From Hilton Head Island on up to Myrtle Beach, we landed the state's freshest catch.
Hilton Head Island
The line for the Shack's grilled, fried, or blackened seafood begins long before the 40-seat eatery opens for lunch or dinner. But it's worth the wait for the daily "Blackboard" special that features a choice of perfectly cooked fresh fish, including grouper, flounder, and snapper, served up with two sides such as collards, macaroni and cheese, cheese grits, and green beans.
Order: Hearty appetites should try the Shack Attack ($17), which combines a crab cake, tilapia, shrimp, scallops, and oysters on a giant paper platter. Homemade tartar sauce is the traditional accompaniment, but we think the brandy-infused gator sauce makes an even better platter slather. 6B Executive Park Road; seashackhhi.com or 843/785-2464
Bluffton Family Seafood House
Larry and Tina Toomer figured they wouldn't have to go far to get fresh fish and oysters—the couple also runs the Bluffton Oyster Company—so they opened this full-service restaurant in 2010. The dishes are unpretentious, but because the crabs, mussels, clams, and shrimp come mainly from the nearby May River, they need little in the way of adornment.
Order: Share a bucket of steamed oysters ($20), then dive into a basket of fried shrimp ($14) with a side of stewed tomatoes and rice. 27 Dr. Mellichamp Drive; blufftonoyster.com or 843/757-0380
Housed in a former gas station that was once the only place to get fresh water or make a phone call for 45 miles, Whaley's still serves as a popular gathering spot. But now locals and visitors come by for platters of fried mahi-mahi bites dipped in house-made Ranch-chipotle sauce, mussels spiked with garlic and white wine, and beers pulled from the original soda cooler.
Order: Topped with a sweet tea-and-lemon glaze and mango chutney, the Firefly Flounder ($22) is a popular, down-to-earth dish with a heavenly twist. 2801 Myrtle Street; whaleyseb.com or 843/869-2161
The Crab Shack
You know you've finally reached the beach when you find steamed shrimp, crab legs, oysters, and corn on the cob served in tin buckets on a dog-friendly porch. If you're doing Folly for the weekend, come by for the Saturday or Sunday brunch, when the Bloody Mary bar is stocked with pickled okra and the eggs Benedict is made with freshly grilled flounder and a crab cake standing in for the usual Canadian bacon.
Order: The creamy she-crab soup ($5) is thick with sweet crabmeat and made for a good cause. (All proceeds from its sale go to the Hollings Cancer Center in Charleston.) 26 Center Street; crabshacks.com or 843/588-3080
Bowens Island Restaurant
As the winner of an America's Classic award from the James Beard Foundation, Robert Barber knows a thing or two about keeping customers happy at this eatery his family has run for 66 years. First, he sources (very) locally by serving oysters caught just yards from where they're steamed or fried. Enjoy your fresh fare with hush puppies, Frogmore stew, and South Carolina-brewed beers. Second, his restaurant has a waterside deck, so if you come early, you can watch the sun set over the wetlands as the oysters arrive.
Order: The fried creek oysters are terrific, but nobody steams and pit roasts the tasty bivalves like the Barber family ($14 for a tray, $25.50 for all you can eat). 1870 Bowens Island Road; bowensislandrestaurant.com or 843/795-2757
The Wreck of the Richard & Charlene
When Hurricane Hugo blew the Richard & Charlene (a North Atlantic-style trawler) into their dock, Fred and Pat Scott had the wreck removed, and then named their restaurant in Mount Pleasant's Old Village area after it. Although the couple originally offered mainly eggs and grits (at the time, breakfast was all they knew how to make), they soon found their sea legs. Now they serve combo platters overflowing with fried, grilled, or broiled shrimp, scallops, oysters, and fresh fish fillets.
Order: The Wreck's spicy deviled crab (think crab cake with a kick, $18) tastes best sitting on the restaurant's screened porch and watching the fishing boats pass by on Shem Creek. 106 Haddrell Street; thewreckrc.com or 843/884-0052
It's like Sunday dinner at grandma's every day in this general store-turned-cozy restaurant where rice and gravy, okra soup, and butter beans vie for your attention with just-caught flounder, fish stew, and creek shrimp (the sweet, diminutive cousins of saltwater shrimp). The setting is equally old-school—homemade cakes look out from under glass domes, rustic wooden beams line the ceiling, and silhouettes of Southern scenes rendered in iron by Lowcountry artist Thomas Smoak decorate the walls.
Order: Stone crab claws caught in nearby Bulls Bay ($11 as appetizer, $22 as entrée). 4808 Highway 17 North; 843/928-3609
T.W. Graham & Co.
After graduating from Johnson & Wales University and working as a chef in Florida and California, Pete Kornack moved to the tiny fishing village of McClellanville in 1994. Pete and his wife, Claudia, opened T.W. Graham in 2003. Their shrimp dishes are standouts, but save room for a side of fried green tomatoes and a slice of homemade pie.
Order: A bowl of Claudia's blue crab, shrimp, and corn chowder ($5) is so good that she's been asked to deliver it to the State House in Columbia for special legislative lunches. 810 Pinckney Street; 843/887-4342
Lee's Inlet Kitchen
It's tempting to load up on the hush puppies that arrive hot from the fryer the moment you sit down, but try to hold back. Wait for the seafood platters that will soon arrive groaning with huge portions of fried, broiled, or grilled fish, oysters, fantail shrimp, and deviled crabs. They come accompanied by sides of veggies and potatoes and homemade desserts such as Key lime pie and peach cobbler.
Order: Chef Clay Williams' she-crab soup ($6) has won the Murrells Inlet chowder cook-off competition for the past seven years. 4460 Business 17; leesinletkitchen.com or 843/651-2881
The Original Mr. Fish Restaurant and Seafood Market
Grand Strand seafood lovers cheered three years ago when Ted Hammerman and his daughter, Sheina, saved this landmark restaurant and seafood market. Now fish fans flock to the inviting, art-filled building located in a strip mall for Sheina's spicy gumbo and addictive crab rangoons (cream cheese and crab wrapped in wontons and deep-fried). The eatery also offers creative sushi such as seared tuna with blue cheese, as well as specialty seafood rolls (try the spicy sea scallops) and a variety of gluten-free pizzas.
Order: The fish tacos made with fresh mahi-mahi sautéed with onion and sweet peppers and doused with homemade rémoulade ($10) satisfy. 3401 North Kings Highway; mrfish.com or 843/839-3474.