10 Things I Ate About You finds 10 enticing bites in smaller cities from coast to coast.
Yes, Charleston, S.C., is one of the top food destinations in the country, with internationally acclaimed restaurants. So it stands to reason that the area’s many excellent classic and contemporary boutique hotels would also carry the culinary torch. Many have found a way to make visitors’ stays in Charleston that much more delicious, whether it’s by serving guests the best biscuits in town, tucking them in with a slice of dream-sweetening cake or pouring them their very own custom blend of wine.
The Ultimate Coconut Cake at Peninsula Grill, Planters Inn
A dish with its own copyright usually carries a great deal of hype, and Peninsula Grill’s coconut cake is no exception. The beauty of the cake — besides its impressive 12 alternating layers of cake and whipped filling, snowy blanket of toasted coconut and thin veil of cream cheese icing — is that its neither too sweet nor too coconut-y. It’s technically only served in the restaurant at dinner, but room service offers the cake by the slice. With its feathery texture and towering 5-inch height, it could easily double as a pillow.
Pimento Cheese at Ansonborough Inn
Bertha’s Famous Pimento Cheese is so good Ansonborough Inn’s guests will call ahead if they fear they might miss the afternoon wine and cheese reception. Though the pimento-cheddar-mayonnaise dip is simple, this version vies for “better than your momma’s” status, relying on a 2:1 ratio of mild cheddar to sharp white cheddar; diced, drained pimentos; a dash of cayenne; and lots of “secret source” mayo. It’s sublime by itself on buttery crackers, but if you’re lucky, co-owner Sandra Fennell will have dropped off homemade peach pepper jelly.
Callie’s Hot Little Biscuits at French Quarter Inn
There are edible amenities at seemingly every hour at French Quarter Inn, but the best treats come at sunrise, when the hotel serves a breakfast spread starring warm Southern biscuits from local legend Callie’s Hot Little Biscuits. The staff taste tested all seven buttery flavors and selected their top two for the hotel: the signature sharp cheddar and chive, plus a version that sandwiches chopped Virginia country ham between crumbly biscuit halves slathered with Dijon mustard butter.
Shrimp & Grits at The Swamp Fox Restaurant, Francis Marion Hotel
No dish captures Charleston’s low-country flavor quite like shrimp and grits. One of the best versions in town can be had at The Swamp Fox Restaurant, where the chef poaches tender wild shrimp in lobster gravy, then floats them on a bed of pepper Jack-laced Carolina stone-ground grits, which are cooked for two days to achieve their logic-defying velvety texture.
Holy City Julep at The Spectator Hotel Bar
The namesake watering hole at The Spectator Hotel is part 1920s speakeasy, part Gatsbian library, with plush velvet love seats and handsome leather-backed barstools, making it an ideal stop at the end of a day on the town. Start with the signature Holy City Julep, muddled peaches fortified with a heady mix of local liquors, like Virgil Kaine’s ginger-infused bourbon and Striped Pig Distillery’s Moonshine (it’s legal!).
Foie Gras and Peach Hand Pie at Charleston Grill, Belmond Charleston Place
Executive Chef Michelle Weaver weaves impressive French technique into her Southern skillet-style cuisine. The evidence pops up throughout her four clever themed menus — Pure, Lush, Cosmopolitan and Southern — but no dish captures the hybrid spirit better than the Lush menu’s foie pocket. She pairs a pillowy, just-seared lobe of foie gras with a cinnamon-sugar-dusted, peach-stuffed hand pie dolloped with cinnamon mascarpone — and it totally works. Pro move: Order it as your dessert.
Antelope at Circa 1886, Wentworth Mansion
Sampling Chef Marc Collins’ breakfast croissants and candied BLTs requires a stay at the Wentworth Mansion, but anyone can get a taste of his refined Southern menu at Circa 1886, the restaurant housed in the property’s old carriage house. The dinner menu includes his signature, ever-changing antelope preparations, such as a peanut-crusted seared loin served with wine-braised artichokes and ginger sabayon.
Lamb Belly Confit at Zero Café + Bar, Zero George Street
Food is front and center at Zero George Street — the hotel’s restaurant has its tiny open kitchen mere steps from reception. That kitchen is where Chef Vinson Petrillo creates dizzyingly complex dishes, like crispy garlic panisse (savory chickpea flour pancakes) topped with mini pucks of luscious, lightly torched local Robiola and scattered with a cured lamb-belly confit. Pick up some of Petrillo’s skills with a cooking class.
Buffalo Fried Chicken Skins and Smoked Salt at The Restoration on King
Opening this December, The Watch, a rooftop restaurant, will offer sweeping skyline views as a backdrop for snacks like deep-fried chicken skins tossed in housemade sorghum hot sauce. Lobby shop The Port Mercantile will stock edible souvenirs like local smoked salts and house-infused oils and homemade pickles.
Custom Blended Wine at Grand Bohemian Hotel Charleston
At the artistically leaning Grand Bohemian Hotel, wine lovers can master the art of the swirl and sip at the hotel’s namesake wine bar with 1-, 3- or 5-ounce pours of more than 32 wines. Live the good life with a $12 taste of a rare $335 1998 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon, or try the hotel owner’s more modestly priced personal Kessler Bohemian California Cabernet blend ($14 per glass). Once you’re sufficiently inspired, head next door to the Napa-Valley-meets-Willy-Wonka blending room to create your own cult-worthy vintage.
Photos courtesy of French Quarter Inn, Layla Khoury-Hanold