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When you’re planning to spend a weekend in Charleston, a destination on the fast track to becoming the new culinary mecca of the South, you’ll realize that there just aren’t enough meals on the docket -- let alone room in your stomach -- to sample every delectable dish that the destination has to offer. That’s when its time to plan an appetizer crawl: a progressive tasting that allows time-sensitive foodies to experience the atmosphere and flavors of several different dining establishments, rather than eating a multi-course meal at just one.
To get in on the trend, simply make reservations for your group at a few notable locales, order selections exclusively off the appetizer or bar menu, then dish about your favorite plates before moving on to the next stop.
After my travel companions and I embarked on our own culinary journey to 6 Charleston restaurants, we developed some informal guidelines that can help you better plan your own crawl. Follow (or ignore) these tenets at your discretion -- but don’t miss the "Holy City" hotspots that made our final Charleston culinary cut.
How to Plan a Successful Appetizer Crawl
1. Get the local perspective. Before scheduling your crawl, get residents, friends in the know or your hotel concierge to share their recommendations for Charleston’s top tastes and small plates.
2. Arrive at the first destination as early as possible. You want to get through at least half of your crawl before restaurants get busy for the night (if you can get there by 4 p.m., all the better).
3. Order one fewer appetizer than the total number of people in your party. And pair your selections with one signature beer or cocktail apiece. Consume more than that at each stop, and you’ll have a tough time finishing your crawl before you’re too stuffed -- or tipsy.
4. Make reservations. Do this at each eatery around 90 minutes apart. That should give you an hour to snack and sip before you need to take off for the next restaurant.
5. Give your server the heads up. Let him know that you’re on a crawl. Not only is it good form to let them know that you’re not ordering an entire meal, but he or she can clue you into the best items on their bar or appetizer menu. Don’t forget: Tip generously.
Now that you know the rules, it's time to start the appetizer crawl.
Check out the best places for small bites in Charleston:
Charleston’s culinary reawakening may well have begun -- with all the subtlety of a starting pistol -- when a young Johnson & Wales-trained chef named Sean Brock took over the helm of McCrady’s. Within the kitchen of Charleston’s oldest restaurant (which once played host to then-president George Washington), he almost single-handedly reinvented traditional Southern cooking by tapping into a veritable arsenal of postmodern gastronomy techniques and using nearly forgotten local ingredients like heritage grains and heirloom greens (grown on farms nearby, including his own). The result is Southern fare like you never knew it could be: delicate, finely focused and exquisitely elevated. Even the well-priced snacks that our group chose from an ever-rotating selection posted on a chalkboard above the bar -- pumpkin pork roulettes, pillowy-soft tempura-battered grouper fritters and succulent General Tso’s sweetbreads -- were 4-bite celebrations of what the Charleston region has to offer.
From our vantage point at the raw bar at Hank’s -- not an official seating area but the only place our foursome could find to perch on a busy Saturday -- it became clear why people clamor to get into this 1940s-style fish house (a throwback to the era of white-linen tablecloths and penguin-suited waiters). The entire place is a full-on shrine to seafood, one expressly devoted to purist classics like platters of shucked oysters still dripping in their native seawater, rock shrimp sizzling alongside crispy calamari, local clams simmered in white wine, and deep red slabs of tuna cubed and served tartare. Of course, that’s just the beginning of what chef Frank McMahon can orchestrate for those obsessed with the freshest catch (we’re determined to return for the Shrimp in Charleston Curry Sauce, Shellfish Pasta and the Low Country Bouillabaisse). Be sure to get here before this former warehouse gets packed to the rafters with other ravenous guests -- or be prepared to stand.
While “locally sourced” has been an industry buzz-term for several years, few chefs have taken it more literally -- or approached it with as much creative gusto -- as those in Charleston. James Beard award winner Mike Lata, executive chef at the popular downtown eatery FIG (aka “Food is Good”), leverages his relationships with local growers and food purveyors to source ingredients at the very peak of their season, and transform them (with minimal tampering) into the simple, flavor-rich dishes that grace his table nightly. While seated at a round table near the bar (prime real estate for groups), we tried Escabeche of Amberjack, Painted Hills Carne Cruda and Keegan-Filion Farms Chicken Liver Pate. But the clear winner was the Ricotta Gnocchi with Lamb Bolognese, which had us sopping up every last, slightly spicy, morsel with bread once the lighter-than-air gnocchi had been devoured.
Long before the thoroughfare outside was dubbed Cumberland, it was called Amen -- literally the word heard on the street thanks to its proximity to the prayerful congregations of St. Philip's Church and the Methodist Meeting House. That’s just one of the long-forgotten facts rediscovered when restaurateur partners Richard Stoney and Keith Jones renovated and refinished the historic space that now houses this neighborhood seafood spot. We were particularly fond of the extra-long wrap around bar, which offers plenty of space to belly up and order house favorites like Shrimp Corn Dogs with Carolina Mustard, Fried Green Tomatoes and Gulf Oysters on the half shell. We’re still fantasizing about the Jumbo Calamari Rings served with corn, tomato, bacon, green onion (and drizzled with lemon aioli) that were so deliciously tender, they sliced into bites at the merest hint of pressure from a knife.
While it’s probably far better known for its extensive beer selection, including 42 seasonal small-batch brews on draft (available in flights or by the glass), this highly atmospheric gastropub serves up some mean, must-try, down-home grub to pair with your pint. One of the cult favorites, crispy, tempura battered green beans served with a ramekin of ranch, was a table-wide hit. From there, we moved on to sample the french fries smothered in gravy, cheddar cheese and red onion. Blame it on the beer (a dark Westbrook Mexican Cake from South Carolina, in my case) but we broke appetizer crawl guidelines and ordered dessert.
Even before chef phenom Sean Brock opened his second restaurant in a pair of gorgeously restored 19th-century buildings, locals and restaurant critics alike were clamoring to try his latest take on Lowcountry cuisine. Unlike at McCrady’s, where Brock pushes the outer margins of what Southern could be, Husk draws the cuisine back to its earliest roots with rustic-style offerings made from the bounty of the local larder -- and nowhere else. He’s famously said, “If it’s not from the South, it’s not coming in the door,” and has banished out-of-state staples like extra virgin olive oil. Brock changes the menu not once, but twice daily, and woos diners with instant classics like Sassafras Glazed Pork Ribs with Pickled Peaches, House Cured Country Ham with Acorn Griddle Cakes and Rabbit-Pimento Loaf with Husk Mustard, Pickles and Rice Bread. The standout appetizer from our crawl: Kentuckyaki Pig Ear Lettuce Wraps with Pickled Cabbage and Cilantro, a crispy, addictive instant classic.