I have two huge regrets when it comes to a lifetime of eating and drinking. I didn’t have my first slice of pizza until I was 12. What an absolute travesty, although saving the carbs probably kept me from a bunch of extra pounds sooner.
Second is my one-time disdain for coffee. It’s not that I’m a tea guy, because I’m not (unless it’s iced and sweet). I just didn’t “get it.”
I think I had memories of going to work with my Dad and watching him drink what would generously be described as sludgy tar. Black. And he liked it. Still turns my stomach just thinking about it.
I was rehabbing an ankle injury in Bluffton in 2011 and told the physical therapist I was having a hard time with migraines. She said that one cup of coffee in the morning would drastically reduce the frequency and intensity of my brain storms. And she was right.
Ever since then, I’ve kept it to that one cup per day. But it is the most glorious part of my entire 24-hour cycle – not the best part of waking up like the Folger’s slogan tells us, but pretty damn close.
Finding that perfect cup of coffee outside the house was an uneven and tumultuous experience at best even 10 years ago here in the Lowcountry. Squat N’ Gobble, Downtown Deli (back in the breakfast days) and Stooges (RIP) were the best and only options. And if you wanted freshly roasted beans, it was off to Savannah or Charleston.
Then an upstart dude with a passion for the bean opened at the corner of Burnt Church and Bruin. The Corner Perk was a revelation, and I discovered Java Joe’s on the island soon after (again, RIP).
I ventured back north for a bit in 2014. When I returned in 2020, it was like a whole new world of bedazzling beanery here. Now, the options are plentiful and you have full blown allegiances to one brand or one spot over the other and for good reason.
We’re not here to pick one over the other, just to inform you of your choices and enlighten you with a bit of insight from various members of our Blue Ribbon Panel.
Corner Perk, 1297 May River Road, No. 101, Bluffton (flagship) and 1628 Paris Avenue, Port Royal, cornerperk.com: Josh and Kali Cooke believed in a better coffee experience here. If he had never left the original location, he would have still slayed it. But he dreamed bigger and leveraged every possible penny (and a bunk of bank pennies as well) to get the OG Promenade hot spot built. Today, the brews like the honey lavender latte and the take-home grounds are wowing all across the Lowcountry. The Cookes deliver on their promise of “exceptional experiences and artfully crafted goodness” in their coffee blends, their thoroughly yummy breakfast and lunch menu, their customer service and a constant commitment to giving back to the community that embraced them from the jump. Much love came in from our crew for the Port Royal locale as well and raves for the ambiance and the avocado toast.
The Cottage Café, 38 Calhoun Street, Bluffton, 843-757-0508, thecottagebluffton.com: Leslie Rohland is a world-class chef with an appreciation for small-town values. She also believes in the power of coffee to bring folks together. So it wasn’t a full-on shock when she launched May River Roasters, a line of May River Coffee Roasters (mayrivercoffeeroasters.com). I love that she gives you adjectives to describe each blend. It’s clear each and every flavor is a prized child. That includes her three new Lowcountry collection blends, Bluffton State of Mind (dark roast), Pluff Mud (medium roast) and Lowcountry Blonde (light roast).
Purple Cow, 24G Palmetto Bay Road, Hilton Head Island, 843-681-2253, purplecowhhi.com: Most of you know Lisa “Bernie” Bernstein as the baker who works harder in one day before 10 a.m. than most of us work in a week. But she’s equally proud of her coffee blends from CupToCup Roasters out of Savannah. Bernstein began her small business journey right alongside Brewer James 13 years ago on the farmers market circuit and remains a diehard supporter and booster of his espresso, Vienna, Ethiopia and Brazil decaf.
Java Burrito, 1000 William Hilton Parkway, Suite J-6, Hilton Head Island, 843-842-5282, javaburrito.com: Because, as one of our Blue Ribbon Panel put it, “Who doesn’t want a burrito with their coffee?” This is a Miami thing brought north, and it’s striking a chord with many islanders curious to try the unlikely pair. On the java side, you’re getting locally-roasted beans, signature drinks like the cold brew that many say is tops in the area (or opt for a very cold brew with an ice cream scoop), and some curious not-coffee options like a beetroot latte blended in almond milk, honey and French vanilla.
The Grind Roasters, 1 Sherington Drive, Suite J, Bluffton, 843-368-3348, thegrindroasters.com: Ian Duncan began his roasting journey under the tutelage of Corner Perk’s Cooke, then migrated across the street to run the coffee bar at Peaceful Henry’s. Duncan was passionate about opening his own roasting shop, which led him to open his own spot on Simmonsville Road in 2016. All the while, he built a cult following and won numerous awards for his craftsmanship. His flavors include a limited edition Burnt Church Distillery whiskey coffee along with Haitian, Columbian and Brazilian blends. The Americano blend makes me feel like one of the Three Bears with porridge: “Juuust right.” Their current home on the back side of British Open Pub is cozy with a bunch of nooks to work or chat with friends.
PJ’s Coffee, 8026 East Main St., Ridgeland, 843-726-8888, pjscoffee.com: Dr. Kirk Johnson and his wife Linda operate this chain coffee shop with a New Orleans flair where King Cake reigns supreme. The orthopedist grew up on Swedish coffee and became somewhat of a coffee connoisseur as a resident, a way to caffeinate, gather to talk shop and unwind. The Zulu Coconut Iced Mocha is a current fave, a Viennese blend cold brew with milk, syrup and coconut concentrate over ice. While the brand and the grinds are not local pure se, the attention to detail from the Johnsons make this a down-home spot off I-95 exit 21.
Odd Birds, 1536 Fording Island Road Suite 107, Hilton Head, 843-707-9927: Yes, it’s technically HHI, but it’s before the bridge (and dang it, if it’s before the bridge, it’s not on the island). I digress. This newer spot has built a quick reputation for a variety of blends and lattes, a colorful selection of smoothies and a mouth-watering variety of crepes (the ultimate cinn with sugared cinnamon, maple cream cheese frosting and pecan crunch for us, please) and baked goods like pecan coffee cake. And we love the names behind the panini lunch options like the Leu Vega and the Ham Jam.
Carolina Coffee and Crumbs, 101 Pope Ave., Hilton Head Island, 842-342-4800, carolinacoffeehhi.com: This two-and-a-half-year-old shop owned by Erika Waronsky is using beans from The Grind in Bluffton and has an interesting combo of coffee, beer and wine for the chill island tourists. The S’Mores latte (toasted marshmallow, hazelnut and mocha) and candy flavors like Milky Way and Almond Joy are winning raves, as are the paninis and the primo location for people watching.
Watusi Café, 71 Pope Ave., Hilton Head Island, 843-686-5200, watusicafe.com: This 10-year-old spot, known for its “it is what it is” vibe, is more known for its ability to make healthy comfort food. The brews and espressos are all sourced from Batdorf & Bronson out of Atlanta, so while not a strictly local bean, it’s mighty smooth and palate-pleasing.
Honorable Mentions: In Bluffton, Joe’s Ice Cream and Beverage Co. (15 Bruin Road, joesicecreambeverage.com) offers drip, iced, cold and an affogato to die for (two ounce espresso with vanilla ice cream). On the island, C’Est Bon in the Sea Pines Shoppes (71 Lighthouse Road, Suite 318, 843-671-2200) won praise for its nitro brews, Nutella lattes and what one of our panel described as the “best chicken salad ever.” And the GFree Spot in Main Street Village (1511 Main Street, Suite 1511) is largely known for its amazingly delicious gluten free desserts, but won high marks from our online crew for their brews.
If you’re heading toward Beaufort, Common Ground (102 W Street Ext., 843-524-2326, commongroundbeaufort.com) won widespread praise for coffee quality, the atmosphere and the friendly staff. Urban Brew + Co. (2139 Boundary Street, Suite 104) wins love for their matcha latte and their customer service, and Lowcountry Cider Co. and Superior Coffee (507 Sea Island Parkway, St. Helena Island) is a must stop for a variety of brews, ciders and tomato pie.
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.