A riot of pink azaleas, blood-red camellias and the first fat magnolia buds busting from tree branches announce that warm weather has arrived in the Southeastern United States. It’s a magical time to road trip through cities like Charleston, Greenville and Savannah, places that have continued to transform and grow throughout the pandemic. For the best in drinking and dining, we asked industry locals for their favorite haunts.
Named for Britain’s King Charles II in 1670, this South Carolina city continues to reinvent itself. From 2010-2020, Charleston’s population swelled 25%, a number three times the national average. This rapid population growth has helped spur a new era in hospitality, according to longtime locals and newcomers.
Best Restaurants in Charleston
After working at a winery in Rheinhessen, Germany, Eleni Rigas came to the U.S. seeking a “vibrant, coastal city with a strong food and wine culture.” She settled on Charleston. “One of the reasons I came to Charleston is that we have such a sophisticated market here in terms of consumer taste and adventurousness,” she says. Rigas has been the sommelier and wine manager of Charleston wine and cocktail bar Bistro a Vin since June 2021 and works as a regional sales representative for Curated Selections.
Her favorite spots in Charleston include 167 Raw for “seafood, the best oysters in town and awesome wine and cocktails,” she says. Rigas also recommends the Post House Inn, a restaurant that serves Southern fare in Mount Pleasant’s Old Village beside a vintage drugstore. “It has all the romance you could want for an evening” she says, and notes that scenes from The Notebook were shot here.
FIG / Courtesy Explore Charleston
Megan Schneeberger, front of house manager and sommelier at Husk Charleston, says she has observed an “influx of people” from around the country arriving in Charleston, which has motivated old standbys to “step up their game.” Her favorite meals include the Caesar salad at natural wine and pizza spot Renzo, and the vegetable-focused dishes at Chasing Sage with its “perfect, focused” wine list.
Schneeberger believes Zero George has Charleston’s best restaurant wine list. “It’s rare that I look at a list of that caliber and see that someone has been as discerning about the $60 bottles as she has about $2,500 bottles,” she says. Zero George also recently opened a reservations-only caviar bar where Chef Vinson Petrillo serves caviar-focused dishes with beverage pairings.
Vonda Freeman has been with Charleston’s Indigo Road Hospitality Group for 13 years, working with restaurant teams to create wine lists and lead wine training. She loves Obstinate Daughter on Sullivan’s Island for its casual vibe and crisp white wines from northern Italy and Campania. She also recommends Brasserie La Banque, an Indigo Road restaurant that serves French fare with wine selections ranging from “affordable Loire Valley wines to the famed Domaine de la Romanée Conti.”
Exterior of Zero George restaurant / Courtesy Zero George
Matthew Conway worked as a sommelier in New York City before he came to Charleston for what he thought would be a temporary stay during the pandemic. Smitten, he relocated permenantly, and in October 2021 opened a boutique wine bar called The Tippling House where he showcases his preference for Syrah. Conway is a fan of restaurants Chubby Fish, The Ordinary, and Butcher & Bee.
Lindsey Williams, a lawyer turned urban winemaker who splits her time between Charlotte, North Caroline, and Charleston, launched wine bar Charleston Wine Co. in February 2022. Williams praises perennial favorite FIG for its “imaginative list” and “offbeat varietals and producers like orange wine and Müller-Thurgau,” she says.
Left: Charleston Wine Co. Right: Owner Lindsey Williams / Photos courtesy Charleston Wine Co.
Best Wine Shops in Charleston
Rigas shops at Jessamine and Vine on Market Street. If you’re touring King Street, she recommends Monarch Wine Merchants for its selection of funky, natural wines. Schneeberger, meanwhile, says she could spend a “whole paycheck” at retail shop Graft. Freeman opts for bottles at Edmund’s Oast Exchange because staff “help guide you in the right direction,” while Conway stocks his personal collection at Monarch Wine Merchants.
Parker Binns Winery/ Courtesy Visit Greenville
Kissing the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Greenville, South Carolina, lives up to its verdant name. The surrounding countryside turns lush in the summer, while the parks, gardens, bike trails and water features in the heart of downtown make this city three hours northwest of Charleston an urban paradise. A burgeoning winery scene just beyond the city limits furthers the area’s appeal.
Ryan Watts, owner of Van in Black, runs tours from Greenville to nearby wine country. “The wine industry has grown substantially,” he says. “There are many great wine shops, urban tasting rooms, and restaurants as well as great vineyards within an hour’s drive.” His tours through the Tryon Foothills include stops at Parker-Binns Vineyard, Mountain Brook Vineyards and Overmountain Vineyards.
Best Restaurants in Greenville
Carl Sobocinski, owner of the Table 301 restaurant group, is credited with opening downtown Greenville’s first fine dining restaurant, Soby’s New South Cuisine, in 1997. It’s now a local institution with an 8,000-bottle wine cellar. His fleet of Greenville restaurants also includes the Mediterranean-inspired Lazy Goat, which serves offbeat wine labels like Commando G, and Camp, which carries global wines from the Hunter Valley to Hungary. Sobocinski also helped to create Greenville’s weekly Farmer’s Market and Euphoria Food, Wine and Music Festival.
Soby’s / Courtesy Visit Greenville
When Sobocinski dines out, he beelines for the sushi and saké at Tsunami. He’s also partial to Stella’s Southern Brasserie, for its “relaxed neighborhood setting” and “creative menu” featuring seasonal and local ingredients. Woodside Bistro, inside a historic textile mill, is another favorite.
“I’ve been in the restaurant industry in Greenville since 1980,” says Rick Erwin, owner of Rick Erwin’s Dining Group, which has six destinations in town. For brunch, he dives into the Bloody Mary bar at The Bohemian Café. He’s also proud of the wine list at his group’s West End Grille. “We put a lot of time and energy into making sure it’s carefully curated with an expansive selection of quality wines at a variety of price points,” he says.
West End Grille / Courtesy Visit Greenville
Dani Holt was born and raised not far from Greenville, and currently works as front-of-house manager and sommelier at restaurant The Anchorage and retailer Taxi House Wines, respectively. She’s noticed the city’s recent growth and diversification.
“With so many new people moving to Greenville from other markets, we have a wealth of new voices and perspectives,” she says. Some of her favorite places to eat include Rise Bakery for savory pastries and Ji-Roz for excellent Greek food.
Other don’t-miss Greenville experiences include dinner at the Oak Hill Café and Farm, a restaurant and farm on 2.4 acres outside of the city, or rooftop cocktails at Juniper at the AC Hotel Greenville.
Best Wine Shops in Greenville
Erwin says the customer experience at Northampton Wine + Dine is unparalleled. “They listen to what you like and always deliver,” he says. Erwin notes that Northampton’s New American eatery charges a $10 corkage fee on bottles bought from the store.
When she’s not at Taxi House, Holt peruses the shelves of Foxcroft Wine Co. “There’s always something I haven’t tried,” she says.
Forsyth Park / Courtesy Visit Savannah
Draped in Spanish moss, Savannah’s graceful oak trees frame the city’s wide streets and public squares. This aesthetic derives from the grid of 24 squares and parks designed by General James Oglethorpe, who arrived in the city 1733. (Only 22 squares survive today.)
Like Charleston, the city has preserved the integrity of its architecture while morphing over centuries. Today, young artists and designers from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), as well as hoteliers and restaurateurs, enliven the city with energy.
Raghav Sapra, founder of Maypole Group, opened the long-awaited boutique property The Drayton Hotel in 2019 inside a landmark building. He has watched the city’s hospitality trajectory grow for a decade.
“Chefs from major cities like New York, Miami and Chicago have discovered the relaxed pace, access to family-led farms and fishing outfits, and general affordability which frees them to express their culinary personality,” he says. “It’s an exciting time.”
St. Neo’s Brasserie at the Drayton Hotel / Photos by William Hereford
Best Restaurants in Savannah
When he’s not keeping an eye on the venues in the Drayton, which include St. Neo’s Brasserie and cocktail bar The Vinyl Room, Sapra heads south to the Starland District’s Vittoria for Neapolitan-style pies and natural wine. “Kyle Jacovino’s Neapolitan-style pizzas are the best I have had in the United States,” he says.
Another highlight is Common Thread, which opened in January 2021. “Chef Brad and his team transformed a stately 19th century home in a residential neighborhood into a restaurant that celebrates the region’s produce,” says Sapra. He also likes The Tavern at The Olde Pink House. “It is precisely preserved, candlelit and feels like a place to pass secrets to your date at the bar.”
Common Thread / Photo by John Park
Husk Savannah’s Wine Director Jamie Crotts is also a fan of Common Thread. She arrived in the city in January 2022 and believes it’s an emerging wine destination. Aside from Husk, which has an extensive cellar, Crotts suggests James Beard Award-winning restaurant The Grey to wine lovers, calling it the “complete fine dining package.”
Dee Herb, director of sales for importer and distributor Winebow, is a lifelong Savannahian who has spent 25 years in the industry as director of sales for South and Coastal Georgia.
“Charleston was always way ahead of Savannah as far as food, wine, and cocktails, but that started to shift around 2012 when a talented group of artists and artisans began to make Savannah their home,” he says.
His favorite restaurants include southern hospitality institution Elizabeth on 37th and Cotton & Rye, a contemporary restaurant popular for its gastropub fare, located in a former bank.
Bar Julian / Courtesy Thompson Hotel Savannah
For cocktails, Herb likes The Savoy Society and The Lone Wolf Lounge. “Both run dynamic beverage programs and employ some of the best bartenders anywhere in the country,” he says. Herb also suggests The Original Pinkie Masters, a 50-years-strong dive bar, which “now serves world class wine and great cocktails along with $3 PBRs.”
Other spots worth checking out include Local 11ten, a modern, farm-to-table restaurant with a global wine list just south of Forsyth Park, and the newly opened 208 Wine Bar on Savannah’s historic riverfront. Inventive cocktails headline Alley Cat and Bar Julian, situated atop the roof of the Thompson Hotel Savannah. Another rooftop bar, Lost Square, serves a rotating array of creative batched drinks next to outdoor fireplaces.
Austrian wines at Le Chai / Courtesy Le Chai
Best Wine Shops in Savannah
Depending on the desired bottle, Herb shops at Habersham Beverage Center and Largo Beverage for its large selection and good prices, Johnnie Ganems, “a Savannah institution,” or Le Chai on Forsyth Park, which has an eclectic selection and small, adjoining wine bar.