Craig Claiborne on Kiawah Island
Charleston's Culinary Renaissance
It is my highly speculative belief that Charleston boasts more restaurants per capita than any city in America. They include native Southern, of course, French traditional and bistros, Italian, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, seafood establishments, steak houses, coffee shops and more. For the most part, dress is casual and a preponderance of customers, primarily women, drink iced tea. But many of the best restaurants also have impressive wine lists.
Two of the most famous dishes of Charleston (and they should not be overlooked) are she-crab soup and shrimp and grits. The soup is made, as the name implies, with the female crabs and this is essential, for a genuine she-crab soup must contain crab roe, which is most abundant during the winter months. All in all, I found Charleston to be a remarkable city in which to dine and imbibe.
And it has clearly earned preeminence as one of the great "restaurant" cities in the South. The old world ambience combined with fresh local ingredients and even fresher ideas from resident chefs and gastronomes makes dining an irresistible affair. I like to think of it as a culinary renaissance, sans the Medicis. Rich, artful, and mildly decadent. Definitely worth a trip, with the added and sublime satisfaction of knowing there will be no wasted calories.
Mmm - good! Bon appetit, y'all.
Craig Claiborne (September 4, 1920 – January 22, 2000) was an American restaurant critic, food journalist and book author. A long-time food editor and restaurant critic for The New York Times, he was also the author of numerous successful cookbooks and an autobiography.
When Craig Claiborne arrived at the Charleston Airport from Manhattan at noon on a Saturday and got in the car to head to the peninsula, the first thing the Sunflower, Mississippi native said was, "please take me to your best barbecue place. I am famished." He knew I was from Alabama and he was going to be in Charleston for seven days writing a food article for Legends magazine. Five of the days would be downtown staying at the Belmond Charleston Place, dining and writing, and two on Kiawah Island, which at the time only had the Kiawah Island Inn. Though you could rent any number of villas or small houses, the Kiawah Island Inn was lovely but nothing compared to the grand Sanctuary Hotel that exists on the island today. And also today the Mississippian would have loved the barbecue at Rodney Scott's place, or John Lewis of Austin fame. One of his main directives of his dining out for lunch and dinner for the seven days was to not tell anyone he was going to be at their restaurant. But he was so well known that once he was seated, the kitchen and front of the house began the process of coming over to the table and introducing themselves one by one. Food Royalty is really quite something to watch unfold in front of you. The order of things is just a whole different experience. The wine list and menu take on a new life. Claiborne's career at the New York Times as a food journalist went back a great deal of time. He basically invented the art of the restaurant critic. As he was a prolific author of many successful cookbooks and an autobiography, his respect existed on so many levels.
Though he would look over the menu and fold it up and place it in his jacket pocket when he was able to do so, the chef would always say that he would like to prepare something special for him. Claiborne would mention the standards of she-crab soup and shrimp and grits when he first got to Charleston but then moved on to the chef suggestions. Claiborne's wildly popular cookbooks were numerous and his relationship with Julia Child and the world class chefs alone was enough for his fame before his invention of food writing for publications such as The New York Times perhaps put him at the top of the food chain anywhere on the globe. He loved Charleston. And he was more excited each day to try something new.
As the Editor-in-Chief of Legends magazine I had a budget for the seven days and I was paying him New York rates. He loved good red wine. And he knew what he was doing when he looked over the wine list. It was always just the two of us as I had not included my girlfriend nor the owner of Kiawah, Buddy Darby. Once he got settled and the wine delivered to the table he assumed the role of the great Southern storyteller. And did he ever tell a good story at the dinner table! The story never had a discouraging note or a negative moment of silence. They took place in Manhattan or in one of the other great cities of the world. After dinner, the walk back to Charleston Place was always what seemed a short walk. Only a few times did we take public transport. And shaking his hand at the end of the evening he never inquired about the future, as he seemed to have such a hold on the present.
Although Charleston cuisine has been famous since colonial times, it was mostly enjoyed behind closed doors in the grand houses and gardens. Always fresh, plentiful, and savory, it combined the best of West Africa with Europe and raised fine dining to heights unknown in the colonies at the time. In the last twenty-five years, Charleston has developed a reputation for its fine restaurants, which have proliferated enthusiastically. And, as the king of food writing, Craig Claiborne, observed, Charleston has more fine dining places per capita than any other city in America. The peninsula has a total of about one hundred, but in our view, there are thirty or so that are world-class. We will not attempt to rank them in any general order. They are all unique. They each have their own distinct personality and never disappoint. Most, if not all, source their menu ingredients locally.
Above is the original transcript introduction to the Dining section of the popular 1997 Guide Book Charleston Traveler. As we published that guide book we only had to change one thing on the text. The number of restaurants since Charleston turned into the global culinary destination that it is today twenty one years after the guide book was distributed in America.
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SLIGHTLY NORTH OF BROAD
39 RUE DE JEAN
RAPPAHANNOCK OYSTER COMPANY
XIAO BAO BISCUIT
BUTCHER & BEE
LITTLE JACK'S TAVERN
RODNEY SCOTT'S BBQ
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The Constant Rise of the Icon
Beautiful Middleton Place
in the 21st Century
John T. Hill
Edna Lewis and the Charleston
CHARLESTON PORTAL PROJECT
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