A Culinary Tour of Hilton Head Island

How to eat your way through South Carolina's favorite Lowcountry getaway.

Located off the coast between Beaufort and Bluffton in the South Carolina Lowcountry, Hilton Head Island is a salty sea breeze getaway where wide beaches beckon, there are no bright street lights or vivid colors, and the buildings are often nestled in among the native live oak trees. Incorporated as a town in 1983, Hilton Head Island has been welcoming vacation travelers for decades, with their seafood being a main draw.

Sunset at a marina in Hilton Head, South Carolina
Dennis Govoni / Getty Images

The island was once home to multiple commercial oyster processors, and Hudson's Seafood on the Docks, owned by Andrew Carmines, is a second-generation family-owned restaurant built atop a peninsula where one of those oyster plants once sat. Carmines has been shucking oysters since he was six, and checking in the shrimp deliveries right off the restaurant's dock since he was 13, making him an expert in all things seafood. Each year, the restaurant not only purchases close to 120,000 pounds of local shrimp, but also buys and serves local fish, oysters farmed by Carmines himself, and soft-shelled crab when it's in season. The best seat in the house is actually at the outdoor bar or patio, where seagulls cruise in the breeze overhead, freshly fried and butterflied shrimp arrive hot to the table, the oysters are cold and briny, and whatever is the whole fish of the day needs to be ordered for the table, especially if it's topped with mango salsa.

Hudson's whole fried fish
Whole fried black sea bass topped with mango salsa from Hudson's. Stephanie Burt

Tucked in across the island, the Fishcamp on Broad Creek offers Lowcountry traditions and stunning waterfront views that seem so iconic they could be a movie set. Spanish moss sways in the breeze from huge oaks that reach over the water, and there's a dock to wander out on while waiting for dinner to arrive. And keeping with the tradition of Fishcamp, that means Lowcountry Boil, a simply classic dish of boiled shrimp, corn on the cob, summer sausage, and potatoes, sprinkled with seasoning and served with melted butter and cocktail sauce. It's peel and eat shrimp 2.0, but the real secret is meandering through the dish, dipping a potato or two in the cocktail sauce, then drizzling some butter over the corn and taking a bite of sausage before peeling a sweet local shrimp. It's simply more than the sum of its parts.

The view from Fishcamp
The view from Fishcamp. Stephanie Burt

For fancier seafood with Adriatic inspiration, chef and owner Nunzio Patruno from Italy's Puglia region calls the island home and at Nunzio, his namesake restaurant, serves local seafood among other Italian specialties (including Penne Baresane and Vitello Piccata) in a azure-colored dining room off New Orleans Road. There are local shrimp with cannellini beans, linguine with assorted seafood, and plenty of San Marzano tomatoes, and chef's specialty catch of the day, often garnished with herbs and other vegetables grown outside the kitchen door by the chef himself.

But Hilton Head Island isn't all seafood. The island is abuzz with praise for Nectar Farm Kitchen, a locally-focused breakfast and lunch eatery whose items include a grain bowl with pickled shiitake mushroom and a soft boiled egg, tomato handpies, a sangria that had one table asking for the recipe, and plenty of pancakes, smothered chicken, biscuits, and gravy. Light, bright, and with a small gift shop selling local honey and other honey-related gifts, Nectar is a great spot to score some gifts for the dog sitter or take home a souvenir of your own.

Nectar Farm Kitchen pancakes with pecans, butter, and maple syrup
Nectar Farm Kitchen's sweet potato pancakes with peach butter, candies pecans, and warm Vermont maple syrup. Stephanie Burt

More souvenirs are available at One Hot Mama's — chef Orchid Paulmeier's signature BBQ sauces to be exact — a BBQ restaurant with a downhome atmosphere and some seriously good barbecue served on metal trays. Paulmeier melds her Filipino heritage with Lowcountry flavors and says "sweet, spicy, and saucy is the One Hot Mama's way," whether that is the baby back ribs, pulled pork barbecue, or even the sassy bits of bacon in the crust of the fresh pecan pie.

If all of this calls for a little outdoor recreation, there are beaches to explore, dolphins to watch on boating expeditions (the island is famous for their abundance of dolphins), and more than 60 miles of natural trails to explore by foot or on bike. With the wind in your hair and the mild winter temperatures, it's easy to get out and explore, and as a reward for all that fresh air, grab a croissant from Hilton Head Social Bakery, made by chef Philippe Feret, a motorcycle-loving second-generation baker who was previously the executive chef of the renowned Windows On The World Restaurant. Hilton Head Island is more than beautiful views and beachfront condos — there are some lovely bites and sips just waiting to be discovered.

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