The Best Places to Drink in Charleston

  • 1

    AC's

    AC's (which is rumored to stand for “Action City”) is popular with drunk, single college kids looking for one thing: Miller High Life. Surely one of the busiest bars on the block, AC’s is the inevitable late night destination where crowds pack themselves in like sardines and crowds compete for a go at the pool table. The music level makes it hard to chat, but you're not here for that. You're here to drink.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • bar food
    • singles scene
    • pool table
  • 2

    Big John’s Tavern

    Opened in 1954, Big John’s ranks as Charleston’s oldest dive bar. After a recent renovation by the gents behind swanky downtown drinking destination The Rarebit, Big John’s bones are still intact, but with a new bar and pool tables. These days, the crowd is mostly tourists wandering over from Market Street, but the bar still hosts die-hard regulars and an eternally rotating crop of College of Charleston coeds.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • pool table
    • live music
    • bar food
    • historic
  • 3

    FIG

    It's increasingly difficult to score a table at FIG, but regulars know the best seats are at the bar, where the food—an effortless blend of Southern ingredients and French technique—is equally good, and the drinks are mixed with meticulous care. FIG never condescends to its guests: A significant portion of the cocktail list is devoted to a three-column "Build your own Manhattan" menu, featuring terrific vermouths and bitters, and the cheeky wine menu includes a section called "Uncategorizable & Outrageously Fun."

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    KNOWN FOR

    • full menu
    • lots of whiskey
    • craft cocktails
    • good wine
  • 4

    McCrady's

    Drinking has been the raison d'être of the building housing McCrady's since 1778, when Edward McCrady opened his tavern. Over rum and ale, McCrady and his friends plotted the Revolution, which landed the barkeep in jail; after his return, he hosted a 30-course dinner for George Washington. The restaurant's contemporary incarnation is best known for launching the career of chef Sean Brock, who went through a modernist phase before reverting to a highly elegant version of Southern simplicity. Whiz-bang tricks still reign at the bar, though: Look for lots of tasty smoke, foam and edible cocktail garnishes plucked from ...

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    KNOWN FOR

    • craft cocktails
    • full menu
    • bar food
  • 5

    Proof

    Proof finds itself in the heart of a mostly college bar scene, but adult drinkers seek out Craig Nelson’s grown-up watering hole for the great tunes, straightforward cocktails and simple, accessible bar snacks. The staff does the classics well, and their house creations are always spot-on, with robust flavors and local ingredients. The heavily candle-lit, wood paneled room is a great glowing perch from which to watch the King Street crowd float by. The ever-changing chalkboard—which highlights cocktail specials, happy hour features, or special flights—is always a reliable way to start the night.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • bar food
    • singles scene
    • craft cocktails
    • lots of whiskey
  • 6

    Recovery Room

    Every twenty-something in Charleston is headed for the Recovery Room at some point in the weekend. Conveniently located on Upper King Street, just out of reach of the madness of the main corridor, the bar’s parking lot and front patio overflow with young folks and bicycle riders that put away insane amounts of PBR. The Recovery Room has actually been nationally recognized for the amount of Pabst they sell annually—roughly 105 cases or more per week.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • jukebox
    • singles scene
    • patio
    • cheap beer
  • 7

    Tattooed Moose

    In the former home of Kitty’s Fine Foods, a once loved meat-and-three on the Upper Peninsula, is “The Moose.” From the same folks of Voodoo Tiki Bar & Lounge, it’s become a quick favorite of Charlestonians who come for the duck fat fries and a cold beer on the patio. It’s gotten busier since being featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” but it still feels like a local joint.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • full menu
    • patio
    • live music
    • craft beer
    • all day service
  • 8

    The Bar at Husk

    The name is no accident. Drinks at Husk, Sean Brock's salute to the South and its indigenous ingredients, are served in a freestanding brick building that ably evokes centuries past with its compact dimensions and dark wooden fixtures. The gaslight vibe is strengthened by a cocktail list that leans heavily on brown liquor (it has Charleston's largest bourbon list), although there's also wine, organized by soil type in recognition of the restaurant's reverence for the land. The bar has a knack for making modern Southernisms sippable: Inspiration for recent drinks has been drawn from peanut butter and grocery store ...

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    KNOWN FOR

    • craft cocktails
    • bar food
    • lots of whiskey
  • 9

    The Belmont

    The Belmont opened on Upper King Street when it was still half empty at night, and a parking spot out front used to be guaranteed. These days King Street has grown up around the little spot, which hasn’t aged a day, still churning out fresh, simple cocktails inspired by the classics. For years they’ve been a reliable go-to for industry folk, as well as a grown-up clientele that seeks the place out for its soul tunes and old films projected on the back wall. Because of a tight door policy, there’s always a place to sit, and Mickey, the owner (who works the bar most nights) has put together one of the most stunning ...

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    KNOWN FOR

    • craft cocktails
    • bar food
    • singles scene
    • lots of whiskey
    • lots of amari
  • 10

    The Gin Joint

    The first bar in Charleston to declare itself a modern “cocktail bar” in late 2010, the Gin Joint has always delivered consistent technique, seasonal cocktail lists, and reliably current ingredients. The owners—also partners in Bittermilk, a line of forward-thinking cocktail mixers—have collected a selection of glassware, a deep library of spirits, countless house-made ingredients and, of course, dispense the best ice in the city. While most agree the room leaves a little to be desired, the drinks are so satisfying that the too-bright lighting and hard surfaces are quickly overlooked.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • craft cocktails
    • lots of whiskey
    • lots of rum
    • lots of tequila
    • bar food
    • outdoors/patio
  • 11

    The Griffon

    A much-loved venue of industry folk and tourists alike, The Griffon is a safe haven for the boilermaker bunch. Walls lined in dollar bills likely obscure years of stories, and the food (served late) is always delicious. The beer menu is always on point, with a refreshing amount of tap space given to craft brewers, and the bartenders, though rushed, are some of the nicest around. Nearly windowless, the dim room feels transporting, and like the college bar you always yearned for—comfortable, familiar and with enough dark corners in which to make mischief.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • bar food
    • darts
    • craft beer
    • sports
    • historic
  • 12

    The Grocery

    A former vegetarian, chef Kevin Johnson has an easy way with local plants that aren't necessarily trendy or talked-about: He's forever chasing flavor, whether it's found in a fried okra pod anointed with tomato gravy or a wood-roasted peach splashed with sherry vinegar. A similar philosophy prevails behind the bar, where Johnson's overriding interest in talent has helped create a rare local platform for women bartenders. The cocktail list reflects the restaurant's rustic charms: Seasonal fruits and pickled vegetables are staples. A strong selection of Alsatian whites complements the roster of wood-roasted seafood.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • craft cocktails
    • full menu
    • good wine
    • brunch
  • 13

    The Ordinary

    If your Charleston visit doesn't include a deep-sea fishing trip, dinner at The Ordinary is the next best addition to your itinerary: Mike Lata's second restaurant is the city's leading interpreter of fresh local seafood, including grouper, porgy, swordfish and squid. The drinks list has a similar maritime pitch, with wines from coastal Europe and bright cocktails perfect for pairing with shellfish. The bar has lately dialed back its emphasis on rum, but still produces an exceptional Daiquiri.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • oysters/raw bar
    • craft cocktails
    • lots of rum
    • good wine
  • 14

    The Royal American

    The Royal American is a newer joint, so they haven’t quite earned their dive stripes, but the look of this place—which is located in an old metal smith shop on Morrison Drive (just south of the Tattooed Moose)—is headed toward dive status. It’s beat-up and comfortable with one of the best bar patios in town. Excellent live music is often playing and the canned bear and spirits selection is always solid.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • full menu
    • canned beer
    • lots of whiskey
    • live music
    • patio
    • singles scene
  • 15

    The Upper Deck

    One of the last surviving dive bars in the heart of King Street, the Upper Deck is a hidden, second-level bar that feels more like a college dude's apartment than a watering hole (i.e. messy and poorly decorated). Karaoke is a big draw for most, but the space, long and narrow, is—for locals—a great spot to reconnect with old pals over cheap bourbon and beer. You can observe the drunk hordes from the second story windows that face King Street, and if hunger strikes, there is Gilroy's Pizza on the first level (perhaps best reserved for the latest, most desperate of nights).

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    KNOWN FOR

    • karaoke
    • cheap beer
  • 16

    Voodoo Tiki Bar

    From the owners of Tattooed Moose, Voodoo Tiki Bar is a late night drinking den West of the Ashley River. Charlestonians come for the kitschy environment (think leopard print, velour, bright red walls and thatched panels), the bar food (the duck confit sliders) and the loud, familiar scene. The tiki cocktails may favor dive bar preparations with bottled juices and syrupy sweet liqueurs, but the tequila selection is one of the best in town.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • bar food
    • tiki
    • live music
    • lots of tequila

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FROM AROUND THE WEB
  • Ethan Kaufman

    I’m not sure when this list went up, but I just got back home from drinking my way around Charleston. I have to say this is a pretty good list, but two spots that were my favorites seem to be missing. One is the relatively new Mash bar of Mercantile and Mash. This is a phenomenal brown liquor bar off of East Bay, and they may make the best old fashioned I have had the pleasure of tasting. The bartenders Sam, Joy, and Elliot are incredibly knowledgeable and happy to answer any questions.
    As for the other spot that I found to be an amazing watering hole, Edmund’s Oast was a huge surprise. Edmund’s Oast is a brew pub and beer bar with 48 taps around 10 of which are brewed in house. The real shocker here was the fact that their cocktail program could work at a stand alone concept. They have the best liquor selection bar none that I have seen in a beer bar. It is rare enough in my neck of the woods to find a bar that carries green or yellow VEP chartreuse, of course this beer bar in Charleston happened to have both. Drinks aside the charcuterie boards that they cure and preserve in house are phenomenal.

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