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By Peter Kupfer

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA, 11 DECEMBER 2007—For all its laid-back Southern charm, Charleston is intensely serious about its food. One has only to stroll down East Bay Street, in the heart of the city’s historic district, which is lined with stylish, food-forward restaurants, to figure that out.

S.N.O.B. (for Slightly North of Broad) is one of the better choices. Contrary to its name, the restaurant, which is housed in a 19th century brick warehouse, has a warm and convivial atmosphere. S.N.O.B. prides itself on using fresh, locally produced organic ingredients to create imaginative interpretations of Low Country classics. Among the offerings are red bean soup with peppers, garlic and jalapeno salsa, oyster stew with leeks, apple-smoked bacon and scallop cream, and jumbo lump crab cakes over okra, corn, yellow squash and grape tomatoes.

I wasn’t in a particularly adventurous mood the night we dined at S.N.O.B. and ordered a mundane-sounding grilled swordfish, but I have to say it was the best swordfish I ever had. In a blind taste test, I would have been hard-pressed to distinguish it from Maine lobster. My dining companion’s entrée was less successful – fried chicken awash in a goopy, cloying fruit sauce, which he was compelled to ask the server to banish from his plate.

If you’re in a less snobbish mood, check out Jestine’s Kitchen on Meeting Street, which has the look and feel of a 1950s luncheonette. The restaurant is a tribute to the daughter of a freed slave who was a longtime housekeeper and cook for the restaurant owner Dana Berlin’s family (Jestine Matthews died in 1997 at age 112). The food, to be frank, is not the best, but the authenticity of the ambiance alone is worth a visit.

Fried chicken is said to be the thing at Jestine’s. Our portions were more than ample, but the bird was a bit too dry and crusty for my taste. Fried green tomatoes, another Southern specialty, were tasty but a tad greasy. As for the green beans, let’s just say they were (over)cooked in classic ’50s-style — devoid of any semblance of taste or nutrition. On the plus side, the banana pudding was divine -- creamy, rife with mashed fruit, and with just the right dose of sweetness.

Jestine's Kitchen
Charleston, South Carolina

If you do venture to Jestine’s, go in the evening; at lunchtime, the line of tourists seeking a slice of authentic Low Country cuisine often wraps around the corner.

For equally authentic ambiance and far better food, head for the Hominy Grill, a converted barber shop located in a slightly seedy neighborhood northwest of the historic district. The food here isn’t fancy, but it’s fresh and well prepared, and the young, energetic servers are the embodiment of southern hospitality.

The fried chicken at Hominy Grill is small in scale but big in flavor. My companion had a mac and cheese that he rated among the best he has sampled (and he is a connoisseur of that singularly American dish), but shrimp and grits, a house specialty consisting of sauteed shrimp with mushrooms, scallions and bacon served over cheese grits, was disappointingly bland and soupy. For dessert we had a first-rate chocolate pudding and a moist and tasty rendition of hummingbird cake, a spiced cake with pineapple, banana and a cream-cheese frosting.

A good place to start the evening is the Southend Brewery & Smokehouse, located in a cavernous old warehouse on East Bay Street. Southend offers several good beers brewed in copper-and-steel tanks that rise through the middle of the three-story restaurant. A few doors down, Pearlz Oyster Bar has a first-rate raw bar and memorable raspberry martinis.

Slightly North of Broad (S.N.O.B.)
192 East Bay Street
Charleston, SC 29401
Tel: (1) 843 723 34 24

Jestine's Kitchen
251 Meeting Street
Charleston, SC 29401
(1) 843 722 72 24

Hominy Grill
207 Rutledge Avenue
Charleston, SC 29403
(1) 843-937-0930

Southend Brewery
161 East Bay Street
Charleston, SC 29401
(1) 843 853 46 77

Pearlz Oyster Bar
153 East Bay Street
Charleston, SC 29401
Tel: (1) 843 577 57 55

Peter Kupfer is a former editor on the National / Foreign desk at The San Francisco Chronicle. His freelance articles on the arts, travel and technology have appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Asian Art News and other publications. He last wrote on Dining Out: Savannah, Georgia.

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