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Hilton Head Island is one of the best places to get a true taste of South Carolina cuisine. On the 12-mile island, they cover coastal fare, Gullah cuisine, and tried-and-true barbecue. Really, it’s a one-stop introduction to Carolina cooking (or, at the very least, Carolina eating). The only challenge is figuring out where to start when delving into the Hilton Head Island food scene. Fortunately, we’ve broken down all the most essential Hilton Head restaurants, from backyard sandwiches to oysters on the docks to exquisite surf and turf. Here, the best restaurants on Hilton Head Island.
Hilton Head Island Restaurants for Breakfast and Lunch
Skull Creek Boathouse
An important lesson in Hilton Head Island dining—or a rule of thumb for dining in any seafood town: you can start eating fish and seafood by 11 a.m. (earlier if you use shrimp as a bloody mary accoutrement). Skull Creek Boathouse is open for lunch and dinner and they put on a nice weekend brunch. Skull Creek uses their freshly caught fish for sushi, and of course, serves platters of seafood. But our favorite offering is their build-your-own take on ceviche. They let you choose your seafood and your ceviche style (deliberating between four flavor profiles), then make you a ceviche of your dreams, served on the waterfront.
Lowcountry Backyard really does make it feel like you’re eating in a friend’s backyard. Grab a sandwich—like the grilled pimento cheese, fried green tomato BLT, or potato chip meatloaf sandwich (with moonshine barbecue sauce)—and tuck into the fast-casual low country cuisine in the backyard. If you’re feeling a lunch cocktail, try the moonshine punch or a moonshine and lemonade (also known in the backyard as a “lemonshine”).
Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks
What better way to eat seafood than while sittin’ on the dock of the bay (or, in this case, the dock of Skull Creek)? Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks is a perfect choice for brunch, lunch, or dinner, from their snow crab legs and seafood gumbo to their beer-braised barbecue shrimp, all of which will make your mouth water.
Palmetto Bay Sunrise Cafe
A Hilton Head Island local favorite serving brunch fare daily (think: crab cake eggs benedict, quiches, and stuffed french toast), Palmetto Bay Sunrise Cafe has been going strong for 18 years. Pick up breakfast curbside from the cafe, which is situated right on Broad Creek, or dine on the Palmetto Bay Sunrise patio.
One Hot Mama’s American Grill
One Hot Mama’s is your one-stop shop for South Carolina barbecue. Executive chef Orchid Paulmeier is the grill master here. She’s brought her grilling expertise to the Food Network, but the best place to experience her Carolina barbecue is to order up her must-try baby back ribs, hickory-smoked chicken, and hand-pulled pork smothered in OHM’s Perfect 10 BBQ Sauce.
Best Hilton Head Island Restaurants for Dinner and Fine Dining
Old Oyster Factory
No fine dining roundup of Hilton Head Island restaurants is complete without a mention of the iconic Old Oyster Factory. On a private pier jutting into Broad Creek, Old Oyster Factory is the spot for a dozen oysters and a chilled sauvignon blanc, followed up by hand-cut steak and a good Bordeaux. Old Oyster Factory—which really was an oyster cannery in the early-to-mid 1900s—is a place to both absorb Hilton Head history and to indulge.
Alexander’s Restaurant & Wine Bar
At Palmetto Dunes Resort, Alexander’s Restaurant & Wine Bar serves lobster broils and innovative fish preparations alongside—you guessed it—an impressive wine list. In an exceptionally picturesque building, with exposed ceiling beams, white-washed walls, and tropical wilderness surroundings that give the restaurant an airy feel. Opt for a fish or seafood dish with Southern flavors, like the bronzed jumbo sea scallops served over grits with pimento cheese and a smoky tomato broth, or go classic with the house take on oysters Rockefeller (appropriately named oysters Alexander).
You can’t come to Hilton Head Island and not try the West African-Southern Gullah cuisine. Gullah cooking involves techniques passed down for generations from the Gullah’s African ancestors, and ingredients West Africans brought to America, like okra, sorghum, and watermelon. Gumbo, many styles of barbecue, and fried chicken are just a few of the delectable Southern staples that actually come from Gullah culture. The best place to enjoy this cooking is at Ruby Lee’s South, where you’ll be nourished not just from the soul food, but from the live jazz and blues.
American fine dining—with a seafood twist and perhaps a Southern twang—is what you’ll find at the Sage Room. After a few days on Hilton Head Island eating fresh-caught everything, you might tend to the turf side of the Sage Room’s menu, and you won’t be disappointed. From the house filet and reserve 22-ounce ribeye to their Tomahawk pork chop, you’ll be mesmerized by the melt-in-your-mouth flavors of each dish.
Spend the evening at Sea Pines Resort for a meal at The Quarterdeck, where they serve jumbo lump crab cakes, great steak, and an array of freshly caught fish and seafood. The Quarterdeck is set adjacent to the Harbour Town Lighthouse, right on the water, making it a great choice for a romantic dinner for two. Throw in the wine selection, local craft beer, and Quarterdeck cocktails, and you’re in for a lovely evening.
Coffee, Ice Cream, and Essential Snacking on Hilton Head Island
Hilton Head Ice Cream
Perhaps the phrase “but first, ice cream” hasn’t caught on yet, but that doesn’t make it any less poignant. No Southern island vacation is complete without sampling the favorite local ice cream. And for that, you’ll have to pay a visit to Hilton Head Ice Cream. The shop serves only homemade flavors, and the rotating menu often includes specialties like mocha pecan, cayenne chocolate, brownie cheesecake, and spumoni. If you’ve got room leftover after baby back ribs (perhaps unlikely), the ice cream parlor is just a short walk from One Hot Mama’s.
Sweet Carolina Cupcakes
The Carolinas take cupcakes seriously, and off the mainland on Hilton Head Island, that remains true. Fortunately for the cupcake enthusiasts, Sweet Carolina Cupcakes never disappoints. The family run bakery has a rotating cupcake menu, with a different specialty cupcake daily (look forward to flavors like wedding cake, cookies and cream, carrot cake, and coconut snowball). And their classics—chocolate, vanilla, Sweet Carolina, and red velvet—are always available.
Hilton Head Social Bakery
In chic Shelter Cove, Hilton Head Social Bakery has the best croissants on Hilton Head Island, thanks to the pâtisserie stylings of chef Phillippe Feret. Walk Shelter Cove Marina with a cup of fair-trade coffee in hand and a selection of Hilton Head Social Bakery’s viennoiseries—and don’t shy away from treating yourself to a lemon tart for later in the day.