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Charleston Charms

A listing of select restaurants and lodgings in Charleston

Matthew DeBord
Posted: July 28, 2003

Cypress Lowcountry Grille specializes in California bottlings.
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Where to Eat
Where to Stay
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If You Go

Charleston is a popular destination year-round. Make sure to reserve early and realize that accommodation rates can fluctuate depending on the season. The restaurants reviewed below accept all major credit cards unless otherwise noted. For a complete list of Charleston restaurants holding Wine Spectator awards for their wine lists, see our online dining guide.

Where to Eat

12 Anson St.
Telephone (843) 577-0551
Open Dinner, nightly
Cost Entrées $17-$29
Award of Excellence

Anson is the most romantic restaurant in Charleston; seductive touches abound, from the cozy booths to the vintage oil paintings over the tables. It's also the city's best example of high-class Lowcountry cooking.

Take she-crab soup, a local staple, but a dish that can run a grim gamut from miserably overseasoned to tourist-trap indifferent. At Anson, it's rescued: Elegantly presented in a small cup, the soup is creamy without being unctuous, shot through with a joyful essence of crustacean. New chef Kevin Johnson knows that balance is often the way to diners' hearts.

The 150-selection wine list is carefully assembled. The Labouré-Roi Pommard 1998 is a deft match for much of the menu. Other highlights include Château Sociando-Mallet '99 and several Heitz Cabernet bottlings.

Blossom Café
171 E. Bay St.
Telephone (843) 722-9200
Open Lunch and dinner, daily; brunch, Sunday
Cost Entrées $14-$24
Award of Excellence

This outwardly unassuming veteran is where plenty of real Charlestonians go for dinner, after the tourists have vacated East Bay Street.

On a bustling Saturday evening, you'll find three or four dates in varying stages of success, a boisterous 30th-birthday party and a dozen junior high school boys, attired in blue blazers and ties, who eye their dinner companions, all in black formal dresses, far more nervously than they do the menu.

Not that there's any reason to be anxious about the food, which represents Charleston's best effort at contemporary American-Mediterranean fare. A fantastically appetizing carpaccio of beef is pounded to micron thinness and dressed with arugula and a zigzag of mustard. Smoked duck is fat-crusted and fabulous.

The 150-selection wine list is canted far less toward Italy than one might anticipate. Nevertheless, there is a "Mediterranean" subsection, starring super Tuscan Ornellaia 1998, but making room as well for a neat clustering of Barolos, Chiantis and Brunellos.

Charleston Grill
Charleston Place Hotel, 224 King St.
Telephone (843) 577-4522
Open Dinner, nightly
Cost Entrées $23-$32
Best of Award of Excellence

This is where you go for Charleston's most assured and accomplished food. Presented in a swank dining room decked out with colorful folk art, chef Bob Waggoner's cuisine summarizes just how far the city's restaurant scene has come over the past 20 years.

Eleven years cooking in Burgundy taught Waggoner both the value of impeccable local ingredients and how to merge French technique with an earthy swagger. His eight-course tasting menu is the way to go. Chilled roast duck breast over young spinach leaves showcases Waggoner's affection for game, also apparent in a dish of oven-roasted venison tenderloin in a Port-and-candied-orange reduction.

Linger awhile after dessert. At 10 p.m., a humidor full of Davidoff cigars comes out; smoke them at the bar, accompanied by a wide selection of dessert wines, Ports and Madeiras.

The 1,035-selection wine list is Charleston's most impressive, showing vertical strength in California -- Beringer Private Reserve can be found in vintages from 1978 to 1994 -- and red Bordeaux, whose premier crus are well-represented. But perhaps the most impressive is the lineup of Guigal single-vineyard Côte-Rôties, stretching back to the late 1970s.

Circa 1886
Wentworth Mansion, 149 Wentworth St.
Telephone (843) 853-7828
Open Dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost Entrées $21-$35
Award of Excellence

This welcoming brick carriage house is blissfully off the beaten path. Sage-green walls, privacy-enhancing booths and intimate chatter will make you feel as if you've escaped to a secret place within the city.

However, executive chef Marc Collins is trying to get the secret out by working some sexy angles. For example, his mushroom-coffee consommé, with its smoky undertow, is Southern gothic in a cup; having finished it, you feel as if you might have done something bad. Collins pursues this theme in all of his cooking, from a truffle oil-infused hopping John spoon bread to veal tenderloin with foie gras and spinach grits.

The 234-selection wine list is not deep, but it is broad. Interesting inclusions range from a Pascal Jolivet Sancerre 2001 to the Elk Cove Pinot Noir Oregon Windhill 2000. A lonely Château Latour 1990 ($515) albeit attractively priced holds up the very high end.

2 Unity Alley
Telephone (843) 577-0025
Open Dinner, nightly
Cost Entrées $18-$32
Award of Excellence

It's widely alleged that in 1791 George Washington hoisted a tankard or two here. But history is just one thing this establishment has going for it.

Decor is another: A 1999 renovation by the firm that designed Gramercy Tavern in New York remade McCrady's in soot-colored brick and soft light. The brightest thing in the main dining room is a large painting of the city and its famous harbor; it explodes from the shadowy wall on which it is hung.

Executive chef and co-owner Michael Kramer's food does some exploding, too. Sautéed scallops with truffle butter are fat and sweet, but also perfectly crusted. Yellowtail snapper meets up with a frothy, but still robust, truffle emulsion.

A nice match for just about everything on Kramer's menu can be found on sommelier Craig Donofrio's 855-selection, Rhône-laden list. In the reserve category, there's well-priced 1985 red Bordeaux from châteaus Ducru-Beaucaillou, Haut-Brion and Latour.

39 Rue de Jean
39 John St.
Telephone (843) 722-8881
Open Lunch and dinner, daily; late- night menu, Monday to Saturday
Cost Entrées $14-$22
Award of Excellence

This newcomer to the trendy Upper King Street neighborhood is currently the place where savvy young locals go to hang out. "It is the restaurant to be seen at for lunch," reported an attractive young Charlestonian I ran into one evening at McCrady's Wine Bar.

Things really heat up here after hours, when the late-night menu comes on line. Good old-fashioned French brasserie fare is abundant. Sautéed Burgundian escargots are drenched in garlic butter, and the mussels, served in six different styles, are the best in town.

The carte des vins covers quite a bit of winegrowing ground for a list that has fewer than 200 selections. Most bottles are priced less than $50, with 31 wines offered by the glass and some available in small carafe format. Standouts include a Torii Mor Pinot Noir Oregon 2000 and an M. Chapoutier Cornas 1995.

French Quarter Inn, 55 S. Market St.
Telephone (843) 534-2155
Open Dinner, nightly
Cost Entrées $11-$38
Award of Excellence

"I want to give Charleston something a little ... different," says owner Eddie Toporek of his trendy downtown eatery, which bills its cuisine as "eclectic creative."

The difference starts with the room itself, a sleek, contemporary space structured around a large open kitchen. The food pushes things even further. Chef Mark Timms loves his squeeze bottles and favors architectural constructions on the plate. He also likes flamboyant combinations of ingredients.

Crepes are dandified with chipotle barbecue sauce. Entrées bob and weave from fresh local grouper, brightened with mango syrup, to seared duck breast with a bing cherry glaze. The circus attitude continues right on through to dessert -- and beyond. Traditional meal-ending petits fours are replaced by a nimbus of banana-flavored cotton candy.

The wine list is considerable -- 350 selections -- and not nearly as California-centric as the restaurant's design and cuisine would imply. Marcel Deiss Riesling Benwihr Alsace 1999 and a Beaux Frres Pinot Noir 1999 both pair well with Timms' food.

Where to Stay

Charleston Place
205 Meeting St.
Telephone (843) 722-4900

Fax (843) 722-0728
Web site www.charlestonplacehotel.com
Rooms 400
Suites 42
Rates $269-$1,500

Charleston Place isn't the most opulent hotel in town -- that honor goes to the relatively new but significantly smaller Market Pavilion -- but it's the one that many locals credit with reviving the city's fortunes in the mid-1980s.

It all begins at the porte cochere, where new arrivals are greeted by equestrian fountain statuary. The marble lobby features a dramatic grand double staircase, a glorious chandelier and access to the posh shops (Gucci, Montblanc, St. John) of the ground-level mall, as well as to the hotel's two restaurants, Charleston Grill and Palmetto Café.

Regular rooms are beautifully appointed, but suites are extra-special. Comfortably outfitted with king-size beds, overstuffed sofas and plush Persian carpets, they appeal to couples rediscovering romance, visiting celebrities, and corporate players taking advantage of the hotel's vast amount of meeting space, which includes the magnificently renovated art deco Riviera Theater across the street.

VIPs will relish the "club" treatment of the seventh and eighth floors, where service is elevated a notch above that in the rest of the hotel (access to the floors is limited and a separate staff is dedicated to guests' special requirements). The rooftop features a tennis court, a spa (where a special menu is prepared by chef Bob Waggoner of Charleston Grill) and an indoor pool sheltered by a retractable roof.

Planter's Inn
112 N. Market St.
Telephone (843) 722-2345; (800) 845-7082
Fax (843) 577-2125
Web site www.plantersinn.com
Rooms 56
Suites 6
Rates $175-$675

Charleston's most comfortable and elegant small hotel, this Relais & Châteaux property is centrally located, just steps from the historic market and within easy striking distance of the city's plentiful restaurants and attractions.

Suites in the restored 19th century building are well-appointed, with silk damask wallpaper, enormous four-poster, canopied king-size beds, working fireplaces and comfortable sitting rooms. Each morning, you will be greeted with a crisp, wrapped newspaper and a weather forecast card.

Standard rooms lack fireplaces and sitting areas, but are otherwise comparable. At any accommodation level, a continental breakfast is available for delivery each morning or can be eaten at Peninsula Grill, the inn's restaurant that holds an Award of Excellence for its wine list.

Come back in the afternoon for a glass of spiced ice tea and a spot of conversation with fellow guests in the parlor. Or repair to the courtyard and have a look at the sort of garden space that the city's residents cultivate at their private homes.

Wentworth Mansion
149 Wentworth St.
Telephone (843) 853-1886; (888) INN-1886
Fax (843) 720-5290
Web site www.wentworthmansion.com
Rooms 17
Suites 4
Rates $315-$695

Feel like getting away from the throngs of downtown Charleston? Or maybe you'd just like to stay where Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Philippe honeymooned. This renovated beaux arts mansion might be the best place in town to spend an extended, romantic visit.

In both rooms and suites, original details such as wood flooring and wainscoting have been scrupulously preserved. All accommodations have double whirlpool bathtubs and high ceilings, while suites feature king-size beds and working fireplaces. Some boast separate sunrooms. You won't find the high-gloss service of Charleston Place, but chipper concierges are uniformly helpful, right down to investigating your morning newspaper preference. A breakfast buffet is served each morning in the downstairs dining porch, where guests are gracefully attended by regular waitstaff. A daily Port, Sherry and brandy selection, laid out in the library, offers a great way to unwind -- or to start out an evening.

Not to be missed is the rooftop cupola, reached via a circular staircase. It offers breathtaking views of the entire city, as well as of Circa 1886, Wentworth's Award of Excellence-winning restaurant across the courtyard.

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