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By Roland Alonzi

Charleston was recently named the Best U.S. City by the readers of Travel + Leisure for the seventh consecutive year. Charleston also ranked #12 in the publication’s Top 15 Cities in the World and was one of just two U.S. cities on the heavily international list.

So, what makes this Southern city such a popular place to visit?

Charleston, which was named after King Charles II when it was chartered in 1663, certainly has a fascinating history. This history can be easily explored in places like Boone Hall Plantation and Fort Sumpter National Monument. 

Yet, travelers don’t need to visit any one place to soak in the city’s history. Stroll down The French Quarter, with its cobblestone streets lined with row houses and oak trees draped in Spanish Moss, and you soon learn why the city finds itself atop so many “best of” lists.

Aside from Charleston’s history, the common theme for what makes the city so special is its food. 

This past March, The Today Show broadcast live from Charleston Wine + Food, the city’s popular annual festival. In addition, restaurants garnering national acclaim are popping up regularly across the city, especially in neighborhoods like East Side and NoMo. 

While there is no shortage of restaurants to explore in Charleston, there are some cool concepts popping up in the city. Here are three of the most unique options to experience the next time you head to Charleston.

Food Fire +Knives Charleston Dining

Photo: Food Fire + Knives

Food Fire + Knives

In Charleston, many travelers prefer the flexibility and diverse accommodations found on services like Airbnb and HomeAway. After all, renting a stately three-bedroom home can be less expensive and more fun than being in three separate hotel rooms. For families, this convenience is even more valuable. 

Local Charleston company Food Fire + Knives offers a unique hybrid of accessible private dining and interactive cooking classes. The on-demand service connects visitors with local expert chefs to create a private, in-home dining experience that is surprisingly affordable. 

When you take into account the cost of a meal at a nice restaurant and taking an Uber or your rental car to the crowded city streets – not to mention the hassle of finding a restaurant to satisfy the preferences in your party – Food Fire + Knives has created an ideal solution that is comparable in price.

Through the company’s website, you’re matched up with a local chef who will create a customized menu for a wide variety of cuisine ranging from Asian Fusion and French Nouvelle to Lowcountry and Modern American. Basically, anything you can dream up, Food Fire + Knives can make happen – even sushi.

To add an entertainment element, try the “demo option.” This is basically a live, in-person, interactive cooking class. The chef will discuss everything from cooking techniques and choosing the right ingredients to recipes and inspiration during the preparation of the meal.

When the evening is done, the chef will clean the kitchen spotless, and there’s no standing around waiting for your Uber or paying for parking and driving home.

Food Fire + Knives has become so popular, particularly with events like bachelorette parties, that it is expanding to five additional markets this summer and fall, including Asheville, Nashville, Savannah, Hilton Head, and Myrtle Beach. To schedule an in-home private dining experience or to learn more, visit www.foodfireknives.com

Mercantile and Mash Charleston Dining

Photos: Andrew Cebulka

Mercantile and Mash

Mercantile and Mash is located at The Cigar Factory, a mixed-use building that was formerly a cotton manufacturing facility back in the 1880s. The Cigar Factory is now home to high-end retail shops, professional offices, and unique foodie experiences.

Mercantile and Mash is separated into two different sides.

The Mercantile side features a gourmet food emporium and retail space. Here you snack on items like sandwiches and local baked goods and stock up on fresh pastas, charcuterie, cheese, wine, beer, locally-roasted coffee, and other culinary goodies. There’s also a Butcher shop, where you can buy Certified Angus Beef steaks, house-cured charcuterie and artisan sausages made in house.

The Mash side is a bar with a massive selection of domestic whiskeys and local beer. The bar even has a type of whiskey exclusive to Mash. In addition to the bar, Mash has an indoor bocce court, shuffleboard and a selection of arcade games. If you are in the mood for a nosh, Mash offers a full menu. Standout items include edamame falafel, duck confit grilled cheese, and house made pimento cheese and beef jerky. 701 East Bay Street, Charleston; mercandmash.com

Workshop Charleston Dining

Photo: Chuck & Patty’s / Little Miss Ha

Workshop

Workshop is a unique exploratory food hall concept that is the brainchild of Stephen Zoukis, one of the partners behind New York City’s extremely popular Chelsea Market. 

Eater has called Workshop, which has hosted pop-ups featuring diverse cuisine from Indian and Cuban to poke bowls and rotisserie chicken, a “Food Court Wonderland.”

Workshop features six rotating kitchens where emerging and renowned chefs can experiment with different culinary concepts. This allows Workshop to bring an ever-changing roster of unique and small concepts with local and international flair to Charleston.

Currently, Workshop features a bar focusing on organic, biodynamic and small wine producers from unique domestic and international winemaking regions; a 90s-inspired burger bar; Japanese izakaya focusing on sushi, chirashi, sake and small plates; a taqueria modeled after California’s fresh Mexican street food scene; a local chef who prepares traditional Vietnamese dishes inspired her Vietnamese heritage and curated by her mother; and a chef duo who create traditional Cajun and Creole cuisine. 1503 King Street, Charleston; workshopcharleston.com

Summer is a popular time to visit Charleston, so don’t forget to check out some upcoming events and festivals. The Charleston Margarita Festival in downtown Charleston’s Brittlebank Park takes place on July 26.  The Freshfields Village Starlight Cinema Series, a free outdoor movie series, runs now through August 21. In September, cool off with Charleston Water Week, a celebration of recreational water sports, September 9-15.