Shrimp and grits is Charleston’s culinary signature, with grits being South Carolina official state food since 1976.
The dish has a long and storied history, but it’s a relatively recent discovery for the rest of the country (not unlike hot chicken in Nashville), with its development interwoven with strands of the city’s past and present. For centuries, Native Americans throughout the South Carolina Lowcountry would grind corn and cook it into a porridge or hominy. Later on, the Gullah people, who came from West Africa and were enslaved to work on plantations on the islands and along the coastal Carolinas, began to add locally caught shrimp to the hominy grits consumed throughout the area. And so, the dish spread throughout the South.
For a long time, shrimp and grits remained a local morning favorite, mostly eaten as an informal home-cooked meal. But in 1985, Craig Claiborne, the influential then-food critic of The New York Times, tried a rendition of the dish in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which inspired him to publish a recipe in the newspaper. That high-profile spotlight inspired restaurants across the South to start serving their versions of the dish, which ultimately became a menu staple at eateries across the region.
Now that the secret’s out about the absolute deliciousness of shrimp and grits, here’s our list of 10 notable places in greater Charleston to try it for yourself.
S.N.O.B.’s name is a bit of joke, an acronym for its location and full name — Slightly North of Broad — which was historically less posh than the neighbors who lived south of Broad Street, here in the heart of the Historic District. Since its opening in 1993, the restaurant has become a local fine dining legend, thanks to its role as a pioneer of New Southern Cuisine. S.N.O.B. brings together local ingredients and French cooking techniques to create what many Charlestonians consider the best shrimp and grits in the city — and easily the most popular item on the menu. Here, grits come from Marsh Hen Mill on Edisto Island and the shrimp from ponds off of the Toogoodoo River. The final result? Perfection.
For Emma Falconer, an agent with Corcoran HM Properties in Charleston, getting to the best grits means crossing the Cooper River to Mount Pleasant, where this eatery is dedicated to the cause. “Their menu highlights include a ‘grit flight’ with four different flavors of grits, a shrimp and grits entrée with smoked gouda grits, locally sourced ingredients, 13 different flavors of grits, and plenty of options for both gluten-free and vegetarian customers,” Falconer explains. The gritty offerings start from a more traditional pimento cheese variation before going through a journey — each slightly more unconventional than the last — from truffle grits to maple pecan grits to apricot dreamsicle grits.
For indecisive shrimp and grits fans, Acme Low Country, in Isle of Palms, has you covered: The restaurant has a whole menu section devoted to this dish. There’s the Isle of Palms shrimp and grits, with truffle cheese grits; a Cajun take, with tasso ham and a cream sauce; a Southern Hospitality version served over collard greens and pimento cheese grits; and quite a few more. These riffs at this unpretentious beach eatery means that a big group can each get a different order of shrimps and grits, while all still enjoying the locally caught shrimp and Adluh Flour grits.
Falconer also likes the Darling Oyster Bar, which is celebrated for its entire menu — not just its namesake bivalves. Here, the shrimp and grits are gussied up with some untraditional additions, including crispy brussels sprouts and fennel, as well as an optional fried egg. With its penny-tile floor, briny blue-green banquettes (chosen for their resemblance to the iridescent interior of an oyster shell), and zinc bar, the Darling Oyster Bar is as popular for its design and ambiance as the quality of its food. Located on iconic King Street, the Darling Oyster is always packed — make a reservation or be prepared to wait.
A soul food favorite, Nigel’s motto is “Just What Your Soul Needs,” and it’s hard to argue with that — especially for Grandma Fred’s Shrimp and Grits. Nigel’s is a North Charleston institution, beloved for exceptional flavors and generous portions. This is Lowcountry cuisine at its best, with staples like fried green tomatoes, Geechie wings, and collard greens on the menu alongside the shrimp and grits. Don’t expect a cocktail with your meal — Nigel’s doesn’t serve alcohol, but it does serve sweet tea and three flavors of Kool-Aid, for a nostalgic throwback to childhood.
Quite a few Charleston restaurants serving grits brag about sourcing their grains from Marsh Hen Mill, but only Millers All Day can boast of having Greg Johnsman, the owner of the mill, as a co-owner. Here, the shrimp and grits is made with Marsh Hen Mill’s Jimmy Red Corn grits, which Johnsman spent eight years cultivating and milling the almost-extinct variety of kernels. The resulting hominy is topped with shrimp, local mushrooms, scallions, and toasted benne seeds, a type of sesame seed brought by the Gullah Geechee people from West Africa to the Lowcountry that has been revived in cultivation, due to the growing interest in heritage grains.
In Mount Pleasant, right next to historic Old Village, Page’s Okra Grill offers an unusual twist on shrimp and grits: Here, the grits are battered and fried into cake shapes, before being topped with shrimp and a hearty ladle of smoke andouille sausage sauce. It’s a little bit unconventional, but Ashleigh’s Shrimp and Grits (named for the chef in this family business) has won awards from magazines and been featured on multiple TV shows, and more importantly, earned a devoted fan base from Charleston locals.
A funky diner with a traditional diner interior, including counter seating with stools or retro tables with benches, offers shrimps and grits in two different flavor permutations: you can either order the shrimp sautéed with tomato bacon gravy or fried with sweet and spicy jelly. (The funky part comes with the groovy wall art that includes a portrait of Guy Fieri, who featured the restaurant on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.) Both versions have their adherents, with both of Early Bird’s versions being considered examples of a thicker, stew-like interpretations of this classic dish.
You’ll always meet a local or two who swears by their grandmother’s shrimp and grits as the best, but the closest you’ll find to grandma’s version is probably the one at Poogan’s Porch. Here, the dish is served in a traditional rendition, complete with brown gravy, and made with Adluh grits, tasso ham, and Duke’s pimento cheese. The restaurant is inside an 1891 Victorian house in the Historic District and opened nearly a hundred years later, in 1976. And for a restaurant in a city with a famously haunted history, Poogan’s has a couple of resident ghosts: there’s both the canine ghost of Poogan, the eponymous dog who greeted all the guests until his death in 1979, and the human spirit of Zoe St. Armand, who once lived at 72 Queen Street in the early 1900s, long before it turned into the restaurant. With shrimp and grits that have been a consistent Charleston favorite for almost fifty years, it’s no surprise that its former residents linger on in spectral form, hoping for one more spoonful.
Chef Sean Brock is one of the main reasons behind Charleston’s ascent in the culinary world. Brock is the force behind Husk, which was named the Best New Restaurant in America by Bon Appétit in 2011, and the year before, in 2010, Brock won the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef Southeast. Brock has worked diligently to preserve Southern foodways, heirloom ingredients, and to promote and use local ingredients in his cooking. “If it doesn’t come from the South, it’s not coming through the door,” says Brock. The menu changes frequently, and Husk’s take on shrimp and grits changes from day to day, cooked with what’s in season and generally only available during weekend brunch.