- Katie Stilo
Charleston Wine & Food Festival and City Guide 2020
Updated: Mar 10, 2020
So absolutely no one asked for me to write this. But, everyone is always asking me where they should eat in certain cities. I figured I would recap my wild, wild, weekend in Charleston. I say wild not because I went out and got crazy wasted, wild because I ate so much I should be arrested for the amount of food I consumed the past 5 days. I know this is a pretty lengthy post, but I wanted to give a pretty in-depth opinion. I've listed and linked to all the restaurants I ate at while in Charleston at the bottom as well as throughout the post!
Of all the Wine & Food festivals happening across the country, Charleston Wine and Food has been top of my list for sometime. Colleagues of mine went last year and had the best time. Also, the city of Charleston has been on my list of must visit cities. Its rich in history, charm and chock-full of restaurants to try. For a foodie, like myself, this is the *dream*. Not to mention its only an hour 45 minute flight from New York/New Jersey. HAVE I SOLD YOU YET?!!!
The Charleston Wine & Food festival takes over the city for 4 days. Events are held in every possible location. Riverfront parks, old naval ship yards, historic homes, remote islands, the list goes on. Its a great way to explore the city without feeling too contained to one central area. I was able to get a broad scope of the entire city and really feel immersed in the southern charm of Charleston. I did venture outside of the festival events on my own excursions during the little down time we had.
The Culinary Village, located in the center of town at Marion Square, was the culinary hub for the festival. They divide the Village into what they call "neighborhoods" to break up the food and drink stalls. This was where they held live cooking demos on their main stage, a large curated retail section with local and national vendors, live music, and endless food and drink options that are frequently being changed throughout the day. If you're attending the Culinary Village all three days, it ensures you'll get a variety of bites and sips, instead of the same vendors. However, a few of the vendors were there the entire weekend. I know this because I was a repeat visitor to their booths...oops.
There was a live demo on the Main Stage with Today Shows very own Al Roker and Joy The Baker on Saturday afternoon. Joy taught Al and the large crowd how to make beignets two-ways: sweet (strawberry) and savory (Parmesan and black pepper!) Sign me up for a cacio é pepe beignet any-day.
Since I was fortunate enough to have a media pass for this event, we had access to the Industry Lounge. This was a separate tent located in the back corner of the festival accessible only to media, press, and other select attendees. In this lounge, they also had a rotation of different bartenders serving up specialty cocktails, acclaimed restaurants and chefs dishing up bites, as well as a place to rest your feet for a minute. We enjoyed this perk quite a bite on Saturday afternoon and got to enjoy DELICIOUS double cheeseburgers with pickles, onions, and special sauce from PubFare. This honestly was my saving grace of the weekend. I was feeling pretty tired from Friday and this juicy burger was all a girl needed to power thru the rest of my weekend.
Another vendor who was a mainstay all weekend was Republic Ice Cream. I tried the strawberry, cookies & cream, thunderstorm chocolate, and cherry-on-top vanilla. My personal favorite was cookies & cream because I will never not love cookies blended into my ice cream. They have several locations in the south, including one in Charleston. They originally began selling their ice creams in Coney Island (woooo NY!). The ice creams are super creamy, full of flavor and not artificial or icy tasting what-so-ever.
A couple other standout bites from the village were Martins BBQ, Bay Street Biergarten, Mex 1 Costal Cantina to name a few.
There are several additional ticketed events you can purchase outside of the ticket for the Culinary Village. I attended several of these events and dinners. On Thursday night, there was a collaboration dinner at Renzo with the chef from Anette in Denver. The menu was primarily seafood, inspired by the local cuisine. It featured shrimp toast, agnolotti with mushroom dashi, and cornetto with coffee ice cream. Im not going to sugar coat this, I wish there was of the regular Renzo menu to try! Next time im in Charleston, Renzo will be on my list so I can give their regular menu a try since it looks so good!
We went out to Bowens Island for an event that featured cuisine from up and down the coast. Even tho it was pouring rain, we still had so much from being in the marshes of the low-country enjoying the food, drinks and misty views of the waterways. I can only imagine that during the summer this spot must get packed. Its tucked away down the end of a gravel road and gives you a real down-south feel.
If you're a bourbon lover, this festival was for you. There were several events with a focus on sipping and learning about rare bourbons and unique aging techniques. The event "Sea Aged Bourbon" was held at Bar Mash and lead by Jefferson's Bourbon founder Trey Zoeller, who educated the attendees on how they create their signature bourbon that is literally aged in barrels at sea. The barrels are placed on OCEARCH shark-tagging ships and travel around the world. The barrels are constantly being agitated and the salty airy/briny waters of varying temperatures impart their flavors subtly into the bourbon. The bourbon literally smelled like caramel! Im not really fond of drinking dark liquors, so I don't think I appreciated the different blends we sampled as much as the others, but I did my best to try and understand the different notes in the bourbons. It was super interesting and this non-bourbon drinker left with a whole new appreciation for it!
On the other side of town, just over the bridge in Mt. Pleasant, we went to a few events. "Shucked" was held at the Mt. Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park. There were dozens of vendors serving up a variety of oysters and other seafood bites. The views of the Charleston bridge were beautiful and the event was buzzing with people.
Another event outside the downtown was Black Tie BBQ, located in North Charleston at the Admirals Garden Riverfront Park in the Naval Base. This was my favorite event of the weekend, for sure! The setting was picturesque with willow trees lining the grounds, historic homes, and riverfront views. There were chandeliers hung from the trees and string lights strewn across the branches, adding a classy southern touch to this evening BBQ event. Some of my favorite bites of the of the evening were from Rodney Scott BBQ, Pig Beach BBQ, Swig & Swine, Big Bob Gibsons BBQ, Tuffy Stone's Cool Smoke BBQ, John Lewis BBQ, and Amy Mills of 17th Street BBQ. There were dozens of other pit-masters at the event, but I was about one rib away from the meat sweats, so I had to cut my losses and close my mouth (for once).
Not too far from Black Tie BBQ, also in North Charleston, was the Night Bazzar. This was held Friday night at Holy City Brewing. There were dozens and dozens of food stalls showcased at this international night-market. The variety of cuisines you could sample was endless. They event had a tarot card reader on-site. I didn't go to the psychic, but if I did I bet this would've been my future: you will feel full for weeks after this festival.
We took a break from the bourbon and headed to a wine pairing event with Food & Wines Executive Wine Editor, Ray Isle. This was so much fun! He paired six different wines with six different varieties of potato chips. Wine and potato chips are basically two food groups for me, so this was right up my alley.
I know that all these events are more than enough to do in a weekend, but I like to be busy 24/7, so we went to several other restaurants outside of the festival. Why not see and do all you can while you're visiting a new city?!!
I wanted to get my fix of real down-home southern comfort food so we took a ride to Bertha's. This is a hole-in-the-wall old house, converted into a restaurant, locals joint serving up the best fried chicken I've ever had. Its not even a competition. The three sisters who run Berthas: Julie, Sharon and Linda, are behind the counter cooking and serving up southern classics to all the hungry people of Charleston. They won the freaking James Beard Award for American Classics!! They've been serving up southern soul food for over 30 years and for good reason, its outstanding.
If you're looking for an Instagram-worthy restaurant that will go with your feeds "flow", then try out Millers All Day. This super cute southern breakfast/brunch spot puts their modern twist on classic southern dishes. The biscuits with pimento cheese and sausage gravy are really good. Don't forget to try the banana bread (although not as good as mine, but that's just IMO) and the brown coconut cream pie.
Speaking of biscuits, you can't miss Callie's biscuits. There's always a line out the door so go early or else be prepared to wait at least 20-30 minutes. They're also only open till 2 pm, so make sure to put this first on your itinerary! The biscuits are being made fresh all day which guarantees you have a perfect, hot biscuit every time. I suggest getting just a classic because its so delicious, but you really cant go wrong with anything on the menu.
Grab a coffee at Bitty and Beau's. Its a coffee shop in the heart of downtown that is run by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Come for the coffee, but stay for the unique and warming customer service.
The Dewberry hotel is a modern, southern re-imagined hotel located directly across from Marion Square in the heart of downtown. This super cute boutique hotel has a bar, restaurant and curated shops located on the ground floor. However, if you're able to get reservations at The Citrus Club, BOOK THEM! This is one of the highest rooftops in town, which means you get 360 unobstructed views of the city and to-die-for sunsets. The cocktail program is killer and the food matches up. Get the crab dip and make sure to ask for extra crackers because they're house made by the pastry chef and you can taste the love in each flaky bite.
For some classic southern food and a cozy casual environment, go to Poogan's Porch. Also right in the heart of downtown, this old school spot has your typical southern favorites like fried green tomatoes and chicken fried chicken. Perfect spot for a comfort meal.
If you're like me and cant go 48 hours without Italian food because your body begins to shut down, book a table at Melfi's. This Italian classic hot-spot is always booked up, so plan in advance or else you'll be beat. They have limited bar-seating and don't allow any standing room to wait for a seat to open up. I appreciate this because I don't want to eat my cacio é pepe with someones ass in my face, sorry.
Further outside of downtown is Sullivan's Island. This beach town has a bunch of restaurants but don't miss The Obstinate Daughter. I mean if its between skipping your flight or eating here, than I sure hope your boss won't be mad because the obvious choice is The Obstinate Daughter. This super coastal-style restaurant with an open-concept kitchen is making some killer food and i'm so sad I didn't get to eat more of it! If I had one more night in town, I would've come back to try their brunch or have dinner, yet again. Make sure to check out their chalkboard for the daily specials of local seafood. I had some of the best halibut I've ever had! The food isn't super pretentious but they're amping up the flavors with their clear talents for cooking. The kitchen was working in such harmony that the chefs barely had to communicate with each other. For someone who isn't a chef or hasn't worked in a restaurant, you may not care about this, but I think it really shows you that a team has their shit together if they can run a service without yelling and screaming into the dining room. The chef, Jaques Larson, was also nominated for a James Beard award in the Best Chef's Southeast category.
Way, way out on Wadmalaw Island is The Charleston Tea Plantation. This is the only Tea Plantation in North America, how crazy?! Its in a super remote part of Charleston, but the scenic drive make times go by quickly. Its only about 35-40 minutes outside of downtown. I recommend going when they're in production, which is April thru early November, so you're able to watch the tea making process in their free factory tour. They also have a guided trolley ride around the 126 acre plantation, its only $14 dollars and the tour guides are so knowledgeable! Our guide, Jennifer, was a retired chef who had moved to Charleston and educates people on the history of tea making out of the goodness of her heart. We need more Jennifer's in this world!! This is a really great day trip outside of the city and you'll really be transplanted into the Deep South. Some might say this is touristy, but it was not crowded at all and I thought it was great!! Everything is free, except the trolley ride, so its a pretty affordable activity as well.
Lastly, if you're out in Mt. Pleasant or just looking for a good sunset spot, head over to Shem Creek Park. There are dozens of restaurants with rooftops to watch the sunset over the shrimp boats and the picturesque Charleston Harbor. There is also a long boardwalk that extends out into the marsh for the best view of the golden hour. Definitely grab a cocktail and enjoy the amazing sunsets here.
I stayed at the Belmond Charleston Place and it was wonderful! Service was great and the rooms were spacious and clean! The hotel has an old southern charm with modern amenities. I also had a balcony off my room, so I felt like a real Southern Queen all weekend. 10/10 would recommend!
Y'all, I THINK I covered it all! It was a busy weekend but I really felt like I got to see and taste quite a bit. I hope this helps plan your to visit Charleston. I know ill be back for sure!
Full list of restaurant and places mentioned above: *the bbq spots with an (*) are located outside of Charleston
Mount Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park
Admirals Garden Riverfront Park in the Naval Base
The Citrus Club at The Dewberry Hotel
Honorable mentions of places I didn't stop at but came highly recommended:
*Full disclosure: I had my tickets provided to me free of charge from the marketing team of the festival. All of these opinions are my own and I was not paid for this post nor any posts made at/after the festival. I simply enjoyed my time so im sharing with others!