When locals have houseguests or want to mark a special occasion, May River Grill has been the go-to restaurant for nearly 10 years. Expectations raised, first-timers find an unassuming glass-front building and just inside the door will be greeted then seated in an equally modest dining room.
High-top tables line one wall, and standard tables can be pushed together for larger parties. There is limited seating at a small bar in front of the kitchen, where magic takes place from 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
At owner and Executive Chef Charlie Sternburgh's restaurant, it's all about the food. Formerly the head chef at Hilton Head Island's Jazz Corner, he doesn't hesitate for a second when asked the secret to May River Grill's success.
"Consistency," he said.
This carries through to ingredients for sauces, a loyal staff that includes servers who have been on board since Day One, and Sternburgh's insistence on offering only "the best I can get" for every item on his menu.
It's an extensive one, with 17 entrees from $19 to $37, including crispy duck in a blackberry brandy sauce; veal saltimbocca; eggplant topped with Boursin cheese, shrimp and scallops and served over pasta; and memorable classics such as filet mignon au poivre or Bernaise and Norwegian salmon Dijonaise.
"And we run at least 13 specials every day," said Sternburgh. These include appetizers, salads and entrees, the latter priced from $26 to $45.
"There are items we've tried to get rid of, but we'd have a mutiny," he said. An example is the fried green tomatoes, a salad special that started by accident. "Chico (a sous chef) was late for work one day, and I picked up a fried green tomato and flung it at him like a Frisbee," Stern-burgh said. "It ended up in the ranch dressing, somebody picked it up, ate it and said 'Holy cow, this is really good.'"
Sternburgh said Canadian walleye and Lake Erie yellowbelly perch are fresh-catch specials hard to find anyplace else locally. Finished with perfectly executed sauces and served with mixed vegetables and potatoes, as most entrees are, these white fish are mild, sweet and succulent.
The 18-ounce bone-in porterhouse veal rib chop, at $45 the most expensive special, comes from the oldest butcher on the East Coast in Philadelphia.
"The cheapest is lobster," said Sternburgh. Two 4-ounce tails are $26, but 12- and 16-ounce tails are also available, along with rack of lamb and steak specials such as Delmonico or ribeye.
Regulars and first-timers alike flock to May River Grill's $19.95 three-course Early Bird from 5 to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, when house wines or cocktails are $5. "It's second to none," said Sternburgh.
His hands-on approach, knowledgeable servers, and overall excellence make May River Grill a true local treasure.
For reservations, call 843-757-5755.
Freelance writer Pam Gallagher was a copy editor at USA Today and a staff writer and fashion editor for the Asbury Park Press.