Hilton Head Island
Paul V. Hartman

In response to a diminishing number of requests, the HHI food critic has decided not to stop critiquing HHI restaurants, but to publish reviews less often. Thus, reviews from Athens, Georgia are now stagnant but HHI ponies on.

O M B R A (Ombra Cucina Rustica)
Wexford Village Shops, 1000 Hilton Parkway (Rt 278) (843)842-5505
Italian, of course. Island casual dress; moderate to pricey.
There are several Italian restaurants on the island, and if this one is not the best, it is very close. No soaring ceilings here - it is structurally a tavern with fine dining. The wait staff is well versed in the methods of preparation for each menu item. Under Antipasti are more than a dozen choices, but if you see somethng under Primi (first course), they will eagerly serve you half a portion as appetizer. Under main courses, veal, chicken, beef, and the fish catch of the day are beautifully refined. They have wines from all over Italy, and other countries. Single criticism: not enough by the glass. Usually there is adequate parking. Open daily, from 4:30pm to 10:00 pm. Reservations recommended.

L U C K Y    R O O S T E R
South Island Square, 841 Hilton Parkway (Rt 278) (843)681-3474
"American/Southern"; casual dress; moderate.
This eclectic "kitchen with bar" became popular quickly. A mix of familiar fare with the adventurist, such as Foie Gras Pate and Octopus a la Plancha. Menu changes with the seasons. A dozen or more appetizers not found elsewhere. You eat off a brown paper table cloth and even the adults can use the crayons. Adequate parking. Service from 4:00 pm to Midnight, Tuesday through Sunday. For what is being served tonight, consult the website.

S A N T A   F E   C A F E
Mid-island @ Plantation Center, south of Palmetto Dunes (843)785-3838
Southwestern; dressy casual; moderate.
Years ago this restaurant arrived quietly (they didn't advertise, and dared you to find them) within a small portion of a building in the small strip mall just South of Palmetto Dunes. Now they occupy all of the building. The southwest fare is upscale; if you are familiar with "Nava" - the best southwest restaurant in Atlanta - you will find this place smaller, less hectic, and less expensive. The food is visual, with lots of reds and greens to trace the Mexican ancestry. They cook over mesquite, and the pleasant aroma fills the building. Nice wine list and a variety of beers go well with the menu. Everyone we take here loves this place.
Reservations accepted.

C H A R T   H O U S E
Squire Pope Road (near Hudson's) (843)342-9066
Seafood mainly; dressy casual; moderate.
Formerly "Charley's Crab", but the redecorated Chart House features many familiar items. They are on the Intracoastal, with delightful water views, and in season many choose to dine outdoors. If you have a group of six with different appetites, take them here, for the variety will please everyone. Cordial and efficient wait staff. Extensive wine list.
In season, can get noisy, as they have the dreaded "children's menu". However, for a chain, the food is superior to most. Add the ambience, outdoor tables, water views, etc., and you have a very nice dining experience.
Lunch and dinner continuous from 11:00 am. Brunch on Sunday. Reservations accepted.

B I S T R O   M E Z Z A L U N A
Mid island, New Orleans Rd, near the Pope Avenue end. (843)842-5011
Italian/Continental. Casual, moderate pricing. Parking adjacent.
This is a fun place. Mezzaluna means "half moon", and it started that way when the hostess/owner greeted us in theatrical costume from an early Bogart movie. Our group of seven was unanimous: the food is very good here. They make a special effort with veal dishes and there were at least 9 variations. Dinner portions are generous. The wait staff is knowledgeable. Service is prompt. There is a nice wine list, by bottle and glass. What more can you want?
On weekends, at 8:30, an interesting band comes on, which does oldies, interspersed with humor. A number of locals come here to dance to it. Our group had a nice night and we will return. From 5:00pm daily, 7 days a week.

C H A R L I E ' S   L ' E T I O L E   V E R T E
8 New Orleans Road (843)785-9277
French; no dress code - anything goes; nice ambience; moderate to expensive.
Back in the late 90s, this place was, arguably, the finest restaurant in town. Reservations, in season, hard to obtain. Then they moved from cramped quarters (where you had to walk through the kitchen to reach the rest rooms) to the former site of Charleston's - possibly the best interior decor on the island. What they got: much larger space, larger parking lot. What they kept: a great wine list, fine wait-staff, and the daily change in menu. What they lost: the great food, and a Gem from this critic. "Average, plus" is the only way to describe what is served now at Charlie's. Even Slick Willie would be unimpressed now. One more thing: we watched some of the worst dressed people on the island (ragged cut-offs, flip-flops, t-shirts - perhaps they are drive-ons from the mainland?) being seated for dinner in plain view of the rest of us. Mercy! (Maybe I should go to 2 1/2 Gems.) Is there no Pride here?

Lunch 11:30 Monday to Friday;   Dinner from 6:00pm Monday - Saturday. Reservation suggested.

Mid island, Hilton Parkway, hidden behind Santa Fe Cafe (843)341-3117
Island dressy, Moderate pricing. Limited parking.
Hidden behind Santa fe Cafe is this small (40 person) restaurant with good promise. Chef Alfred Kettering is known on the island for other Continental restaurants: Maxwells, La Masionette, Maxx, and Jaxx. This place bears his name. There are no exotic items here, just well prepared courses. The small place is cozy, the setting refined. The kitchen is open to view, and about 7 seats line a counter there. Nice, but not extensive, wine list.
Dinner from 5:00pm Monday to Saturday.

B O N E F I S H     G R I L L
Mid island, Hilton Parkway, at Fresh Market (843)341-3772
Casual. Medium pricing. Ready parking.
Reminds us of Charlie's Crab (without the water view) in that several delightful seafood items are matched by land fare so that everyone in your group should be well accomodated. This is a chain which came to life in Sarrasota several years ago. In season, there is always a line out the door. On a recent visit, the place was almost over-staffed, with college-aged persons pitching in. Has this restaurant formed a relationship with USC?
The wine choices by the glass covered a good range; I counted 38. More choices by the bottle. This place does not advertise, and probably will not have to. It's that good.
Dinner from 4:00pm till after 10; after 11:30 weekends. Seven days.

South island, on Palmetto Bay Road at Archer. (843)686-3388
Seafood is the main thing.   Casual; medium pricing. Easy parking in front.
This place opened years ago as a Cuban-themed seafood restaurant. All that seems to remain from that is the addition of mango on some plates. Our group of four ordered different seafood entrees and then did round-the-table sampling, pronouncing everything delightful. An adjacent bar and wine shop also has a few tables for those who would like to dine amid walls lined with upscale (and pricey) wines, from which you can select a bottle if you find the very nice wine list inadequate. (Doing so, however, results in a $10 "corkage" addition to the bill, which is too much for wines already priced above the usual retail level.) We finished with a banana bread pudding in a light cheese sauce which was very nice.
Lunch Mon to Sat, and Dinner from 5:30pm, seven days.

Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort, Palmetto Dunes (843)341-8058
American; casual; moderate to expensive.
This may be the best hotel-based restaurant on the island. They took out "Mostly Seafood", which had a good reputation, plus a large lounge, which had a seedy reputation, added a second story to both, and produced a very nice, and elegant, place to dine. The wife (great chef) and I chose to go for the Early Bird (5-6pm) which is strictly prime rib, but with a nice salad, and choice of side and dessert from the regular menu, for $25. Yes, you can find "early birds" for less, but not this good!

On the way in we walked by the large open kitchen, which was very impressive. The emphasis here is on Aged Prime Grade beef. (Competitors are offering "Black Angus" - a very good, but inferior grade.) They evidently kept the upscale seafood, which looked delightful arriving at nearby tables, some of which had extraordinary presentations. Very nice music at dinner hour.

There are over 200 fine restaurants on this island and you don't expect the hotels to have any of them, but here is one you should visit. For me, I can walk to this one and will do so often.

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner all day long, 7 days a week.

North island, in Northridge Plaza (843)681-8590
Continental; bistro ambience; casual; moderate.
Other places on the island offer "small plates" - appetizer portions along with regular sizes - but here, small plates give the name to the place, and the wait-staff will add that its "all in the sauce". Originally (2000), everything came on a plate, but new ownership now favors soup bowls for some items in which the sauce is, unfortunately, expanded at the expense of the main ingredient, obliging the diner to fish for it.

Also the plates appear to have gotten larger and so has the price, in reference to a few years ago. We used to dine on three plates, we now find two adequate. It was more fun to share items when each person had three of them. That being said, with the nice variety of wine choices provided by the glass, a group can have a nice tasting adventure.
Dinner only, Monday-Saturday, from 5:30pm.

M A R L E Y ' S   I S L A N D   G R I L L E
South, near Harris Teater, at Sea Pines Circle (843)686-5800
Caribbean; casual; moderate.
I would describe this as "Intense Caribbean": there is an ice cream bar adjacent, and the patio between them has a Reggae band going full bore, and lots of people hang around. Inside, the Caribbean "ambiance" is also full bore. Tourists love it, but you will, too, since a number of items here are well prepared. The wait staff knows its stuff and aims to please. Our group had the Voodoo Shrimp and loved them. Wood-fired grill.
Dinner from 5:00pm, seven days a week.

There are several more reviews from Hilton Head Island:

* I am nobody special. If the owner of an upscale restaurant recognized my face, I very much doubt they would move me ahead of You, if you had the earlier reservation, or make any special fuss. And that is the way I want it. My reviews are worthless if they know who I am and do something unique for me and my guests as a result. I want to catch them at their "average".