Local’s Guide to the Carolinas: Showcasing the Cuisine of Southern Restaurants

locals guide carolinas southern cuisine



Food has the power to say so much about a place. The local flavor provides insight to a region’s history, people and spirit. Like the handheld street foods of Manhattan and the signature tacos of the Southwest, it’s indicative of the region’s inhabitants and natural bounty. In the Carolinas, food was — and continues to be — born of necessity, availability and creativity.

 

As author Rick McDaniel points out in his book “An Irresistible History of Southern Food,” it’s the people, first and foremost, that shaped the flavors of the South. Southern cooking, like the region itself, is a veritable fusion of ingredients and cultures, heavily influenced by Africans, Native Americans and European settlers.

 

“What we consider ‘Southern cooking’ was not a revolution that occurred at any one time or place,” McDaniel writes. “It was an evolution of foods and cooking techniques from the many and varied ethnic groups who settled the region; some who came to start a new life, some who were stolen from the life they knew and forced into bondage and some whose lives changed forever when they saw the great white sails on the ships bringing strangers to their land.”

  

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The Earliest Influences on Carolina Cooking

 

Fried Okra

Fried Okra
 

In the case of the Carolinas, flavors are quite varied, shaped by both its inhabitants and its geographical positioning. McDaniel points out that North and South Carolina foods can be directly traced back to early English and Native American Southerners. The English brought meat, fish and savory and sweet pies to Virginia, but the lack of drinking water and the spread of disease pushed settlers further south, carrying these dishes from Jamestown to the Carolinas.

 

At the same time, the hunting and gathering natives taught new settlers much about agriculture, with carefully tended plots of corn, beans, peas, squash, pumpkins and sunflowers. To supplement what was grown in the garden, Southern Native Americans looked to their surroundings, harvesting fish, shellfish and berries. But, undoubtedly, the biggest influence of Native American food came in the form of maize, which early Americans roasted to eat whole or ground up for flour, which they baked into breads, pies and early versions of cornbread.

 

Of course, the inter-mingling of these two cultures resulted in plenty of new dishes and food developments. Natives taught English settlers how to smoke fish to preserve it for winter, while the English helped the Natives improve their hunting tactics.

 

In the years to follow, influxes of Scottish, Irish and French immigrants brought whiskey and a new love for French cooking to the South. In fact, it was said that, at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson regularly sat down to “half-Virginian, half-French” style dinners. The French influence made a lasting impression on Southern food, especially in cities like New Orleans and Charleston.

 

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Introducing African Flavors

By the late 1600s, laws regulating a race-based slavery system were officially on the books. And by the year 1860, there were some four million slaves in America, with the vast majority of them residing in the South.

 

Naturally, Africans who arrived in the U.S. during the dark period of American slavery brought plenty of new flavors, foods and cooking techniques along with them. The yams of West Africa, the spicy flavors of the Caribbean and a new crop called the peanut arrived in America by way of slave ships during this time.

 

black eyed peas bowl spoon

Black Eyed Peas

 

Indeed, it was the African influence that shaped Southern cuisine, especially in the Carolinas. Collard greens and black-eyed peas mixed with island-style dishes from Charleston and Savannah were some of the first dishes to inspire what we know as “Lowcountry cuisine.”

 

And then, of course, there’s Southern barbecue. In the book “A History of South Carolina Barbecue,” author Lake E. High, Jr. points out that, contrary to popular belief, Southern barbecue was not invented by African slaves — we have the Spanish and Native Americans to thank for that. However, African-Americans did help to propel the style of cooking in the Carolinas by setting up small restaurants to serve their communities throughout the South. The accessibility of pigs as a food source further solidified barbecue in the Southern cooking canon.

 

So now that you have a general idea of how many of the signature Southern flavors were brought to this corner of the country, let’s take a look at some of the cities and restaurants where you’ll find some of the best examples of classic Southern dishes.

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Charleston

Charleston has always had one of the liveliest restaurant scenes in the South, and it’s still thriving, having been named one of America’s Best Food Cities by the Washington Post and one of the Most Exciting Food Cities by Zagat. Part of that is because travelers and locals alike have long trusted Charleston as a reliable place for a good meal — it was the hotbed of Lowcountry cuisine and the center of the Antebellum South, where money was abundant.


plate shrimp grits cheese

Shrimp and Grits

 

In Charleston, you’d once find “Charleston ice cream” — which isn’t ice cream at all, but steamed, buttery rice — and Lady Baltimore Cake, a cake made of egg whites, dried fruits and fluffy frosting. These days, you’ll find a mixture of tradition and innovation in this charming coastal city.

 
  • Husk — This Queen Street eatery, dreamed up by celeb chefs Sean Brock and Travis Grimes, puts a focus on Southern ingredients, particularly those that signify the Lowcountry. You’ll see dishes here that are exemplary of the best South Carolina has to offer, like perfect cornbread with Benton’s bacon, crispy pork collard greens and shrimp and grits.

  • Martha Lou’s Kitchen — Down-home, Southern-style soul food is the name of the game at Martha Lou’s Kitchen, a laid-back Morrison Drive joint that has been serving up fried chicken, pork chops, cornbread and bread pudding for three decades. And yes, Martha Lou herself still cooks up her iconic dishes.

  • Butcher & Bee — Charleston’s Butcher & Bee is probably the only place in town where you can get a sweet potato sandwich and a French pastry. This year, the James Beard Foundation named Butcher & Bee’s Pastry Chef, Cynthia Wong, as a semifinalist. So you’re not going to want to miss this spot’s baked goods.  

  • Rodney Scott’s BBQ — Barbecue pit boss Rodney Scott also made the Beard Foundation’s list as one of the semifinalists in the category of Best Chef in the Southeast. It’s not hard to see why, since this longtime chef specializes in delicious whole-hog barbecue, pit-cooked barbecue chicken, fried catfish and ribs.

 


charleston restaurant scene graphic


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Asheville


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Biscuits and Gravy

 

As McDaniel points out in his book “Asheville Food,” the North Carolina city has evolved from the Biltmore-focused one-horse town of yesteryear to a bustling hotbed of lively restaurants and microbreweries. But against all odds, Asheville actually has a rich, food-focused heritage, one that has flourished in the last century. These days, farm-fresh foods and innovative chefs have turned Asheville into a town that earns the nickname “Foodtopia.”

 
  • Biscuit Head — If modern Southern cooking’s what you’re after, you simply can’t go wrong at Biscuit Head. This Asheville mainstay is known for its flights, but not the kind you’re probably familiar with. The must-try dish at this spot is its signature gravy flight, featuring your choice of three gravies with an over-sized biscuit.

  • Early Girl Eatery — Classic, Southern fair often means no-frills, but in Asheville, it means farm-fresh ingredients. This Wall Street eatery specializes in farm-to-table Southern cooking, complete with foods sourced directly from nearby farms.

  • HomeGrown — With a motto like “slow food right quick” you can imagine what HomeGrown is all about. This unpretentious eatery whips up Southern staples like buttermilk chicken and catfish po’boys, but adds an Asheville twist with dishes featuring tempeh and tofu. It’s a Southern vegetarian’s delight!

  • Mayfel’s  — Asheville’s College Street mainstay also has a clever and telling motto: “Bringing the Bayou to the Blue Ridge.” In other words, it’s where you go if you’re looking for authentic Cajun cuisine in Asheville, complete with fried green tomatoes, frog legs, gumbo and beignets.


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Columbia

Residents of South Carolina’s capital city are certainly no strangers to good food. It’s the combination of chefs, farmers and artisanal purveyors that make Columbia such a gastronomic destination, says “Columbia Food” author Laura Aboyan. Here is where you’ll find some of the state’s oldest and most significant barbecue restaurants; its infamous Piggie Park barbecue played a pivotal, albeit abominable, role in the Civil Rights Movement. But Columbia is also welcoming to vegetarians, with plant-based, natural dishes from Rosewood Market and other capital city staples.
 

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    Piggie Park — Once owned by a segregationist named Maurice Bessinger, who lost a landmark class-action lawsuit in 1966 for refusing service to African-Americans, Maurice’s Piggie Park shows the darker side of Southern cuisine. Though Bessinger continued to exhibit discriminatory behavior until his death in 2013, the restaurant is now owned by his children, who claim that they’re solely focused on the quality of the barbecue. When their father passed away, they removed all the Confederate paraphernalia from the restaurants.

  • Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Café — In Columbia’s historic Five Points neighborhood, you’ll find Mr. Friendly’s, a staple café that’s been catering to locals with ocean-fresh fish and New Southern cuisine since 1995.

  • Terra — The locally focused menu at Terra is indicative of Chef Mike Davis’ dedication to using readily available, seasonal ingredients. The Alabama-born chef cut his teeth under New Orleans Chef Susan Spicer, who inspired him to create unique, locally sourced dishes with a French-Southern flair. Here you’ll enjoy the steak frites, fried Gulf oysters and ginger and beef croquettes.

  • Motor Supply Co. Bistro — Columbia’s upbeat Gervais Street bistro is known for a dinner menu that changes nightly, designed by Executive Chef Wesley Fulmer. On it, you’ll find a dynamic mix of wild-caught seafood, meat butchered in-house and creative vegetarian options.


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Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand

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Fried Chicken

 

Travel north to Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand — the stretch of beaches that extends from South Carolina’s Little River to Georgetown — for even more notable, local eats. In “A Culinary History of Myrtle Beach & the Grand Strand,” Author Becky Billingsley takes a stab at exactly what makes this area’s food so special. Here, it’s all about fish and grits, duck pilau and boiled peanuts, foods that Billingsley says make “a comfort cuisine and a way to connect to the area’s deep and flavorful roots.” Like the rest of the Coastal South, this area’s food culture was undoubtedly shaped by African slaves and the close proximity to the sea, which afforded its settlers abundant sustenance and flavor.

 
  • The Brentwood Restaurant — Notable for its food, history and the fact that locals think it’s haunted, The Brentwood offers up Lowcountry French cuisine within a 1910 Victorian home that once served as an inn for Little River fishermen. On the menu, you’ll find creations like mussels poulette, crispy duck confit and salmon covered in classic French béarnaise sauce, all courtesy of French Chef Eric Masson.

  • Mammy’s Kitchen — Although it’s primarily known for its Southern, greasy breakfast, Mammy’s Kitchen has never had any trouble staying afloat. In fact, the downtown Myrtle Beach mainstay has been serving up laid-back, home-style Southern food since 1953. The draw is a never-ending breakfast buffet, complete with South Carolina staples like biscuits, gravy and grits.

  • Little Pigs BBQ — Like any region of the South, there’s all kinds of debate about which Myrtle Beach barbecue spot gets the gold medal, but if you’re looking for classic South Carolinian barbecue, there’s no better choice than Little Pigs. The unassuming restaurant offers barbecue with all the fixins’, including baked beans and hush puppies.

  • Big Mike’s Soul Food — If you’re in the mood for no muss, no fuss Southern cooking, Big Mike’s Soul Food won’t disappoint. Located on 16th Avenue in Myrtle Beach, this beloved restaurant is the perfect intro to classic country cooking, complete with fried chicken, collard greens and peach cobbler.

 

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Local Insight: Just Ask

If you’re looking for the savviest tips on how to eat like the locals, our very best advice is to ask around. Southerners love talking about and sharing food just as much as they do cooking it and eating it, so don’t be afraid to ask for insider tips. It just might lead you off the beaten path to somewhere new and exciting!

Posted: 4/27/2018 12:00:00 AM| with 0 comments


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