Charming Charleston comes to life with its vibrant food and rich history

Shrimp and grits at 82 Queen in Charleston. Photograph by 82 Queen.

For a recent mother-daughter weekend getaway, my mom and I met each other in Charleston. Less than a two-hour flight for each of us — her coming from Miami, me from New York — and we were both transported from life at warp speed to a slower pace and more genteel place.

This Southern gem of a city is colored by yes ma’ams and no ma’ams, by hanging moss and horse-drawn carriages, and by nearly 400 years of American history. Despite its historic allure, Charleston’s food scene is what called out to us the most; cultural diversions were more of a way to give our stomachs a break.  

After an easy Uber ride to Planters Inn, our stately hotel situated next to Charleston City Market, we ventured to Tu, a relative newcomer on the Charleston culinary landscape from the owners of Xiao Bao Biscuit. As we pulled up to an Exxon station and a Chinese takeout joint, I started to question my restaurant pick.

Tucked behind a quaint courtyard, however, we found a modern space decorated in millennial pink with brass fixtures and bright terrazzo floors. Four people can make their way through almost the entire menu at Tu, but definitely don’t skip the lamb freekeh, roasted asparagus with shrimp hushpuppies, off-menu wagyu wraps, or the surprisingly satisfying shaved ice and feta dessert. 

Planter's Inn Charleston
The St. Philip Suite at Planters Inn in Charleston. Photograph by Planters Inn.

Even Old Things are New in Charleston

After a delightful hotel breakfast of crunchy granola, fresh yogurt and berries, and blueberry muffins, we took a 30-minute ride to Magnolia Plantation, located on the banks of the Ashley River. Originally built in 1676 by Thomas and Ann Drayton, the plantation remains in the family’s hands after 15 generations and has been named one of America’s Most Beautiful Gardens. 

A word on new and old in Charleston: Anything built in the early 1900s is considered “new” here. (Consider that the oldest homes in Miami are from the 1920s.) Through our garden saunter we learned that this area was central to South Carolina’s rice production, that Drayton opened the gardens to tourists originally to raise money to avoid post-Civil War bankruptcy, and that Charleston’s iconic Spanish moss is neither Spanish nor moss. It’s actually a flowering plant that was, allegedly, named Spanish moss because locals thought it looked like Spaniards’ beards. 

We followed our visit to Magnolia Plantation with a completely over-the-top lunch on 82 Queen’s stunning outdoor patio. Our table sagged under the weight of crab-cake eggs Benedict over grits with crunchy bacon bits, a basket of the most perfect biscuits, and bourbon pecan pie. 

82 queen restaurant charleston
The patio scene at 82 Queen. Photograph by 82 Queen.

Walking Off Lunch in the Downtown Historic District

We spent the rest of the afternoon attempting to walk off lunch by exploring Charleston’s waterfront area and downtown historic district. We saw the city’s many “single houses,” the predominant style of home layout meant to take advantage of airflow during the hot months and maximize the space of narrow lots. A highlight was being able to step into the Calhoun Mansion, originally built in 1876 but now owned by a retired attorney who uses the home to house his myriad of Gilded Age treasures. It’s like walking through a historic version of Hoarders

Somehow finding room for more food and alcohol, we had a picturesque, refined dinner at Zero Restaurant, which is tied to the Zero George Hotel. With a design feel of Restoration Hardware meets quintessential Charleston, Zero George has two dining options: a three-course tasting menu or a longer tasting menu with wine pairings. The food is elevated yet comforting — think beef Wellington — and delighted us with its old-world charm.  

Our Sunday adventure was an ill-advised foray into the world of tourist faux pas as we found ourselves on a pricey group carriage tour. What we did not know is that there are five prescribed routes for carriage tours, and each tour is randomly assigned a route upon departure in order to avoid congestion. We were assigned a route that largely centered around the main shopping street, parking garage and former jail. 

Peninsula Grill charleston
The Peninsula Grill at Charleston’s Planters Inn is famous for its cake. Photograph by Planters Inn.

Capping Off a Weekend Getaway with Brunch

We did, however, learn that the reason behind Charleston’s Harry Potter-esque housing numbers (there are 1/2s, 1/8s and even 1/16s in addresses) is that many homes had “dependency” buildings attached to them that have been redone and sold as independent homes. Instead of updating address numbers, these building just take on a fraction after the original main house number. Also, conditions in the downtown jail were so bad in the 1800s that the average lifespan of someone sent there was only 100 days. 

We capped off our weekend with brunch at Butcher & Bee, where we snacked on incredible mezze (I am still dreaming of the whipped ricotta with black-pepper honey), veggie burger, avocado and za’atar toast, lamb migas, and rose and pistachio croissant…and a few blood-orange spritzes. And because no trip would be complete for me without a visit to at least one local brewery, we also checked out Edmund’s Oast next door for a few craft beers before heading to the airport.

Will I go back to Charleston again for another helping of food and history? Why, yes ma’am.  

Battery Park Charleston
Battery Park in Charleston. Photograph by Romina Rivadeneira.

Where to Stay, Eat and Visit in Charleston, South Carolina

STAY

Planters Inn: plantersinn.com

Zero George: zerogeorge.com

Vendue: thevendue.com

EAT

Tu: tu-charleston.com

Zero George: zerogeorge.com  

82 Queen: 82queen.com

Butcher & Bee: butcherandbee.com 

The Daily: shopthedaily.com

DRINK

South Seas Tiki Bar: southseastiki.com  

Edmund’s Oast Exchange: edmundsoast.com

Lo-Fi Brewing: lofibrewing.com 

SEE & DO & READ

Magnolia Plantation: magnoliaplantation.com  

Drayton Hall: draytonhall.org

Calhoun Mansion: calhounmansion.net

Gibbes Museum of Art: gibbesmuseum.org 

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd 

More South Carolina: Kiawah Island Golf Resort is an Oasis of Natural Beauty.

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