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Eat Like a Local on Hilton Head Island

Bob Gillespie Bob Gillespie
Bob is a former sports writer at Columbia’s The State newspaper. He enjoys golf at South Carolina’s 350-plus courses, and after a round, sampling craft beers from the Palmetto State’s breweries.
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Hilton Head Island is known for great restaurants, white-tablecloth bistros and high-end dining. But if you want to go where the locals eat - for the prices, but mostly for the food - you need to venture a bit off the beaten path. Trust us (and the good folks working as volunteers at the RBC Heritage, who helped compile this list) when we say the effort is worth it.


Eat at Bluffton Barbecue on your Hilton Head vacation.
Bluffton Barbecue is one of a handful of restaurants to try if your goal is to eat like a local on your Hilton Head vacation.

Bluffton BBQ

11 State of Mind Way, Bluffton; 843.757.RIBS (7427)

You want casual? Bluffton BBQ'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.


Kenny B's Cajun Seafood Hut

70 Pope Ave., Hilton Head Island; 843.842.9775

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. After two years at The Sea Pines Resort, he returned to the Big Easy before coming back in 1999 to start his own place. Among menu favorites are Kenny B's "true Cajun" gumbo, crawfish or shrimp etouffee, and barbecued shrimp. 


The Drydock Seafood & Spirits

840 William Hilton Parkway, Hilton Head Island; 843.842.9775

Rob Arbogast's small but roomy Drydock 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.


Lucky Rooster serves up fresh seafood with a Southern twist.

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," Lucky Rooster 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.


Lowcountry Backyard

32 Palmetto Bay Road, Hilton Head Island; 843.785.9273

Lowcountry Backyard 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

11B 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, Kelly's Tavern is the place to go. Also on the menu are burgers, steakhouse and pub food. Oh, and the baby Reuben, for those delicate appetites.


Up the Creek Pub overlooks Broad Creek on Hilton Head Island. Credit: SCPRT/Photo by Perry Baker

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.


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.


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 the 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.

Bob Gillespie
Bob is a former sports writer at Columbia’s The State newspaper. He enjoys golf at South Carolina’s 350-plus courses, and after a round, sampling craft beers from the Palmetto State’s breweries.