.
Even earlier, Charleston had a lunch counter and street cart lunch tradition (we might equate this with a larger food truck today) that catered to working Charlestonians who needed a hearty, filling lunch while out and about. Lunch counters often served seafood like oysters or shrimp and were located near the wharves and docks. A July 1885 News and Courier article proclaimed “shrimp season at the lunch stands” along the “East Bay lunch route.” There was beer and cocktails, “dainty ham sandwiches, tongue sandwiches and swiss cheese sandwiches, a plate of hot fried liver, a dish of clam chowder, places of boiled shrimps, a plate of pickled herring, sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, and radishes, and numerous other things calculated to tempt the palate of the hungry man on the Bay.”
The beautiful Art Deco building at 283 King Street was once Kress and Co. department store, and was the site of a historic sit-in demonstration in 1960, in which 24 Black customers from Burke Highschool protested segregation and refused to leave the Whites-only lunch counter. Today, a state historical marker stands on the sidewalk out front.
Delis and cafes in the city today might be called a modern amalgamation of the deli and lunch counter traditions, offering quick and simple sit down or to-go breakfast, brunch, and lunch options, and several also offering traditional deli prepared foods to take for dinner later.
Groucho’s Deli at 364 King Street, popular with College of Charleston students, is one of many Groucho’s locations (the first was founded in Columbia, South Carolina in 1941). Nicknamed Groucho because he looked like the famous comedian Groucho Marx, Harold “Groucho” Miller was born in Philadelphia and brought the immigrant deli experience to the South. Signatures include the trademarked Apollo Dipper, a large sub roll with melted cheese, turkey, and ham topped with their famous “formula 45” dressing (their “famous delicious herb blend of spicy Russian and Thousand Island dressing), hot and cold sandwiches and hoagies, salads, and a kids menu.
Market Street Deli attracts tourists because of its location in the heart of the Centre Market and also locals because of their fast, friendly service and no-frills but tasty menu. While most diners might not realize it, they’re eating in the part of the city that was home to the first delicatessens of Charleston’s European immigrants, and where Charlestonians came daily to purchase fresh meat, seafood, and vegetables in the market. The menu salads, soups, and a host of sandwiches made with Boar’s Head meats. Their “Old traditions” line includes Cubans, Rueben’s with turkey or corned beef, and roast beef Philly melts. The restaurant “invites you to stop in and visit our Deli during your workday or on your jaunts in and about town. Our dedication to great food served fast and fresh with a great price has been the staple of our success since we began. Come join us for breakfast or lunch.”
Queen Street Grocery in Harleston Village was founded in 1922 in a quaint wood frame corner store with large plate glass windows. It has morphed from a grocery to a café with inviting indoor and outdoor seating and grocer counter for quick shopping. In a city where people seek out history, their website proudly notes: “Opening in 1922, Queen Street Grocery has been a little spicy bit of everything over the past hundred years. From an Apothecary to a full-blown Grocery Store and now in its modern-day form, The Queen presents the Corner Store of your dreams. Preparing fresh local ingredients daily, QSG proudly presents Charleston’s freshest Crepes, Hot Pressed Sammies, refreshing Smoothies, and leafy Salads. There’s a little bit of everything for you here — pop in and build a classic picnic lunch to take out to Colonial Lake, or eat outside on our sidewalk dining. Al Fresco.”
Their omelets come with toast and jam, and they also have a healthy granola parfait, rich French toast, or smoothies like the “Huger Street” mango, banana, lime, coconut nectar or “Moultrie” banana, chocolate soy, and peanut butter and of course, plus loads of salad and sandwich options at lunch time.
Brown Dog Deli has locations on Calhoun and Broad Streets with ample indoor and outdoor café seating. Chef Wesley Denney whipped up culinary delicacies from the American South to Washington state, allowing him to create “a very diverse menu. He loves to incorporate great Asian influences and, most importantly, the great Southern BBQ cooking he grew up eating.” Partner Brent Petterson, a native Charlestonian and graduate of Johnson and Wales, worked at prestigious Mccrady’s and Snee Farm Country Club before partnering with Wes to create Brown Dog.
For the lighter lunch, salads include chipotle chicken cobb, poke tuna, or spinach and goat (strawberries, goat cheese, walnuts, vinaigrette). If you’re famished, opt for Wes’ grilled cheese (gouda, swiss, provolone, and prime rib with au jus on sourdough) or the Southern Charm (pulled pork, bacon, pimento, pepper jelly, fried green tomato, kielbasa, and BBQ sauce on a brioche bun). There’s also loads or wrap and hot dog options and sides including tortellini pasta salad, loaded baked potato salad, broccoli kale salad.
Located in the recently renovated circa 1880s Cigar Factory at 701 East Bay Street, Mercantile (the daytime half of the Indigo Road’s Mercantile and Mash establishment) has been delighting East Side residents since 2015. The inviting space has historic pine flooring and a traditional deli layout, with individual counters for each “department.” Their all-day breakfast menu includes avocado toast with onion relish, toasted pumpkin seeds, and cilantro on EVO sourdough (add egg or smoked salmon for a heartier version) and chicken biscuits. For lunch: fresh soups and sandwiches, Campanella pasta (lemon pesto creak, pistachios, cherry tomato, asiago), tuna or turkey melts, burgers, and Merc mac and cheese. Mercantile also has a full coffee and espresso bar, bakery counter, grab-and-go case with fresh sushi, meats, cheeses, wraps, and ready-mad entrees, and a large bottle wine selection.
Mozzo on Meeting is just north of the onramps for the Ravenel Bridge and I-26 in an unassuming commercial strip that also hosts popular 616 Pub and El Pincho Taco (featured in the Mexican and Spanish restaurant installment). Mozzo is Shannon Campbell’s latest restaurant, following the success of his Mt. Pleasant flagship Mozzo deli. The menu is straightforward but voluminous, offering something for vegetarians to avid deli meat lovers and all in between: fresh breakfast sandwiches with melty cheese on a croissant or bagel, omelets, burgers, salads, and custom order sandwiches. The small deli to go counter with chicken pimento, chicken and tuna salad, edge salad, orzo or tortellini pasta, and potato salad by weight to go, plus fresh baked treats like cookies, muffins, and scones.
Established in 2005 at the corner of Inspection and East Bay Streets, Ted’s Butcher Block might come closest to the nineteenth century deli experience, with a robust set of to-go offerings and café seating to enjoy a custom-made sandwich. As you walk or bike closer, the cozy smell of an oak fire wafts in the air, coming from their large Egg grill, where Ted’s butchers smoke fresh meats. Ted’s is locally owned and operated and prides itself on fresh, sustainable food and keeping family traditions alive: “The inspiration behind Ted’s comes from Walter and Mary Dombrowski, owner Ted Dombrowski’s Polish grandparents, who were butchers in New Jersey for nearly 40 years. Married shortly after arriving in the United States in 1918, they lived on the second floor of their neighborhood butcher shop and established a smokehouse in the cellar where they made homemade kielbasa from a family recipe. Mary made deliveries by trolley to neighboring customers. At Ted’s Butcherblock, we honor the Dombrowski’s commitment to hard work and customer service by offering neighbors in Charleston quality products and knowledgable service. We believe you should know everything you can about the food you eat – from where it was raised to what it ate and how it was processed.”
Theirs is a traditional butcher and deli counter harkening back to the days before premade and processed foods. Customers can get lunch to go or eat in the restaurant, and can also order fresh seafood, deli and catering, and custom butchers cuts to take home for dinner. Meats are sourced from Painted Hills Beef Farm in Oregon and Cheshire Farms products from North Carolina. Ted’s makes sausage, charcuterie, and artisanal bacon in house. Customers can select entrees to go by the pound: BBQ pork, Scottish salmon (all their seafood is “Good Catch SC Aquarium” certified sustainable), rotisserie chicken, and more. When dining in, they offer changing feature sandwiches and standbys like the caprese (fresh Mozella, tomato, basil and with or without prosciutto on a ciabatta roll) and pastrami with Russian dressing slaw, dill pickle, and swiss cheese on rye bread. The aged gouda mac and cheese and fresh fruit salad are popular sides, along with apple walnut chicken salad, sweet and sour Brussel sprouts, butternut squash soup, and tomato basil bisque.
Caviar and Bananas opened in 2008 on George Street and has since expanded with a satellite location at the Charleston Airport. Caviar uses “only the freshest ingredients sourced locally and from around the globe, offerings are prepared daily, whether made to salads and sandwiches or chosen from the prepared food case. Additional features include a charcuterie and cheese counter, espresso bar, and boutique beer and wine selection.” For breakfast there a wide offering of pastries and baked goods, smoked salmon bagels, and breakfast sandwiches and burritos. The grab and go menu includes Asian tofu salad or grilled greens. Customers can build their own salads and sandwiches or stick with standby paninis and toasties.
- Ted Merwin. The Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli. New York University Press, 2015.
- Sheryll Bellman. America’s Great Delis: Recipes and Traditions from Coast to Coast. Collector’s Press, 2005.
- Christina R. Butler. Italians in the Lowcountry: Sunny Italy’s Charleston Colony. Dante Alighieri Society of Charleston, 2021.
- News and Courier. “Let’s Smile.” 19 July 1885.
- Preservation Society. https://www.preservationsociety.org/locations/kress-building-sit-in/