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Hilton Head Island (HHI) - Report on Food

Hilton Head Island (HHI) report on dining.

Sunday: Lunch. We drove down from Chapel Hill, and stopped in Bluffton to eat at the Oakatie Ale House. The French Onion soup was a split decision: one vote for better than that at served at Outback, the other vote said not quite as good as that. Crab-Corn Chowder was decent, but didn’t qualify as “chow’da”, i.e., on my list as “the real thing”. Frozen french fries, frozen pre-battered thick onion rings, and frozen pre-battered “Grouper Fillets”, all good quality. The food was plentiful, was satisfying after 5 hours on the Highway, but given what was over the bridge on HHI waiting for us was not by any means competitive. Drive the extra few miles and get on the island to eat something better than what you can get in the better chain restaurants.

Dinner. After checking in at the Westin, and a bit of last minute research, we had the concierge set up reservations for us at Aqua. N.B.: Eventually we had the concierges set up all our reservations, something I’d rather do in a resort area where I’m new.

Technically there is a “view” at Aqua of the Atlantic Ocean, but the restaurant is set back in a cove of buildings, kinda at the base of a U. As light failed us, we weren’t close enough to continue to appreciate the ocean itself. However, there is a nice garden outside the windows, and the interior is sufficiently interesting all on its own. The bartender scored big with a 10K mojito which I watched him carefully muddle for several minutes. Service was good, and the owner scored big with us by recommending several other restaurants during our stay, not only to us, but to other folks as well. Later I checked: this gentlemen is not affiliated with the people he recommended, and is known for recommending good places regardless of the competition.

Their version of French onion soup was quite good, definitely in the fine restaurant class of soups. We also had the she-crab soup, which tasted very close to what I recall as authentic as a child, when there was always she-crab roe in the soup. For entrees we had ahi tuna – seared on the outside, sushi on the inside, with snow peas & wild rice; and scallops in madras red curry sauce & rice. Both were fresh, high quality preparations with a nice eye to plating. The piece of fish and the scallops were arguably the best quality we had all week, and the madras red curry complimented the scallops rather than overpowered them. We had chocolate ribbon whiskey cake for dessert: a small rich dense chocolate cake surrounded by an edging of white/milk chocolate candy ribboning. Wines by the glass throughout the meal, the moscato d’Asti was refreshing.

Monday:

Breakfast at Flamingo. While I was chatting with one of the concierges, the subject of donuts came up, and I was instantly referred to Flamingo, which is a donut shop at breakfast, and a Mediterranean restaurant later in the day. The hook here is that they aren’t sitting in cases waiting for you, they cook them when you order, by specification. Honestly, the plains were my favorite donut, our other favorite was the honey-dipped. Some of the glazes weren’t my thing, and I tend to like simple things done right. I haven’t had a real honeybun like that in 40 years. Please note that we are both krispy kreme over dunkin’ donuts type folks.

Lunch: Sea Shack positions itself as the old style concrete-blocks-on-a-slab kind of no-frills down-by-the-docks seafood joint that used to be so prevalent on the coasts of the Carolinas, which is so rare nowadays. The aim here is totally fresh fish, classically from floppin’ on the deck of the fishing trawler that morning. No such thing exists on HHI anymore, but the sea shack is probably the closest, which is fairly interesting considering that it is a part of the HHI signage & development regulations. The guy behind the register looks and acts like an Irish take-no-prisoners seinfield-soup-nazi. The fish & shellfish are fresh and tasty and cooked right. One of us got the scallops po’boy – just get scallops and forget the bread part. In fact, don’t get anything but fish & shellfish, though the hushpuppies are of that type that some folks tend to like. The other of us got the “shack attack” platter with flounder as the fish. This was an enjoyable place worth revisiting.

I wish to digress for a moment. I asked about “local fresh fish” everywhere we went. I asked customers, chefs & other restaurant workers, concierges, etc. “local fresh fish” is extinct in this area, or nearly so, and I am beginning to worry that it may be elsewhere as well. Nearly all seafood appears to be from farms, or shipped in from just about anywhere but “right here”, and except for some wahoo was really not in evidence. Where are the blue crabs, the local shellfish, the puppy drum, red drum, blue fish, croakers, flounder, Spanish mackerel, pompano, striped bass, spot, etc? They don’t exist as a commercial industry anymore, apparently. I was informed twice that “nobody eats blue fish” and once that “folks don’t eat drum or red fish” (they will however eat the chum called tilapia everywhere). Whatever has happened to the industry, it is at best a pitiful remnant of what it was even 25 years ago. And don’t get me started on how we’ve destroyed our beach/shore ecologies.

Dinner: Old Fort Pub had the best service we encountered all week. Admittedly, except for Redfish and Crazy Crab, the service was easily 90+ everywhere we went, but Old Fort aced the exam and the extra credit. Our salad was split into two plates, napkins were folded, the bottled water appeared to refill glasses as if by sleight of hand, anyone getting up to go to a bathroom was instantly intercepted and escorted that way, we were shown to the widow’s walk above the building for a nighttime view – the list goes on. The food was what one would expect of the price range of the places at which we had dinner this week, with some extra touches.

We had parsley & lavender butter with our bread. Shrimp bisque and oyster stew were good representations of those two dishes, and the Caesar salad was a decent execution of what is often a predictable salad. Admittedly, my standard of Caesar salad is based against El Rey Sol’s unbeatable Caesar salad in Ensenada, Baja Mexico, so I rarely find one that I will admit is more than decent (adequate, acceptable, are other words I often use).

Entrees were Rack of Lamb (rare) served with mashed taters, pearl onions and artichoke hearts in a reduction sauce; and grilled shrimp with garnellini (rather much like penne) pasta. We had Pecan pie & truffles for dessert. The Amuse bouche was smoked salmon. All of this was professionally prepared and good to eat, even a decent value, but the highlight of the evening was the service. The bartender here was again amazing, serving a pear vodka & lemon essence thing in a martini glass with a stick of rosemary, as well as a great traditional martini. Wines by the glass, including a Dr. Loosen that wasn’t even on the list (another service touch).

Tuesday:

Breakfast at Signe’s. Breakfast at Signe’s could be as memorable in its own way as Breakfast at Tiffanys. The food here certainly must be the best breakfast / bakery food on the Island. We tried stuff that included a breakfast polenta, key lime bread pudding, several toasts, patty sausages, fresh fruit, and Italian roast coffee (the default and only choice). I could have eaten there every day, easily. Don’t miss this if you get up for breakfast. Really. Double-check the hours here when you go so you make it.

Lunch. Take out at French Bakery. The plum tart and the peach soufflé were delicate and accurate representations of what a French bakery should have. Alas, the rest of the place was no better than an Au Bon Pain. Sandwiches were chicken salad and ham and cheese. Don’t get me wrong, the food was acceptable across the board, but if you’re a trend-hunting picky slightly-upturned-nose chowhounder why spend the time?

Dinner at CQ’s was yet another success. Owned by the same folks at Old Fort Pub (and I think like 3 other restaurants on the island), but a different experience. Our hostess, Lette, was grand (ahem, she was also one of our concierge’s at the Westin, but really, she was grand). The chef was the pick of the litter this week, his attention to ingredients, detail, . . . well, Eric was the equivalent of the service we had at Old Fort. The bartender was another E-ticket fellow, our third in a row – we shared similar tastes in Gin (Hendricks) and wines by the glass recommended by him fit our palates.

The amuse bouche was fresh salmon executed delicately and perfectly. We had heirloom tomatoes with fresh mozzarella, microbasil, and a balsamic reduction of some sort that was amazing, which is surprising considering that the heirloom beets with chevre mousse was better. Entrees were an encrusted halibut and a steak au poivre with pomme frits & haricots verte, all done with style and grace and the final arbiter: taste.
Dessert was fantastic bananas foster ice cream and the only flawed note in what was otherwise a great fugue: the chocolate caramel layer cake wasn’t up to the rest of it. I’d go back in a heartbeat.

The wine list here and at Old Fort were good wine lists if and only if you are very fond of high priced California wines. There are certainly some interesting California wines here, but the prices are high, imho, for what you get. We stayed with wines by the glass.

Wednesday:

Breakfast at the Westin. Not bad, but not noteworthy. In fact, the few things we tried at the Westin were all either “not noteworthy” or were mediocre, up to and including their bartending service. When you order an After-Eight cocktail you shouldn’t a) have to explain what it is, and b) get back a triple shot of liquer that they charge you for at 3x a shot of liqueur. If it was me, I’d redesign their whole food & beverage service from the ground up to the match the accommodations & setting.

Lunch. Sunset Grill. All the reviews mention not to worry about driving into the RV park, so we will too. The restaurant is over some offices for the marina / yacht club / RV park, parking is crowded and poorly implemented. The restaurant is however, great, particularly for lunch. The view of the inlet is excellent, atmosphere is nice gray cypress fish house, bar is pleasant. Service was a bit curt as if they couldn’t wait to close up and get out. It should be noted that the hours are 11:30 to 1:30 for lunch and if you walk in at 1:25 like another couple did, expect to be told “we are no longer serving, but have a few things left over”.

However “brisk” the service, the food by chef Hugh was excellent. We had the scallops salad, and an oyster po’boy with their own handmade potato chips. The bloody marys probably really are the best on the island, and everyone eating there was in that pleasant state of murmur because they’re too busy scarfing down the food. The sign on the door said “reservations required for dinner”.

Dinner at Michael Anthony’s. As noted elsewhere, this restaurant may be the best on the island. Not the place I’d expect to find a top of the line Italian restaurant, but that’s me. The wine list here is the only integrated high quality wine list with good prices that I found on the island, and there is some excellent stuff on here if you know what you’re looking at, i.e., Chateau Simard at $50 a bottle. Nonetheless, we wanted to see how they did with their “flights of wine” – 3 pours per flight. An excellent implementation, with eight separate sets of 3 wines by the 2 oz pour, with a dessert flight as well. I would have preferred that the dessert flight not be listed only on the dessert menu. Service was good, not outstanding but good solid service.

Food was an acceptable Caesar salad, easily the least one I had all week, which is weird because this is an Italian Restaurant, and it was truly the only weak link this evening. There was an amusing “amuse bruchetta”. Gnocchi in a tomato cream sauce was outstanding, both the gnocchi themselves and the sauce. The tagliatelle with Bolognese sauce was superior. Entrees were veal saltimbocca, fork tender; and veal rolled in spinach served in a reduction sauce with potatoes. Panna cotta and a small chocolate “soufflé” reminiscent of Fearrington House’s larger chocolate soufflé were both excellent desserts. Alas there was no cannoli, one of my benchmarks of the quality of anything Italian, but we were informed that if you let them know when you make reservations that there is a possibility that the chef can accommodate you. Next time I’ll try.

Thursday:

Breakfast was leftovers from Michael Antony’s.

Lunch at Redfish in the rain. If it’s not raining, eat outside. The interior was crowded and shoved in amongst retail store stuff, most particularly wine store stuff. We rolled our eyes at the corking fee for wines you bought there, while seated surrounded by customers looking through the retail shelves. The service was uninformed, the bartending service was as bad as at the Westin – I mean really, how many bartenders don’t know how to make a manhattan? Neither bartenderlike person apparently knew the difference between a single barrel bourbon, single-malt scotch, or other varieties of that brown liquid in the alcohol bottles; I was informed twice while asking that “McCallan’s” (The Macallan, 12 year) was bourbon. Had I not insisted that it was in fact not bourbon, it would have been used to make my manhattan. We ordered a glass of Nebbiolo and were brought a glass of sauvignon blanc. Need I say more?

Ok, so the atmosphere, uncheck, the service, uncheck, what’s the food? The food was good. We had soup and sandwiches: Cuban black bean soup was nicely prepared. Cheesesteak and the Cuban sandwich were both good sandwiches executed with good ingredients, and the Jicama slaw was very well done and great tasting. The fries were frozen and average. Lastly, the dessert “liquid chocolate cake” was darn near as good as that at Michael Antony’s, in fact, I briefly wondered if it was the same maker. A real surprise here. We wouldn’t make any real effort to force our way back there, given that there are upwards of 250 restaurants on the island, but the experience was overall positive – made possible by the good food.

Dinner at the Sage Room. We had been told by several people – “eat at the chef’s table if you can when you make your reservations”. No one thought to say that this isn’t a table, it’s a bar. So point #1 for the service there, because when we showed up and flinched, our hostess found a table for us created by a “no-show” in a room that eventually looked sold out, and our places at the bar disappeared quickly. The chef’s bar cum table, btw, faces the 4? Cooks, and open flames and was actually hot. After being seated at a nice corner table, we proceeded.

This restaurant is at the back of a strip mall, where you would think you were going around back to make deliveries. Unfortunately, the interior doesn’t disabuse you of this notion, it was decorated in a style one might expect of a run down rural county country club which hasn’t been redone since the 70s. The service was good, but not quite up to the other dinner places we ate. The atmosphere wasn’t quite up to the other places either.

We had a crab cake appetizer, snowpeas in a martini glass in a pineapple-soy reduction sauce, and a scallops & shrimp special on mixed greens. The snowpeas were A#1 excellent, the crab cake was of that southern coastal variety that I prefer to Maryland style, and the scallops & shrimp were nicely done but uninspired when compared to other places we ate for dinner this week.

Entrée #1 was a filet mignon “house fillet” with grilled rosemary shrimp and whipped potatoes – the steak was cooked “medium well” and the technical skill shown by the delivery of this chubby piece of meat done “medium well” was nice to see. Entrée #2 was lamb chops in rack with braised lamb shanks. The braised lamb shanks were falling off the bone shreddable tender and were fabulous. The “medium” lamb chops were also perfectly medium and very flavorful, a bit more “lamby” or gamy than most lamb I get nowadays, which was nice. Dessert was a carmelized strawberries over angel food cake with grand marnier, which was a blatant disappointment and which was comped when we mentioned it.

If you think of this place as a “grilled” establishment, my estimation of it goes up to “oh very nice, go back”. If you think of this place as a “fine dining” establishment, my estimation goes down to “almost but not quite”, especially in comparison to CQs, Old Fort, Aqua, and Michael Antony’s.

Friday.

Lunch at Crazy Crab. We were heading off the Island, and stopped at one of the two Crazy Crab’s, the one near the bridge. This is a seafood restaurant you could imagine in Kansas as easily as the salt march on which it borders. Mahi-mahi??? was the “local fresh fish” of the day, oh give me a break. We had a broiled platter, and once I was informed that I could not have flounder in the fried platter combination, and that nothing other than flounder and mahi-mahi and tilapia was on the day’s menu, I picked fried scallops & flounder for my “half & half” platter. French fries were frozen, hushpuppies were strictly out of a box of hush puppy mix, and the steamed vegetables were literally tasteless. If I wanted sides like this, I’d stay at home and go to Allen & Sons BBQ.

I’m in a restaurant called “crazy crab” which claims to have “local seafood”. Again, Mahi-mahi?? And look, flash-frozen Alaskan king crab legs and “pasteurized” “fresh” oysters don’t count as “local” or “fresh”.

Go back to Bluffton and eat at the Oakatie if you can’t find better than this on the island. Seriously, with 250 restaurants, I don’t know why this one has survived except that apparently many tourists just don’t know any better, and/or think that places like Golden Corral were the ultimate accomplishment of the 20th century.

After this episode we were relieved to get home last night and go out to Fiesta Grill to shake it from our palates.

In Summary, We had a grand time, and ate a lot of really good food at some very nice places. We hope this report is useful to you in your planning for trips to HHI.

Best Service: Old Fort
Best Chef: CQs
Best overall experiences (split decision):

1) Aqua & CQs
2) Aqua & Michael Antony's

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  1. Wow... nice reviews. We've been going to HHI for years and have always been disappointed by the restaurants there. Bear in mind we have two small children so our choices are limitied in that regard. Our food critic at The Charlotte Observer just recently reviewed Old Fort Pub and gave it a glowing review as well. I've had Redfish on my list of places to try along with Charley's Crab. Unfortunately, the folks we usually travel with aren't foodies and they like places like Hudson's. Ugh. I vow to try Signe's next time for breakfast... based on your review. I've always wondered about that place. I'm curious... have you ever tried Alligator Grille? We've had dinner there a couple of times, but not since they relocated to their new digs after the fire. They've got an eclectic menu. Fusion stuff, sushi, etc.

    9 Replies
    1. re: lynnlato

      Actually, this was our first trip to HHI. Our choices were limited by time and our research into what would be good there. I strongly recommend this link:

      http://www.sallys-place.com/food/dini...

      it was invaluable in our research, though it had some interesting omissions. I guess no one can eat everywhere. Reports on the number of restaurants actually on HHI varied from 250 to 280.

      1. re: fussycouple

        Thanks for the link. HHI is notorious for it's bad restaurants. I guess that's what you get when you roll into the tourist areas. But there a still a few gems here and there. It just disappointing there aren't more quality place being that it's a higher end beach destination for nc/sc.

        1. re: lynnlato

          We'll be headed to HHI in a couple of weeks, our tenth year of vacationing there. We've definitely had our share of disappointments, but I'd say the majority of the time we're very happy with the restaurants there (and no kids or picky eaters in tow). Maybe in comparison to where we live it's a big improvement (check Boston/New England board for pans of the Acton/Concord area restaurants). I'm so looking forward to CQs, Redfish, and Sea Shack in a couple of weeks. We've tried Alligator Grille (definitely would go back if we had enough time) and Signe's (interesting - worth a try for breakfast).

          My favorite HHI food link would be:

          http://www.hhidining.com/

          to check out a lot of menus!

          1. re: ns538bmk

            Great, thanks for the link. I need to do more research next visit. More than just that paper mag of restaurants that you see everywhere. Our kids are fairly adventurous.... it's just that they are 6 & 9 and some nicer places are simply not much fun for them and other diners don't want to see little ones (which I understand). Our friends, however, are of the meat & potato lover variety and so they are the ones w/ the finicky palates. I also need to check out Sea Shack. Add another one to the list! :)

          2. re: lynnlato

            I would say most tourists are not getting to the places locals go...Next visit try Il Carpaccios, Frankie Bones, Kenny B's, Amigos, It's Greek to Me, Cristines, Michael Anthony's, Sunset Grill, Mostly Sandstone, Fiesta Fresh, Le Bistro, etc.....

            1. re: louperella

              I wouldn't think of doing Italian in HH. I'm sure there are some quality restos serving it, but it just goes against the grain for this PA girl. Just as I wouldn't do shrimp & grits in PA. That said, I've heard good things about Il Carpaccio, but not so much for Frankie Bones.

              1. re: lynnlato

                i live on hhi.. and definitely agree with louperella. those are the best. also catch 22!

        2. re: lynnlato

          We were in HH in early February, we went to Hudsons three times in 4 days. The oysters--steamed, fried and on the half-shell, were outstanding. There may be valid reasons to criticize their more "creative" preparations, but that is not why we went there, and I can't speak to that. Stick to the basics.

          1. re: albinoni

            Hi albinoni, I posted that comment 6 years ago - wow, time flies. We've been down many times since then and have returned to Hudson's many times and you are correct, they are good at the basics. You won't find creative preparations or great wine but it's a solid places for simple seafood.

            Glad you all had great experiences! We'll be heading back down again soon. I can't wait to get my hands on some local shrimp. Carolina shrimp are the best, IMHO. :)

        3. Awesome post, and very good reviews.

          We are heading back to Hilton Head this coming June(we have already rented a 5 bedroom house for a family vacation). It will be my 4th trip back to Hilton Head, and it is one of my favorite places to go.

          I concur on the Old Fort review, I have always had great meals, and service there.

          I cant wait until our trip back.

          1. thank you for that in depth report. my son is at school on daufuskie, and we go down there often. michael anthony's and the sunset grill were my favorites so far. i am going down in two weeks and hope to get into the old fort pub, or cq's. where is signe's? thanks again for the help.

            1. IT's great to see an accurate report of fvacation destinations. I do bizz on HHI everyday. Most of the places you went, we frequent or they are customers.
              I really am impressed with the palate of Chapel Hill diners; harkening back to the late 80's, Cook's Corner & Southern Seasons! Y'all have been @ the culinary forefront of the South for a while. Please come on back down; check out what Savannah's got in the works. An honest concise look @ my hometown would be most grateful. Here's a link to get ya thinking about SAV www.savannahfoodie.com

              1. Very nice reviews. thank you.

                I looked at this thread because I used to go to HHI every year back in the 90's, but haven't been since about 2000. It was a struggle to find a good meal. I was curious to see if things have changed, and it appears they have, or you did a great job of research. I my day, Crazy Crab wasn't good, but it was better than many. Alligator Grill was my favorite(and Cafe at Wexford), but I haven't been since the fire either.

                1. has anyone been to peppers porch?

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: stevenpol

                    Yes! It was fun. Simple "crab boil" kind of food (i.e., crab legs, shrimp, corn on the cob, hushpuppies, slaw, etc) but the outdoor dining on screened porches is so low country cool along with the live music that it really is a neat experience. I would go back again.

                  2. CQ's and the Old Fort Pub are among the first restaurants on the island. They were good back then, but went downhill for awhile. Sounds like its time to try them again.Next visit try the Santa Fe Cafe, food and service are both excellent. Too bad your lunch at Redfish wasn't a great experience. We've usually had good food and service at dinner time, maybe it was an off day.

                    1. Good extensive review. As to local fresh fish, much of the industry has disappeared. Resort RE prices tend to force out working docks along much of the coastline.

                      If you're renting a house and feel like cooking, I like Benny Hudson's..a little out of the way; but they'll tell you what's local...shrimp in season, flounder, mahi mahi, occassional tuna..also a small working farm that sells retail nearby.

                      http://bennyhudson.com/default.asp

                      Bluffton Oyster Co is also worth checking out..1 of the oldest continually operating oyster farms in a pretty part of historic Bluffton.

                      I mostly eat at home when I'm there or a restaurant my family owns and I can't mention..:) or the mods will delete but I've enjoyed CQ's andOld Fort Pub. They had their ups and downs over the years but I think they're putting out good food..

                      My favorite is probably Charlie's E'toile(not Crab)..been here for years, don't advertise.excellent "country French" food..menu changes almost daily, based on availability.

                      1. We just got back from a week in HH, staying in Sea Pines. CQs, Redfish, and Sea Shack were as good as always. Tried Charlie's L'Etoile Verte for the first time based on recommendations from this board and really enjoyed the evening - excellent service, nice atmosphere, wonderful meal. Disappointed with Signe's this time - went twice, service was very disorganized and the food was not as good as I remember (dry pastry, maybe just a bad choice on our part). Much preferred the Harbourside Bakery in Sea Pines for breakfast this year.

                        But probably the worst choice we've ever made in 10 years of vacationing on HH was the British Open Pub. Place was packed but the food was unremarkable to inedible (decent liver and onions, ice cold potatoes, overly salty gravy, mixed veggies obviously from a frozen bag) so either we again made bad choices or whatever, but this was definitely one of the worst meals we've ever had on HH.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: ns538bmk

                          We spent a week at Sea Pines Resort and just returned. Found some bad places to eat as well as good ones. CQ's is excellent, highly recommend Frankie Bones too. Crazy Crab was "OK"...but only the one down near the lighthouse. Oh yes, add Aqua's to the list of places for fine dining. Don't expect to get by on the cheap at HH.

                          1. re: luv2eat93

                            Just returned from another recent trip to Hilton Head -- October is an awesome time to visit the island.

                            The Good:
                            We enjoyed excellent dinners at Charlie's L'Etoile Verte and The Studio -- these two have become dependable, go-to choices for us for a nice dinner.
                            Very good, decent priced lunches at The Sea Shack and Main St Cafe & Pub. Very good breakfast at Stacks.
                            Awesome frozen custard at Ritter's (next to Main St Cafe)
                            Got some tasty take-out Thai from Ruan and Pizza from Guiseppi's.

                            The "just okay":
                            Dinner at RedFish -- this place has been a favorite of ours for years, but I think the menu & food is not as exciting as it used to be.

                            The "not so much":
                            Aunt Chiladas, Hilton Head Diner, Parrot Cove Grill

                        2. Thanks for your help with planning our dinner choices..

                          1. Thanks for the reviews. We're just finishing up a trip to Hilton Head and this post was incredibly useful to us. We've been to Hilton Head many times before but there were a lot of new places since the last time we were there.

                            It's a couple of years later but much of what is here still holds true, but some has changed, so I thought I'd post an update.

                            Our best overall experience was hands down the Old Fort Pub. Service was indeed fantastic and the food was a cut above any other place we went. Appetizers were all very nice and their bouilliabaisse was absolutely fantastic. It was a little unconventional, as the chef mixed in a saffron aioli to give the broth a richness and depth that were just fantastic. The service was just outstanding and was the best we found on the island.

                            Aqua was a major disappointment. The food was quite good, but the service was absolutely atrocious. We arrived right at 7 for our 7 pm reservation but they didn't manage to get us seated until 7:35. Once we were seated things didn't get any better. Two of the four of us were given water glasses that were dirty and it took the waitress more than 10 minutes to replace them. There was a 35 minute gap between our appetizers and entrees and after we finished it took them another 20 minutes to clear our plates. The food itself was quite good, though not substantially better from other places available on the island. Sadly, the terrible service ruined the meal for our group.

                            Michael Anthony's was indeed outstanding. We had a great experience there and both food and service were very nice. The highlights were a Sicilian style crab salad with fresh oranges, arugula and blood orange vinaigrette and a lovely cobia special with a citrus beurre blanc and sauteed escarole.

                            Our major new find on this trip was Riviera Oaks Cafe. It was a great experience. The place is right across from Michael Anthony's and was a very charming, intimate little cafe. They did a great mix of French, Spanish and North African cuisine. The highlights were the entrees, which were a a char-grilled salmon with a lemon dill buerre blanc and crispy fried capers and a fantastic Moroccan spiced grouper with a lemongrass creme fraiche. This place is small and the decor is a little unique (there are large oak trees in the dining room) but the food was very good and right up there with the Old Fort and Michael Anthony's.

                            Our other meals during the week were at CQ's, Redfish and Alexanders. All were serviceable but nothing to really write home about. Redfish and Alexanders had definitely declined since the last time we were on the island and just didn't pop. Redfish in particular was one of our favorite places when were were last here 2 years ago, but just didn't pop this time. The fried green tomatoes were outstanding but was at all memorable. Alexanders was just a little heavy and had some real duds, like their fried green tomato appetizer, which was a greasy, sloppy mess.

                            CQ's was nice overall, and definitely a cut above Redfish and Alexanders, but it was lacking compared to the other offerings. Service was a little slow and generally not on top of things. It took too long for our wine to arrive and it wasn't chilled when it did. Our waitress disappeared for several stretches as well. Not nearly as bad as Aqua but bad enough to stand out compared to the other places on the Island. The food was nothing special. The local wreckfish was interesting, but the spice rub on it was grainy and not really seared properly. The grouper BLT with brioche breaded grouper, yellow tomatoes, fresh greens and a bacon vinaigrette special was nice, but was a little out of balance, with too much bacon (3 large strips) and not enough tomato.

                            Hope this update was helpful to people heading to the Island soon.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: jbeales

                              I've lived on the island for 28 years and I'm pleased that someone else has discovered Riviera Oaks beside me. The only challenge to that dining experience is pizza at Il Carpaccio. Really.

                              1. re: DaleJ

                                I visited Hilton Head with my husband and 2 year old daughter last month. Having a toddler in tow our priorities on food are somewhat different these days, so our choice of restaurants was limited to places that not only had a children's menu but also one with pasta on it as that's pretty much all she will eat - oh, and she is a connoisseur when it comes to bread. So the following are the places we tried.

                                Alligator Grille - our first night so we just went with the $14.95 early bird menu and soon wished we hadn't. The glass of house wine included was undrinkable - straight out of a box. My salad was just leaves and a watery dressing and my husbands gumbo he pronounced "weird". My entree of scallops with mushroom risotto was actually good - but only 2 scallops and a small spoonful of risotto left me feeling hungry still. My husband's salmon was akin to a frozen TV weight watchers dinner. Our daughter's ravioli was served up in a sauce straight out of a jar, but she liked it and she also liked the bread, but we were unimpressed with the $2 charge for additional bread! Service was slow too. Definitely not an impressive start.

                                CQ's - this is a really nice restaurant space with the high ceilings, wood everywhere etc and old fashioned feel. Service was slow and pompous. The kids pasta consisted of some enormous, knobbly lumps of pasta in butter which our daughter was not impressed with. The bread was good but the little pats of three different tasting butters was over the top and the flavors unappealingly sweet. My husband and I just opted for a main course, knowing our daughter would not sit and wait all night and thinking it worth splashing out on the main dinner menu. I had halibut which supposedly came with a bacon and red wine sauce, both of which were undetectable. The fish had been unnecessarily crisped on top and was too dry and it tasted frozen not fresh. It all looked very pretty on the plate but the accompanying vegetables were tasteless. My husband had the same comments about his dish. The bill of over $100 for 2 entrees, kids meal and 2 glasses of wine was pretty steep. CQ's chef in our view needs to work on flavor and pay less attention to presentation.

                                Redfish - our daughter loved her pasta and the sourdough bread so she was happy. I had the special which was Carolina red trout in a cajun sauce. The sauce was good but the fish was overcooked and dry. Mu husband had the kobe burger - his fries were excellent, freshly cooked and tasting of potatoes which is a rarity these days, but the burger was unexciting. I was expecting a very trendy space given the vibe of the Redfish web site but it was like stepping into a 1950's diner. This is a relatively expensive place to eat and with average cooking at best not worth the money.

                                Catch 22 - a quirky spot, with (as our daughter noticed, not us) shells packed under the glass table tops and quirky staff as well. Our daughter liked her pasta but the "fresh baked bread" was dry and inedible. My husband and I both had scallops to start, done different ways and they were tasty but a bit over-grilled and dry. I had the Turbot special and the fish was excellent, full of flavor and well cooked. My husband had the stuffed prawns and pronounced them "very good". Definitely worth a trip back here next year.

                                Aqua - I have read all the negative reviews about service here and have to say on both our visits the service was excellent. However, with a 2 year old we were dining at 5pm when the restaurant is relatively empty. On our first visit we had the $19.95 sunset menu and this was excellent value for money, the glass of house wine very drinkable, the calamari and spring rolls we shared were excellent and the catch of the day and seafood platters were both good, flavorful fish, expertly cooked and good sauces. Vegetables and rice are a bit boring but that is the only negative comment I'd make. Our daughter's tortellini went down a treat and she loved the bread and honey pecan butter (and so did I). Our bill was less than $50 for all three of us and was great value for money and great food. So we returned to Aqua later in the week and splashed out on the main dinner menu - it was worth it. I had mussels and they were excellent, the sauce was divine and my husband had the lobster rangoon which he really liked. My pecan crusted grouper was fabulous, excellent fish and the cranberry and mascarpone cheese sauce although very different went with it perfectly. My husband had the crab stuffed halibut special with lobster sauce and loved it. So our favorite restaurant of the week was definitely Aqua.

                                Next year we plan on taking the grandparents with us so they can babysit and we can try out some of the less child friendly establishments, which will be nice, but I would definitely return to Aqua!

                                Dessert each evening at our daughter's insistence was ice cream. Hilton Head Ice Cream serve up good ice cream. Don't bother with Marley's - akin to poor quality out of the tub grocery own brand and way too sweet tasting. Our favorite was Frozen moo - great for kids and with 92 flavors to choose from in all sorts of wonderful combinations everyone will be happy - our daughter loved the cotton candy ice cream.

                                1. re: Aging Mommy

                                  All good places, agree with some reviews - disagree with others.

                                  I honeymooned here in 1976 and ate at the Old Fort Pub, Calibogue Cafe (now Crazy Crab HT), The Captains Table (real seafood - now closed), The Carolina Room at the old Hilton Head Inn (gone also) and the Eagles Tavern at the Sea Pines Plantation Club. Those were about the only places back then.

                                  Moved to HHI in 1988 and have eaten at practically every restaurant here now or that was here. We locals have definitely benefited from the tourism that has attracted the 250+ restaurants that we know have. It is unfortunate that visitors usually end up at the most marketed spots and miss out on the truly great local favorites. I guess it just takes repeat trips for years to discover these places.

                                  You guys keep coming, sit at the bars of the places you end up at and ask the bartenders what they know and ask if there are locals at the bar that can recommend anything - will be worth the effort.

                                  Without a lot of details - some of my favorites:

                                  Breakfast -

                                  Plantation Station - south end
                                  Skillets
                                  Kenny B's
                                  Sunrise Cafe

                                  Brunch -

                                  Frankie Bones
                                  Black Marlin Grille
                                  Truffles (sea pines)

                                  Lunch or Dinner

                                  Truffles Grill
                                  Sante Fe Cafe
                                  Sea Grass
                                  Wild Wing Cafe
                                  Fiesta Fresh
                                  Market Street Cafe
                                  Larry's Subs (lunch)
                                  Di's Gullah Fixin's (friday buffet)
                                  Frankie Bones
                                  Red Fish
                                  Buffalo's (Palmetto Bluff)

                                  Dinner -

                                  Sante Fe Cafe (roof top dining with outdoor fireplace)
                                  Sage Room ( sit at the bar "chefs table" if you are lucky enough for reservations)
                                  Michael Anthonys (call ahead and have Chef Michael plan a menu for you)
                                  Crane's Tavern ( great steaks )
                                  Wise Guys ( best tapas anywhere / any city - go earlier / stay late

                                  Best Seafood dish - Grouper at Sante Fe

                                  Best Steak - Cowboy Cut ribchop at Sante Fe
                                  - Tenderloin fajitas at Sante Fe
                                  - Filet at Sea Grass
                                  - All steaks at Cranes

                                  Best salad - Truffles Sea Pines

                                  Plus all of those places that louperella mention in his post.

                                  Bon Appetit

                              1. I just heard today that Robert Irvine has a restaurant in Hilton Head. How is it?

                                1. the trick to hhi restaurants is to not follow the normal tourist route.all the places mentioned in this review are known because of location not necessarily food quality.the y actually take the concierges to their restaurants in the off season to wine and dine them,of course they will send unknowing tourists to these places.the best places on hhi are the small out of the way less well advertised mom and pop or family owned that have been in business for 5 plus years.locals here are picky if a place survives the off seasons that means locals eat there and there is usually a reason for that ,its good

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: palette

                                    The best places on hhi are the small out of the way less well advertised mom and pop or family owned that have been in business for 5 plus years.locals here are picky if a place survives the off seasons that means locals eat there and there is usually a reason for that ,its good.

                                    Thanks Palette. Can you help a friend out and name your favorites. Thanks.

                                  2. Your mahi comment is off-base. Dolphin fish (aka mahi-mahi) ranges from the gulf to NC. So yes it is a local fish.

                                    1. I thought an update was in order. While HHI and Bluffton had dismal restaurants in 2007, the food scene has improved drastically since then. It's still not Charlston or Savannah, but they have upped their game considerably.

                                      1. Just posted on another thread:

                                        For the best Italian, IMO, take a ride to Beaufort and stop at Griffin Market. Serious food and a wine list you won't find in NYC.