This past weekend, I went bar-hopping in downtown Charleston with a friend of mine. While we ostensibly were only visiting dive bars in Charleston for this tour de King Street and Charleston nightlife, we quickly realized that all the bars that we visit on a frequent basis are dive bars. In my humble opinion, most of the best bars in Charleston, SC, are dive bars.
While some on urbandictionary.com are not kind to the concept of dive bars, others describe them as “well-worn, unglamorous, … often serving a cheap, simple selection of drinks to a regular clientele.” I am much more partial to the latter definition.
I come from a long line of dive bar patrons, various members of my family, myself included, have even become regulars at dive bars in Greenwich, Connecticut, one of the last places you’d expect to find a bar of that ilk (click over to a different blog to read an article I wrote about dive bars in Greenwich, Connecticut). In a fairly short span of time, I would say I know of more than a few cheap places to eat and drink throughout the peninsula, with a heavier base of knowledge closer to home, around Hampton Park. Keep in mind that I am a beer drinker–I unfortunately cannot say much about wines and mixed drinks at any of these bars, though in reality people don’t go to dive bars for the cocktails.
Another benefit of the dive bars on the list being clustered on the peninsula is that they’re all within walking distance or a short drive of most of the best boutique hotels in downtown Charleston. They’re also sprinkled-in among some of the best restaurants in Charleston. Their convenient location also puts them within an easy walk of many of the best attractions in Charleston, SC, as well.
While there are Charleston, SC, tours of bars and wine joints downtown, those are for the higher-end options. This tour is free, and all the bars on the list are cheap (obviously). In no particular order, here are what I believe to be some of the best bars in Charleston, SC.
1. Tattooed Moose
While the Tattooed Moose is a little out of the way compared to a lot of other Charleston dive bars on my list, the beers are cheap and the atmosphere very hip. But most importantly, the food is delicious. Few would argue the statement that the Tattooed Moose serves one of the best Sunday brunches in Charleston, SC. Everyone sings the praises of the Duck Club with duck confit, bacon, cheddar and garlic aioli, though I’m quite partial to the Lowcountry Cuban. Definitely don’t miss the french fries fried in duck fat, or the corndogs if you’re feeling nostalgic.
2. Upper Deck
The entrance to Upper Deck is a bit foreboding–the first time I came here, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s down an alley off King Street, then up a gross staircase to a closed door. Then you enter and it’s still pretty nasty. But it’s a college hang-out, for sure. As I remember from my days as a college student, you don’t care about cleanliness, you care how cheap the drinks are. And they’re pretty cheap here, for King Street. It’s kind of hot in the summer, though, some more air conditioning would be nice. I do like pre-gaming here, personally. This dive bar and Burns Alley are just a little south of Calhoun Street, and are both close to the majority of the Charleston historic district hotels.
3. Burns Alley
Tucked away from busy King Street on Burns Lane, Burns Alley is one of the first South Carolina bars I was introduced to. It’s always full of great people, and the Palmetto Pluff Mud Porter goes down easily. The floor never gets too crowded, I suppose that’s aided by being fairly hidden. It’s also a plus that the really heavy-drinking crowd of other King Street bars don’t frequent here as much. They’ve got plenty of those old bar games on the first floor, and a little second-floor seating area above the bar if you want to escape the noise for a bit.
4. Moe’s Crosstown Tavern
This bar is the closest one to home, and therefore the one I frequent most heavily. Located right across Rutledge from Hampton Park, Moe’s Crosstown Tavern is a fantastic Charleston dive bar with cheap beer and amazing food. It’s been voted best pub food 8 years running by Charleston City Paper. Their burgers are not to be missed, especially on half-priced burger night on Tuesdays (my favorite is the BLT burger). While getting a table on a Tuesday is difficult with all the locals from Wagener Terrace, Hampton Park Terrace, and North Central as well as Citadel students, any night’s a great time to check-out this place. And it doesn’t hurt to be able to stumble back home afterwards, or start the night out here.
5. Local 616
This is just a very relaxed bar in the upper side of Charleston, just north of the crosstown but not as far north as Royal American or Tattooed Moose. There’s no food at Local 616, but you’re not visiting dive bars in Charleston SC for the food as much as the booze, let’s face it. I think the back porch here is awesome–enclosed with wood beams, it’s hard to describe, but I’m definitely a fan.
6. Palace Hotel
This is a quirky place in the Eastside neighborhood. It’s kind of hard to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for, so bring a friend who’s been or a well-charged phone. I haven’t eaten here, but I’m told that some nights the food is amazing, others it’s not worth the money. It depends on who’s cooking. But the beer’s pretty inexpensive, and their giant fig tree out back is loaded with fruit in August. I would say this place is the epitome of college bars in downtown Charleston.
7. The Royal American
The beer’s great, and the food’s even better at the Royal American. They usually have live music playing on the busier nights, and their porch is fantastic with lots of outdoor seating to enjoy the milder nights in Charleston. They are near marsh, though, so mosquitos can be bad on the part closest to it. With a decor someone once described to me as a “New Orleans bar at Christmas-time”, the atmosphere is relaxed, the people are friendly, and this is usually the place to go to see some pretty good bands before they start performing at Music Farm (and some of them continue to perform here after they get bigger). If I didn’t have to drive or walk a long time, I’d be at this Charleston dive bar all the time.
8. Recovery Room Tavern
No list of dive bars in Charleston SC would be complete without mention of the Recovery Room. This bar is located on King Street, right under the underpasses for the crosstown. It’s a bit of a ways from Upper King, but still walkable and definitely closer to that area than quite a few of the bars listed here. With PBR at $2 each, it’s no wonder this is the highest seller of PBR in America (yes, this is the epitome of hipster bars).
9. Salty Mike’s
This bar’s a little out of the way on Lockwood Drive, but it has a pretty long history and a great view of the Ashley River and the Charleston marina on that side. This bar’s definitely seen better days, but (again) the beer’s cheap.
10. Dudley’s on Ann
Yes, this is a gay bar. But there’s no question it goes on a list of dive bars in Charleston, South Carolina. The beer’s pretty cheap for so close to Upper King Street, in between Thai Basil of Charleston and the Charleston Visitors Center. It’s of course a welcoming atmosphere to all comers though there are definite regulars. As befits a dive bar, you cannot call this place a gay night club, just a Charleston bar. $2 jello shots are always available, and they have drag shows almost every night though, as well as other events. I can’t remember when for the life of me.
11. Closed for Business
No matter how many bars I visit in Charleston, Closed for Business will remain in my mind one of the best bars in Charleston, South Carolina. Located right on Upper King Street, a little south of the intersection with Radcliffe Street, Closed for Business has the best beer selection in Charleston (that I’ve seen). The decor is a homey, cabin in the woods feel, with the inner pages a guide to beer from around the world plastered on the walls of the bathroom. Keep your eyes open for a stuffed dik-dik (which is a thing) somewhere in the booth area in the back of the restaurant.
12. Faculty Lounge
At the corner of Huger Street and Senate Street (up by Hampton Park) is a tiny little bar called the Faculty Lounge. This Charleston bar started as a bar for African-American teachers in the 1970s, and became one of the hottest clubs in Charleston for a time. Now it’s a little scary (and seemingly deserted) on the outside to passersby, but still popular for being another cheap place to drink. Inside, the bar is surprisingly spacious, and includes a long bar, dance floor, and video games and pool table in back.
13. The Rooftop
This is definitely not a dive bar, but the Rooftop Bar on top of the Vendue Inn is not a bar you miss on a visit to Charleston. This bar is located down on the corner of Vendue Range and East Bay Street in the French Quarter District of Charleston (down the street from the Griffon). That location is close to perfect as far as views from the rooftop go: you can see all the various church spires of Charleston complementing the skyline, as well as the Charleston harbor and Ravenel bridge. The drinks aren’t cheap, but the view cannot be missed.
There’s also an entertaining art display at the entrance from the elevators made of (non-sharp) pins you can push-in to make an artisitic impression with your body. The changing art gallery in the hallway leading to the elevator on the first floor of the Vendue Inn can be pretty fun, as well.
The Vendue Inn is one of the best places to stay in historic downtown Charleston, by the way.
And speaking of hotels with rooftop bars and restaurants in downtown Charleston, funny story:
The Dewberry Charleston, a luxury hotel that recently opened on Marion Square, built a fantastic rooftop bar but didn’t give any notice to the Charleston Board of Architectural Review. When the BAR found-out, they shut the place down immediately. Then the neighborhood got involved and made their displeasure heard.
But after all that unpleasantness was settled, the rooftop bar is quite lovely.
Another rooftop bar is at the Market Pavilion. It’s not as good of a view, and the drinks are even more expensive than at the Vendue. Try it for yourself, though.
What About Cocktail Bars in Charleston, SC?
Again, I’m not a huge fan of cocktails, personally, but I’ve had a few here and there in Charleston. Some top choices on King Street for the best cocktails in Charleston, SC, include Cocktail Club, which was previously another club-style bar now open to the public, and Proof.
1. The Cocktail Club
The Cocktail Club has a speak-easy style appearance with exposed beam interiors on the second floor and a rooftop bar (though not as impressive a view as the Rooftop at the Vendue).
Proof is a high-end though relaxed bar with wood-paneling on the walls.
3. Gin Joint
The Gin Joint is very popular with people for its gin-based cocktails and fairly creative appetizers served either inside or on its small patio on East Bay Street a few blocks north of the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, but I have consistently dealt with poor service there and would rather not go back. I’m not a fan of gin, anyway, so they’re not exactly losing out on a big spender by losing my patronage.
I’m also quite partial to 492. Not because the food is that great, or the cocktails exceptional, I just like the venue. The outdoor patio is pretty cool, though they don’t seem too pleased if you get too loud after a couple drinks. Though some of the women sitting on the patio need to stop staring at their phones and lighten up when they’re out enjoying one of the best Charleston bars (and preferably talk to the other women they’re sitting with once in a while).
Even More of the Best Bars in Charleston, SC
Seriously. Would you be surprised? With this many hipsters concentrated in one city, there’s a fairly high number of dive bars per capita in among the list of some of the best bars in South Carolina. A few other great bars that didn’t quite make the top list include A.C.’s Bar and Grill on Upper King, the Griffon on Vendue Range, and the Blind Tiger Pub on Broad Street (mostly because the Blind Tiger closed, that place was great). So bring your plaid shirt and hipster glasses for when you’re done enjoying the tourist attractions, activities, or the beaches near Charleston, South Carolina. The Holy City isn’t exactly known for its dive bars from the looks of King Street, historic downtown Charleston, and the dress of a typical Charlestonian. But visiting the best Charleston bars are some of the most fun things to do in Charleston at night!