The Best Shrimp and Grits On Hilton Head Island

The Best Shrimp and Grits On Hilton Head Island

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Clam Chowder in Boston. Cheesesteaks in Philadelphia. Pastrami on rye in New York City. Barbecue in Winston Salem. Blue crabs in Baltimore. Catfish and hush puppies in Gulfport. Beignets and gumbo in New Orleans.  Mint juleps in Louisville.

All have a deserved place in the pantheon of iconic foods or libations. But here at Lowcountry Style and Living we want to praise the most iconic, omnipresent dish of all. A dish born of the coastal plains, the marshlands, the swamps and the Sea Islands. We are, of course, talking about Shrimp and Grits.

Before we dive into the best places to find Shrimp and Grits on Hilton Head, how about a little history of the dish? If you just want the restaurants, keep scrolling.

The elemental combination of local shrimp from the creeks and coarse-ground, corn grits cooked to a creamy smoothness is a perfect balance between land and sea and, at its most minimalist, is delicious without any further additions.

The addition of butter, salt and black pepper provide clarifications which can be further developed by introducing vegetables, cured meats and spices.

A dish born of the coastal plains, the marshlands, the swamps and the Sea Islands.
We are, of course, talking about Shrimp and Grits.

Most of the dishes that we identify as examples of ‘classic Southern cooking’ are the result of mixed cultures and influences. The distant and unique dishes of the South are the product of a splendid convergence of European, Native American and African influences; the African influence is particularly strong in the cuisine of the Lowcountry where, long before cotton farming, a ‘rice economy’ (which was dependent upon enslaved labor) assured that Africans were present in large numbers from the early days of the South. 

Shrimp and grits might now be a menu classic, but that was not always the case. Traditional Southern fare was almost predominantly cooked at home and consumed at home. It was not a cuisine fostered by restaurants.

At its upper reaches, this cuisine was created in the homes of planters and postbellum, affluent families by black female cooks (both enslaved and free). They were able to take common dishes and raise them to new levels with better ingredients and a greater level of expertise. People of more modest means took day-to-day fare and raised it a notch for special occasions such as church picnics, wakes and family reunions.

One of the earliest references concerning shrimp and grits was in a 1931 book titled Two Hundred Years of Charleston Cooking.

This book was a collection of recipes gathered by Blanche Rhett, the wife of Goodwyn Rhett, who served as Charleston’s mayor from 1903 to 1911. The recipe is attributed to Rhett’s longtime butler and professional cook, William Deas.

At the time of the publication, Deas was 78 and, though not mentioned, was probably born into slavery. It seems that Deas, along with many African Americans who arrived in Charleston during the transatlantic slave trade, ate ‘breakfast’ shrimp regularly during shrimp season.

One of the earliest references concerning shrimp and grits was in a 1931 book titled Two Hundred Years of Charleston Cooking.

This was true of other laborers and coastal fishermen as well. Early versions consisted of standard, creek-water shrimp, cooked rice, melted butter, salt and pepper. But, being that rice was a cash crop before and after the Civil War, the dish was soon being made with ground corn. The dish was easy to prepare. Ground corn cooked in water, shrimp heated and placed on top made it a sustaining meal and a staple for these fishermen, slaves and laborers.

A few cups of ground corn was probably a weekly ration and creek shrimp could be caught by hand without drawing attention from the distribution of rations. Fishermen going out for long hauls (12 to 24 hours) had to bring all their food with them. A one pot meal, grits and whatever they were catching, made things easy.

Shrimp being abundant along the Georgia South Carolina coastline became the go-to ingredient with the ground corn. Thus a dish was born of necessity and convenience.

The popularity of the dish grew and it was mentioned in a Junior League collection of recipes in 1950 titled “Charleston Receipts” under the somewhat misleading heading of Charleston Shrimp and Hormey. Check Out Vintage Cook Book for a peak!

However, it still was a dish mainly eaten at home. This all began to change in 1982 when Bill Neal, born and raised in Gaffney, South Carolina, decided to change gears and open up a casual, homestyle restaurant. This was a complete turnaround from his fancy, French restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He and Gene Hamer opened Crooks Corner in a one-time taxi stand in Chapel Hill and began serving dishes he remembered from his boyhood….including shrimp and grits.

Seemingly overnight, the dish became a popular addition to many Southern restaurants and then, ultimately, nationwide.

Neal’s simple dish of stone ground grits, fused with cheddar and parmesan cheeses as a base, topped with jumbo shrimp as well as bacon, bacon fat, mushrooms and tobasco was brought to national prominence in 1985.

In that year, Craig Claiborne, a transplanted Mississipian and long time food writer and editor of the NY Times, wrote a feature article about a visit to Neal’s home and restaurant in which he praised the cooking. He included Neal’s recipe for shrimp and grits. Seemingly overnight, the dish became a popular addition to many Southern restaurants and then, ultimately, nationwide.

The dish gained such popularity that Nathalie Dupre, the noted author, chef, cooking show host, and renowned authority for all things Southern, devoted an entire book on the subject of shrimp and grits.

As is common with Southern cooking, there are as many variations of this dish as there are chefs, but there are some important givens. Doing shrimp and grits properly requires stellar ingredients. Frozen shrimp from Thailand simply can’t compete with freshly caught local shrimp.

Ground corn might seem like a simple food but you can taste the difference between mass-produced, commercially milled grits and freshly milled heirloom corn.

In South Carolina, stone ground grits are made by grinding dried corn (germ and all) between rotating millstones. Done right, the result is a coarse, gritty, quality product that, after soaking and simmering, produces a creamy-textured food that is one of the two main stars of this iconic dish.

Restaurateurs and chefs in South Carolina can avail themselves of in-state, superb, stone ground grits from such places as Anson Mills (Columbia), Geechie Boy (Edisto Island) and Anduliah (Columbia).

In South Carolina, stone ground grits are made by grinding dried corn (germ and all) between rotating millstones.

Now That you have the history, we are ready to bring to you our list of the best Shrimp and Grits to be found on Hilton Head Island. (Note: The listings are in no particular order and are unranked as to the five selections but do represent our choices currently for the best on the island.)

So as not to have preconceived ideas about the dish, there was no reading of a menu description prior to consumption. Discussions of ingredients are based on reviewers experience and some followup calls to establishments as to sourcing.

All lists are subjective, but our search was comprehensive and thorough and we hope you enjoy trying some amazing variations of this classic southern dish.

Skull Creek Boathouse

Style/Vibe – An old-style river house restaurant on the waterfront of Skull Creek overlooking salt marshes, the intracoastal waterway and the Pinckney Island Wildlife Preserve

The Dish – A tantalizing dish of spice and smoke with classic overtones

Menu Description – Sauteed shrimp, smoked sausage, tasso ham gravy and South Carolina stone grits

The Meal – The smoked sausage tasted and looked like a kielbasa style sausage, meaning more smoked pork flavor than spices, and the tasso ham gravy added that dimension as well. This was an understated dish but well-balanced, flavorful and well prepared.

Side Dish – Featured on Food Network’s Beach Eats for its Fried Green Tomatoes and Goat cheese. Tree-shaded outdoor Buoy Bar. Renowned Dive Bar sushi bar. Gorgeous sunset views from most of the restaurant. Tavern with fireplace. Ample outdoor seating. Playground for the kids. Live Music.

Skull Creek Boathouse
397 Squire Pope Road
Hilton Head Island, SC
(843) 681-3663
https://www.skullcreekboathouse.com/

Jane Bistro and Bar

Style/Vibe – A clean, contemporary and modern-designed restaurant with great service. Classic bistro with Lowcountry twist.

The Dish – A creative and innovative approach to the classic

Menu Description – Shrimp, applewood bacon, cherry tomatoes, red onion, Carolina gold cheese grits, parmesan cheese sauce

The Meal – The use of Carolina Gold grits is very interesting. These grits are a byproduct of milling Carolina Gold rice. The broken pieces (or shorts) produced during milling take on a creamy, risotto texture when boiled and are a perfect complement to the rich parmesan. The cheese sauce is so luxurious that I’m quite sure that high quality parmigiano reggiano is used. The addition of red onion and cherry tomatoes completes an out-of-the-box tweak on this dish.

Side Dish – Lunch, Dinner, Brunch Dine inside or out. Cocktails and Beer. Owners of The Wren in Beaufort.

Jane Bistro and Bar
Shelter Cove Towne Center
28 Shelter Cove Lane
Hilton Head Island, SC
(843) 686-5696
https://janehhi.com/

Kenny B’s French Quarter Cafe

Style/Vibe – A locally owned and family run, casual, cajun seafood restaurant. Like New Orleans in the middle of Mardi Gras.

The Dish – A mix of Cajun and Lowcountry influences

Menu Description – Shrimp, fried green tomatoes and stone ground grits cooked till creamy with Cajun spices and parmesan cheese. No corn.

The Meal – Cajun spicing deep and apparent. Definite notes of cayenne, garlic powder, onion powder and smoked paprika. Wonderful melding of the spices with the parmesan infused grits. Interesting idea to add fried green tomatoes. The slight sour flavors work well with the crunchy coating of (I believe to be) cornmeal, egg and bread crumbs. Hits all the right taste buttons.

Side Dish – Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner. Don’t miss the Beignets – deep fried nuggets of sweetened dough that are light and airy, made daily.

Kenny B’s French Quarter Cafe
Circle Center
70 Pope Ave
Hilton Head Island, SC
(843) 785-3315
https://www.eatatkennybs.com/index.html

Black Marlin

Style/Vibe – Quintessential, Lowcountry cuisine and the self-proclaimed largest, fresh seafood selection on the Island. Attractive setting on the Broad Creek overlooking the Cross Island Parkway Bridge. Located dockside at the Palmetto Bay Marina, the oldest on Hilton Head Island.

The Dish – A spicy twist on the classic

Menu Description – East coast shrimp. Parmesan stone ground grits, applewood smoked bacon, tasso ham gravy

The Meal – Use of bacon as inthe classic meal recipe, but the addition of tasso ham gravy adds a whole new flavor level. Tasso “ham” is a specialty of Louisiana/Cajun cuisine. Not really a ham, as the cut comes from a hog’s shoulder not leg (ham is made from leg cut) but due to constant muscle use, it produces deep flavor. Rubbed with spices and smoked over hardwood chips to add to the flavor. Spicy gravy with smoked bacon makes for a heady experience. Overtones of paprika, chili powder, cayenne, (possibly Old Bay) with fruity notes from the bacon. Complex and vibrant flavor all in the same delicious mouthful.

Side Dish – Hurricane Bar is a treat. Oyster roasts. Lunch. Dinner, Brunch, Late Night. Ample outdoor seating. Featured on Food Network’s Beach Eats for its shrimp burger and sushi nachos. Add on – Black Marlin is donating $1 from each dozen local oysters sold to the South Carolina Shellfish Growers Association. Market demand is such that the wild oyster population is not sufficient. The farming of local shellfish is an important step in decreasing the stress on the environment.

Black Marlin Bayside Grill
80 Helmsman Way
Hilton Head Island, SC
(843) 785-4950
https://www.blackmarlinhhi.com/

A Lowcountry Backyard Restaurant

Style/Vibe – A quiet, seductive spot that recalls an earlier time. Hilton Head Island before it became Hilton Head Island (you know what I mean).

The Dish – Words do not do justice to this tasty, creamy, perfectly seasoned rendition

Menu Description – Pan-sauteed shrimp, smoked sausage, shaved green onions over applewood bacon cream sauce and creamy grits

The Meal – Flavorful smoked pork sausage flavor with a bacon cream sauce abundant with light fruity smoked applewood undertones. All of this over perfectly cooked, high-quality, creamy grits. Shaved green onions, which look like spaghetti noodles, subtly moves the taste barometer into ‘out of this world.’

Side Dish – 5th place in U.S.A’s “Top Ten Shrimp and Grits in South Carolina.” Featured in Travel Channel’s Food Paradise. Backyard with mulch/chips, porch swing, flickering lights. Open spaces. Two bars. Live music.

A Lowcountry Backyard Restaurant
32 Palmetto Bay Road
Hilton Head Island, SC
(843) 785-9273
http://www.hhbackyard.com/

A few closing thoughts. Crooks Corner is still a flourishing restaurant and, to many, is sacred ground for Southern cooking. Bill Neal passed in 1991. Bill Smith then ran the kitchen until his retirement in 2019. Justine Burdett now continues the excellence. Only three head chefs in 36 years. If you check out the Raleigh News and Observer for December 25, 2019 there’s a beautiful picture of the shrimp and grits, in all its glory, prepared at the restaurant.

To me (and millions of others) there has always been something marvelous about Southern food. As cliche as it might sound, Southern food speaks to me with an innate sense of character. You feel that there is a real trail of history interwoven with African, Native American and European influences to create a vibrant fabric. As jazz is America’s true music, so is Southern food America’s true cuisine.

All the restaurants visited (even those not listed) honored the tradition of a classic dish and, just like your grandmother might have done, they put a little different spin, and a whole lot of love, into the dish….without ever losing its essence.  

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