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Small town, big flavor

A foodie's paradise is just five hours away in Charleston

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There are many reasons to visit Charleston, S.C. – the history, the food, the food, the food ... uh, sorry. To me, Charleston is about two things: charm and restaurants. It has become a yearly tradition to roll into town (about a five-hour drive from Atlanta; just get on I-20 heading east until you're there, more or less) and see how many restaurants I can hit in one night. Per square inch, Charleston has the best eating in the Southeast – a collection of fantastic restaurants in a small radius that make for a great night of progressive eating.

I like to begin at the bar of the Peninsula Grill (112 N. Market St., 843-723-0700, www.peninsulagrill.com), located in the swanky and historic Planter's Inn smack in the center of Charleston. Slide up to the dark wood bar, splurge on a fancy bottle of champagne from the excellent list, and begin your night with a dozen oysters – nothing sets the tone better for a night in Charleston. I'm also partial to the seared foie gras with duck barbecue biscuit and Carolina peach jam. I ordered it the first time because it sounded so nasty, but somehow all that richness works. It's now one of my favorite plays on Old South/New South cooking.

For a less fancy, more neighborhood feel, head over to Fig (232 Meeting St., 843-805-5900, www.eatatfig.com) where chef Mike Lata (who won the 2009 James Beard award for Best Chef in the Southeast) cooks up Southern like you've never tasted. Lata can turn pig trotter into the most elegant dish, shredding its gelatinous and flavorful flesh and pairing it with endive and a sunny-side-up farm egg. The friendly bartenders will whip up a classic Sazerac, or an "Elder Paloma," which consists of tequila, grapefruit, sparkling elderflower and lime.

I like to stop in at the Charleston Grill (224 King St., 843-577-4522, www.charlestongrill.com), located in the mall-like Shops of Charleston Place, mainly for its impressive wine collection. There's always something fun and unexpected by the glass here, and the staff in the bar area loves to chat and bring tastes of what excites them. Chef Michelle Weaver's menu is big on luxe ingredients, so if you're in the mood for foie gras over steak or truffle-infused something or other, you won't be disappointed.

Last stop is always McCrady's (2 Unity Alley, 843-577-0025, www.mccradysrestaurant.com), which tussles with Fig for the title of my favorite restaurant in Charleston. If I absolutely had to pick a place to eat a full meal, McCrady's would probably win. Chef Sean Brock grows all his own produce and puts it to amazing use. In a building that dates from 1788, Brock spins his dishes into sometimes simple, sometimes bizarre works of art. Seared scallops with creamed kimchee and pork belly? Yes, please.

When it comes time to call it a night, if you've got the big bucks, by all means stay at the Planter's Inn (112 N. Market St., 843-722-2345, www.plantersinn.com). The Relais & Chateaux hotel dates from 1844 and is outfitted with every conceivable period furnishing and luxury touch. Rooms start at around $200 to $240 for weekend nights.

For a more affordable yet still fun and old-worldy feeling hotel, the Indigo Inn (1 Maiden Lane, 843-577-5900, www.indigoinn.com) sits conveniently next door to Fig. A former Indigo warehouse, the 1850s building was transformed into a hotel in 1979. All the rooms look out onto the private courtyard, giving the place a kind of secret-garden feel. Rooms start at around $120 to $160.

Don't leave home without ... Alka-Seltzer for the night before, aspirin for the morning after.

Don't miss ... You gotta do the tourist thing and take a carriage tour from Market Street through one of Charleston's historic neighborhoods. You'll get a history lesson, see some amazing houses, and get the requisite damn-those-tourists glares from locals trying to actually drive on the city's streets. The main drag for shopping in Charleston, King Street is mainly made up of mall favorites (Banana Republic, Williams-Sonoma, etc.) but there are a couple gems worth stopping for, including one of the best upscale lingerie stores in the country, Bits of Lace (302 King St., 843-266-6985, www.bitsoflace.com).

Song for the drive ... Uh, DUH, the "Charleston." Or, um, "Going Back to Cali"?

Souvenir ... Wander through the Old City Market on Market Street and pick up a Sweetwater basket, handmade by locals.

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