The Lowcountry of South Carolina presents a melange of international influences: African, French, Carribbean, Dutch, and English, all contributing elements of their unique cultures, traditions, and culinary elements.
Very early in Charleston’s history, (at the time, the provincial colony of Charles Town) a ship full of French Protestants rolled into Charleston Harbor, fleeing persecution from both the Roman Catholic Church and the French monarchy. Others would follow, many settling in Moncks Corner and Charleston.
On one of those ships was Reverend Elie Prioleau, who founded The French Huguenot Church of Charleston – the first Huguenot church in North America, and also the oldest continuously active Huguenot congregation in the United States.
UNE FUSION D'INFLUENCES
The arrival of French Huguenots ushered into the Lowcountry a wave of skilled chefs – and some just damn good cooks – from not only Paris but also throughout the rustic villages of rural France.
Their integration into the burgeoning colonies of the New World resulted in a coalescence of their culinary savoir faire with the Bahamian, English, and Dutch influences converging in the same era.
However the most prolific influence on Lowcountry cuisine, French or other, can be attributed to the epicurean traditions of enslaved African Americans in the service of antebellum plantation owners.
Our current experience of Lowcountry French presents somewhere on the spectrum of French rustic/Gullah traditional Parisian patisserie/East Bay café.
Like many characteristics of the melting pot that is Charleston, you will discover a unique blend of Parisian techniques and Johns Island ingredients.
For the true experience though, spend some hours in old Charleston.
Post-WWII Charleston: mostly grown up, in a soiree of southern pomp with a dash of engineers and Navy sailors.
On East Bay Street in the French Quarter, once a provincial waterfront, the nightlife reawakened.
To this day the title of ‘undisputed queen of fine dining’ belongs to Perdita’s, a high French restaurant that opened in 1953. Though Perdita’s closed many years later, the current occupant of 10 Exchange Street – Carolina’s – carries on a number of her menu items. They have even maintained a midcentury-glam Perdita’s Room complete with bergundy velvet booths and white tablecloths.
Near East Bay on the aptly named Prioleau Street, Colony House was a staple for decades before it became the Harbour Club. With a notorious dedication to French cuisine and continental wines, Colony House caught national attention from the likes of The Wine Cellar, who described the scene as “where one might see Feuillete d’Escargots aux Champignons Sauvages.”
She is missed.
La Vieille Garde
Gaulart & Maliclet
Rapide et Français… A very chill and reliably French café in just the right nook of Broad Street overlooking the Four Corners of Law, serving lunch specials to the day crowd (croque monsieur et Orangina pour moi) and night specials for the theatre crowd (charcuterie et du vin…).
We call G&M “Fast & French” and it’s no secret that their lunch special est authentique: a sandwich and soup, with fresh fruit and a glass of wine.
A local’s advice: comme à Paris, there is no tipping at Gaulart & Maliclet – instead, you are encouraged to donate your tip to a well-vetted community organization.
You will know when you get there.
39 Rue de Jean
Comme je t’aime… Am I foolish to brag on one of my most beloved spots?
The Upper King Street district was blessed with this brasserie nearly twenty years ago.
A visionary of Lowcountry French: think duck confit and oysters.
Local’s tip: Rue is the cap to Hudson Alley, a magnificent confluence of Coast, Victor Social Club, and Vincent Chicco’s.
A night at Charleston Music Hall would be incomplete without a stop into Rue.
Un cuisine champétre… Anything goes out on Johns Island, and here you will discover the merging of (very local) Lowcountry ingredients with proper French techniques, while in a super laid back setting.
When you’re on Johns, this is where you go for low-key upscale: legit comfort food that is seasonal, local, and chef-driven.
Un bien-aimé… hands down the finest wine bar in Charleston.
On Lower King Street this where you go for a proper charcuterie experience, super intimate with a rustic feel. Perhaps the best wine list in the city, outdone only by their sélection de fromage.
Local’s tip: tour the art galleries of the French Quarter with Bin 152 as home base.
LES CAFÉS ET BISTROS
In the past few years we have seen an explosion of French influence on our cuisine, rekindling and redefining the techniques of the Old World.
The culinary expertise of Charleston’s restaurant community can be considered world-class, and a model for local-centric and chef-driven methods.
East Bay Meeting House
It just feels right to have a proper French café in the French Quarter of Charleston.
The East Bay Meeting House is a delight, reserving time every afternoon for a tea party (make reservations), flush with decadent desserts.
In the off-hours this is where you go for a legit espresso bar and, if the hour is right, a full cocktail bar.
My favorite lunch spot, mostly because I love the brunchy-breakfast side of lunch.
I frequent their breakfast croissants and quiches, and often return for the salads and pastries which are always on point. Framboise shares its Market Street courtyard with another favorite for evenings:
Bistro á Vin
A cozy nook on Market Street that seems to bring a little bit of Paris to Charleston.
The Tuesday wine tastings are well informed by its owners who hail from the Loire Valley in France, and a happy hour in the courtyard is always a welcome respite.
This cheerful corner bistro in Cannonborough is a more casual rendition from the owner of La Fourchette, a strictly French white tablecloth affair that operated on King Street until 2013.
The laid-back atmosphere provides a more approachable tasting of French-inspired cuisine, what with the whole chickens basting on the open rotisserie spit.
Decidedly Lowcountry items such as shrimp rolls and barbecue complement the French staples of soups and pastries, along with daily specials crafted from seasonal ingredients.
Paying homage to Gullah dish, pilau (“per-loo”), this neighborhood bistro on the Westside draws comfortable cuisine into Parisian technique. Bona fides: owner John Zucker graduated first in his class at Le Cordon Bleu, and it shows.
Seasonal dishes and a curated list of French wines accent a menu of excellent sandwiches: from the counter seats overlooking the kitchen, don’t miss the P237 Burger or the brisket French dip.
Félix Cocktails et Cuisine
This welcome addition to upper King Street provides Midtown with a cozy Art Deco Parisian bistro, brasserie, and bar.
Felix serves up petits plats (small plates designed for sharing) made with Southern ingredients, along with a fine selection of French wines and excellent cocktails: the Boulevardier, the Sidecar, and my favorite, the Félix 75 – their take on the classic French 75 gin cocktail with the addition of cognac.
The happy hour is of course great, accented with contemporary Parisian bites.
The Racelette Burger and Croque Monsieur are both non-negotiables, along with pommes frites (when asked, say yes to the parmesan).
A selection of seafood items is welcome to the Lowcountry palette, including lobster deviled eggs, crab croquettes, as well as a poisson du jour.
A recent addition to ever-expanding upper King Street, this nighttime Bistro is reminiscent of a midcentury deli, where black-and-white tiled floors tie in the stately photos of Paris adorning the walls.
From the long bar open to the kitchen or the intimate bistro tables, a fine selection of French wines complements an approachable selection of excellent small bites such as steak tartare and escargot burgundy.
Seafood options abound on the menu, combining Lowcountry ingredients with Parisian flair.
LE DÎNER FRANÇAIS
The opposite of pretentious, nestled in an unassuming Charleston Single house in Elliotborough.
Don’t bother with reservations – you just go.
There is no menu – if you want to know what’s served tonight, check their Instagram.
It will be chef’s choice based on what’s in season: two appetizers, two entrées, and two desserts.
If you have a small crowd, there is a lovely communal table behind the house in a walled garden.
Élevé Rooftop Restaurant & Lounge
One of the best rooftop bars in Charleston, on the fourth floor of the Grand Bohemian Hotel with spectacular views of the city’s historic skyline.
Enjoy craft cocktails and excellent wines in their rooftop garden, where artsy, oversized easy chairs and day loungers impart an Alice in Wonderland-esque tea party ambiance.
The menu tends to be more eclectic, though it often includes French dishes as well as recipes from Charleston Receipts.
Just off the marble lobby of the swanky hotel The Dewberry on Marion Square, this upscale Parisian brasserie incorporates some of the midcentury modern vibe of the hotel’s lobby with its checkered floors and globe lighting.
Henrietta’s offers a refined Franco-Southern mashup: impeccable French technique, and white jacket service that is unpretentiously Lowcountry. Their selection of cocktails and wine is of course crafted to pair with the cuisine.
Don’t be in a huge hurry at Henrietta’s – relax and take in the ambiance, unless you have tickets to a show at the nearby Gaillard Center (just let your server know!). Sunday Brunch at Henrietta’s is quite the event on their outside patio overlooking the bustling Marion Square.
NICO | Oysters + Seafood
Adjacent to the working docks of Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant, this authentic oyster house is run by Nico Romo, the youngest chef ever inducted into the Master French Chefs in America.
Nico’s blend of Lowcountry French cuisine is served in cast-iron straight out of a wood-fired oven, prepared with French culinary traditions and techniques.
Case in point: a French onion soup that blends traditional French onion with Charleston’s iconic she-crab soup.
And with its proximity to Shem Creek, the seafood doesn’t get any more fresh than this.
Christophe Artisan Chocolatier-Pâtissier
Tucked into a Society Street storefront, Christophe has become the standard for proper French pastries in Charleston. Owner Christophe Paume grew up in his father’s pâtisserie in Toulouse, and as a third generation chocolatier delivers the exquisite.
Step into the quaint Christophe shoppe to discover banks of hand-painted chocolates, luscious truffles, chocolate sculptures, along with proper croissants, baguettes, and other artisanal breads.
Tartlettes and macaroons abound in every color and flavor imaginable.
Appropriately located a few doors from Rue de Jean, this cozy neighborhood pâtisserie delivers some of the best croissants in the city.
A fine selection of macaroons and excellent chocolates are usually what draws me in to this shop just off King Street, which also features an array of colorful fruit laden tartlets, and the occasional wine pairing.