An influx of imaginative young chefs, plus talented native cooks and a distinctive cooking style to inspire and anchor culinary innovation, has made Charleston and Savannah two of the leading food cities in the United States over the past 10 years. Here’s a selection of our favorite restaurants in each city.
Chef James London’s menu at this stylish but relaxed new seafood restaurant changes with the local catch of the day. On a recent visit, a selection of crudos, oysters and small plates, including grilled oysters, blowfish tail tempura and chicken-fried bass collars, headlined the menu. Main courses ran to smoked-wahoo curry, a fried-oyster roll and rainbow trout in a ginger-scallion sauce. The service is notably friendly.
252 Coming Street, Charleston. Tel. (854) 222-3949
Seafood is the star at this good-looking new restaurant with a great cocktail menu as well as a fine wine list to accompany dishes like boudin de mer (seafood sausage); snapper with brown butter, peas and salsa verde; and olive oil-poached grouper with blistered snap beans and country ham-mushroom broth. Try the Key lime tart, or the chocolate-olive oil cake for dessert. Note: This restaurant is dinner-only aside from Sunday brunch.
28 Broad Street, Charleston. Tel. (843) 789-4028
Just outside Charleston, this relaxed, friendly, good-value restaurant is a perfect place for lunch. The menu leads off with starters like red bean soup with golden raisins, fried green tomatoes with pimento cheese, and beet salad with goat cheese and pecans, and then runs to sandwiches — the fried-shrimp po’boy and fried-pork chop sandwich are huge and delicious — or mains like tomato-braised pork meatballs with grits and cornmeal-dredged fried catfish with fries and slaw. Excellent desserts might include buttermilk custard with orange marmalade and lemon icebox tart.
The Glass Onion
1219 Savannah Highway, Charleston. Tel. (843) 225-1717
This sophisticated new restaurant has exposed brick walls and contemporary art and offers an appealing menu of modern American dishes made with local seasonal ingredients. Try the lump-crab cocktail or carrot-ginger bisque to start, and then the seared halibut with sweet pea purée and carrot flan or pan-roasted duck with turnips, spätzle and micro-mustard greens. Finish up with the chocolate cake or caramel tart.
167 East Bay Street, Charleston. Tel. (843) 414-7661
If there’s a restaurant not to be missed in the Lowcountry, it is this superb modern American restaurant in Savannah’s former Greyhound bus station. Although this may sound like an unlikely setting, The Grey has terrazzo floors, low lighting and original 1938 art deco fixtures. Chef Mashama Bailey previously cooked at Prune in New York City but has family roots in Georgia and so brings a deep knowledge of local produce and recipes to her brilliant contemporary cooking. She’s won multiple awards for dishes like king mackerel with turmeric, purple ribbon cane syrup and serrano chile, and bacon-stuffed quail with sourdough bread crumbs and muscadine. On no account miss the beignets with ginger cream and chocolate sauce for dessert.
109 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Savannah. Tel. (912) 662-5999
This beautiful restaurant in a historic mansion features the contemporary Southern cooking of Atlanta-born, Savannah-raised chef Christopher Hathcock. The menu changes with the seasons, and Hathcock takes real pride in sourcing his produce from local farms. A recent dinner began with starters of grouper tartare with cauliflower, brown butter and caviar bottarga, and warm octopus with fingerling potatoes, black garlic and harissa. It continued with smoked duck breast with persimmon and apple, and trout with collards, rice grits, red pepper and kabocha squash. The green-tea panna cotta was a refreshing and unusual conclusion to a fine meal.
12 West Oglethorpe Avenue, Savannah. Tel. (912) 349-2600
Originally built in 1771 as the home of James Habersham Jr., a prominent figure in the Revolution, this National Historic Landmark overlooking Reynolds Square has won numerous awards for the cooking of chef Vincent Burns. The menu switches from inventive new Southern dishes like caramelized-Vidalia-onion-and-sweet-potato ravioli with oyster mushrooms and pecan cream sauce to traditional ones like Lowcountry she-crab soup, and fried chicken with macaroni and cheese. This is a good choice for lunch. Note: The restaurant recently suffered a fire in the second-floor ballroom; the reopening is scheduled for April 8.
The Olde Pink House
23 Abercorn Street, Savannah. Tel. (912) 232-4286