By Kristen Oliveri

Photo courtesy of Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce
Photo courtesy of Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce

Those searching for restaurants adept at pairing the very best of old world Southern comfort with new world cutting-edge cuisine may be surprised to learn they can find it on Hilton Head Island. Gone are the days of lackluster, non-descript beach resort food and bland margaritas. With more than 250 restaurants on the Island, the area has drawn the attention of celebrity chefs like Food Network’s Robert Irvine ( who recently opened his flagship restaurant, eat!; a mix between new favorites paired with old-world Southern cuisine. Menu items like shrimp and cheddar grits and traditional bread pudding may warm the heart, but don’t overlook the roasted duck with collard greens and sweet potato fritters, which is a crowd pleaser in its own right.

For more locally and seasonally designed menus enter Vine Restaurant. The chef there is serving up organic and local dishes that support the farmers, fisherman and butchers in the region and with the true meaning of the farm to table movement in mind, the menu changes weekly to showcase seasonal dishes like salads featuring roasted Brussels sprouts, kale and beets. Popular items like Osso Bucco are a big seller, but stewed swordfish steamed with tomatoes and olives served over a creamy polenta is a dish to dissect, enjoy and to reflect back on in almost a spiritual sense long after the meal is over.
Long gone are the plantation owners who populated the island, but their culinary imprint, and those of the native Gullah people, still remain on menus. Naturally, authentic Gullah-inspired cuisine can be found in Hilton Head’s restaurants like Roastfish and Cornbread where the chef presents healthy dining options like vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free alongside those classic dishes he learned in his grandmother’s kitchen and recreates for his guests. The seafood used in the restaurant is brought in daily with a roster of local fish that is astounding.

Photo courtesy of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce
Photo courtesy of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce

While the bar and cocktail scene in a town known primarily for seasonal tourism may seem one dimensional, mixologists at restaurants and lounges like Wise Guys are ever so subtly changing the way people think about their drinks. While old beach classics like a margarita and a glass of chilled sangria will always remain a staple, this new spot is introducing a variety of infused liquors and simple cocktails.

We asked the locals what some of their favorite spots on the island are for beverages, brunch, romantic date-night dinners and the like. Here’s what industry insiders had to say.

RESTAURATEUR – Andrew Carmines, General Manager, Hudson’s on the Docks

Hudson’s on the Docks is one of the longest family-run restaurants on the island. With a local presence dating back to 1967, it began its history as an oyster packing facility in the early 1900’s. Andrew Carmines, now charged with the Hudon’s legacy, is committed to staying true to its roots and continues to work with the same local, family-run shrimp trawlers, oysterman, crabbers and fisherman that have been supplying the restaurant with seafood for the past 100 years.
Best places for an inventive cocktail?

Pool Bar Jim’s
51 S Forest Beach Drive
Pool Bar Jim’s is a great local spot on weekends to grab a drink with friends right off the beach. They have the best frozen drinks all made with fresh fruit. Pool Bar Jim—the owner for whom the bar is named—has been known to ask clients what their favorite fruit is and then whip them up a cocktail, tailored to their liking.

Best cheap eats on the island?

Harold’s Diner
641 William Hilton Pkwy
For a cheeseburger with attitude.

Ruan Thai
811 William Hilton Parkway
For extremely spicy, well prepared Thai food and great service. Another small family-owned place.

Quick snack?
Pino Gelato
1000 William Hilton Pkwy Ste G1
Go for the delicious pistachio gelato.

Hilton Head Ice Cream
Ste 114, 55 New Orleans Road
Second favorite is Hilton Head Ice Cream for the best Oreo cookie ice cream anywhere.

Best dessert?
Hudson’s on the Docks
1 Hudson Road
Our pastry chef Miss Bessie makes the best local strawberry cobbler or apple pie with melted American cheese.

HOTELIER-Jessica Maples, Marketing Manager, ResortQuest by Wyndham Vacation Rentals

Favorite restaurants on the Island:
Roastfish & Cornbread
70 Marshland Road
This restaurant is wonderful because it is so full of soul, very casual and interesting. Chef David, a native Islander, learned how to cook from his grandma. He has delicious hush puppies, one of my favorite southern specialties, plus great local seafood selections such as flounder, trout, shrimp, and oysters, all which can be prepared several ways. His food is influenced by his Gullah roots, which is a local, African-American culture unique to the Lowcountry of South Carolina, with an organic, fresh twist. I love his collard greens because they aren’t heavy – they are vegetarian with a hint of spice.

Robert Irvine's eat dining room in Hilton Head

Village at Wexford, Suite B6
Robert Irvine’s food is all-around excellent. He offers both traditional and Lowcountry inspired dishes, with an upscale, modern flair. His presentation is impeccable and portions sizes are just right. I love his version of shrimp and grits, which I’ve had catered, and I also love his house made chips, his prime beef sliders, and his version of fried green tomatoes. He has a great Caesar salad, and for entrees, his duck breast and filet mignon are delectable.

What’s a great date night restaurant?
Le Bistro
430 William Hilton Pkwy, 301 Pineland Station
It is where I have had my husband take me out to dinner for my past two birthdays. This is what I would call classic, old-world cooking. The ambiance is lovely and comfortable; not overdone. The cuisine is French/Mediterranean, prepared classically and reminds me of 1970’s fine-dining. The portions are smaller like they used to be 30-plus years ago. My husband loves their crab cakes. I love their flounder sautéed in butter and their lamb dishes. For dessert, their crème caramel is old-fashioned, egg-y goodness. The restaurant itself is a little off-the- beaten-path on the north end of the Island.

Best Breakfast Place?
Signe’s Heaven Bound Bakery and Café
93 Arrow Road

Hilton Head Signe mocha cake

I am very biased to say that Signe’s Heaven Bound Bakery and Café is my favorite place because Signe Gardo, the owner, is my step-mom. She offers a very nice selection of daily egg creations such as frittatas, quiches, and tarts, plus a variety of handmade, buttery pastries and a unique, bread-pudding French toast. Everything is homemade and Signe is a wonderful, self-taught chef. Her baking is influenced by her time spent in Europe and also her second-generation, Swedish upbringing. The restaurant is feminine and quaint. Her coffee is strong and the service is friendly.

Palmetto Bay Sunrise Café
86 Helmsman Way
Another great breakfast place on the Island is Palmetto Bay Sunrise Café. The omelets, eggs benedict, and banana rum pancakes are very good and the place is busy on the weekends, which makes it a fun place to be.

BARTENDER- PAUL RABE, One Hot Mama’s, Skull Creek Boathouse and The Lodge

Favorite Places to Grab a Bite?
1513 Main Street
WiseGguys is just awesome on so many levels. Basically, I go here with my new bride a lot and also anyone that visits from out of town. Everything about it evokes the cool older cousin/sibling/neighbor you had that did everything so much cooler than everyone else but you never hated them or felt any animosity. That is WiseGuys.

The menu has a really good range from small to big eats which is perfect for my eclectic friends and family. At one meal, I had my young Hipster 25-year-old “Foodie” cousin on one end and my farm town father-in-law on the other end of the table. Everyone had a great time and everyone thought I was cooler than I really am.

Late-night drink spot?
The Lodge Beer & Growler Bar
7B Greenwood Drive #4
I’m going to have to go to The Lodge Craft Beer and Growler Bar on this one. I am a simple guy who usually drinks Coors Light (banquet beer if it’s around) and shots of Jack Daniels, but I will go to The Lodge and try a couple different craft beers. Justin Adkins, the GM there is pretty good at curating his 35 taps. The crowd is usually cooler and laid back just hanging out before they get crazy. Sooner or later in the night I break down and have a couple “Black Velvets” (some people call them Snakebites). Woodchuck does a limited seasonal run, “Fall Cider” and then layered with Left Hand’s Milk Stout. SOLID.

Best place to go for brunch?
One Hot Mama’s
7A Greenwood Drive
During football season I will go to One Hot Mama’s because their BBQ brunch buffet is like $8 and the sausage gravy is a recipe from Beloit, WI. Being a Bears fan, anytime the Bears score a touchdown, everyone gets a piece of Touchdown bacon. Why? What’s better than celebrating a touchdown? Celebrating a touchdown and biting into a crispy piece of Applewood smoked bacon. Try it. Then testify.

Frankie Bones
1301 Main Street
Any other time of the year, I meet my friend Jamie and his wife Abby at Frankie Bones for steak and eggs. Yes, there are other places that have wonderful al fresco patios complete with patrons texting pictures of their pretty plated meals and that’s great. But Frankie Bones bar on a Sunday afternoon is where real men (and their wives can order the pretty things on the menu) eat Brunch. We bullshit with each other until the meal comes out. But that stops when we eat. When taking a bite of medium rare sirloin with 2 eggs over easy doused in hot sauce and hash browns followed by a swig of old bay rimmed bloody Mary and a chaser of Coors LT, I am reminded of why it’s good to be a man in the United States.

Photo courtesy of Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce
Photo courtesy of Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce