Kenny B's Cajun Seafood Hut: 70 Pope Ave., Hilton Head Island, 843.785.3315
Kenny Ballard was executive chef for the New Orleans Superdome in 1995 when he decided to return to Hilton Head (where he'd lived in the 1980s) to continue his culinary career. "I kept trying to find a place like Hilton Head, and finally figured I might as well go there," he said.
After two years at Sea Pines Resort, he returned to the Big Easy before coming back in 1999 to start his own place. "I am my own chef, boss and tax accountant," he said. With its décor of Mardi Gras and Georgia Bulldogs (Kenny, a Miami, O., grad, said only that "I inherited one of the Dawgs"), Kenny B's is a local favorite: a tiny slot adjoining a Bi-Lo, with outdoor tables and a monopoly on Cajun food on Hilton Head.
Favorites: Ballard's "true Cajun" gumbo, crawfish or shrimp etouffee and barbecued shrimp. "I believed if you're opening a Hilton Head restaurant, do something different. Cajun is what I do differently." He does it very well.
The Drydock: 840 William Hilton Parkway, Hilton Head Island, 843.842.9775
Rob Arbogast's small but roomy place has outdoor seating, rustic wood walls and a lively sports bar, plus occasional live music. Great seafood, too; try the Steam Pot or any of the seafood platters. It can be hard to find, but once you go, you'll know the way back.
Bluffton Barbecue: 11 State of Mind Way, Bluffton, 843.757.RIBS (7427)
You want casual? Bluffton Barbecue's motto is, It's not a restaurant; it's a BBQ joint. Don't look for waiters hanging over your shoulder, either. You may have to serve yourself a few things, get your own drink, clean up after yourself ... you're paying for the barbecue, not the service. If that suits your taste, dig in.
Lowcountry Backyard: 32 Palmetto Bay Road, Hilton Head Island, 843.785.9273
Owners Dave and Raina Peck tried to recreate the Hilton Head of their youth, when a drawbridge was the only way onto the island and locals tolerated visitors. "The island's place for Lowcountry seafood and cuisine made the way it used to be," the Pecks write on their website. Their motto: "Experience the island, love the food." Try the fried green tomato BLT - delicious.
Kelly's Tavern: 11 Buckingham Plantation Drive, Bluffton, 843.837.3353
It's unknown how many people visit Hilton Head to eat Reuben sandwiches (maybe the New York crowd), but for those so inclined, this is the place. Also on the menu are burgers, steakhouse and pub food. Oh, and the baby Reuben, for those delicate appetites.
May River Grill: 1263 May River Road, Bluffton, 843.757.5755
Located in Old Town Bluffton (a rustic-looking anti-Hilton Head), this seafood/American restaurant doesn't look like much on the outside, but that's deceiving. Consider these reviews: "For good local cuisine, try the May River Grill in Bluffton" - The Wall Street Journal. And: "The fact of the matter is it's really, really comfy here. And the food is fantastic!" - Taste Magazine. Executive chef Charlie Sternburgh was head chef at The Jazz Corner before striking out on his own. If great food in relaxed surroundings works for you, make the drive.
Lucky Rooster Kitchen & Bar: 841 William Hilton Parkway, Unit A, South Island Square, Hilton Head Island, 843.681.3474
Billed as "an American bistro with a Southern Soul," chef/owner Clayton Rollison offers a small but varied (and oft-changing) menu of "refined comfort foods and adventurist dishes." Favorites range from pork pot roast and steak frites to foie gras pate and octopus a la palancha. Local oysters are a specialty.
Ruby Lee's: 46 Old Wild Horse Road, Hilton Head Island, 843.681.7829
Want to know about this strip-shopping-center soul food restaurant? Ask your Congressman - US Rep. James Clyburn, to be specific, since the veteran legislator hosted a party there after the RBC Heritage pro-am in 2014. Enjoy what he called "an experience to savor appetizers, entrees and tempting desserts and soul food," plus live local and regional blues and jazz musicians most nights. The shrimp-and-okra gumbo comes highly recommended.
Up the Creek Pub: Broad Creek Marina, 18 Simmons Road, Hilton Head Island, 843.681.3625
Located on the water at Broad Creek Marina, with outside dining and a daily parade of boats, Up the Creek is a popular hangout when the weather is nice. TVs are tuned to sports indoors, and the pub food lineup is extensive and varied.
Sea Shack: 6B Executive Park Road, Hilton Head Island, 843.785.2464
Billed as "Hilton Head's best hidden seafood secret" since 1998, this is the ultimate locals place (even though celebrity chef Rachael Ray found it and featured Sea Shack on Food Network). During peak summer months, diners arriving before the 5 p.m. opening often stand in line for up to 30 minutes. A vast variety of seafood, including fried, grilled or blackened dishes and "catch of the day" specials, awaits, though, and at reasonable prices. Three outdoor picnic tables help ease the crunch - and there almost always is one. "Not fancy, just good!" is their motto and pretty much says it all.