Editor’s note: The Bluffton Sun was first published in January 1998. As we celebrate our 20th anniversary in 2018, we want to look at the past 20 years of history and changes around town. This is the third in a series of articles about the changes we’ve all seen. Join us as we revisit the past 20 years.
My, how the restaurant scene in Bluffton has changed over the past two decades.
Restaurants in Bluffton have mushroomed over the past 20 years in numbers, types of cuisine, price ranges, size, amenities, and in the pedigrees of the chefs and their staff.
Trip Advisor currently lists 154 dining facilities in eight broad cuisine categories in the greater Bluffton area.
But let’s step back to how it began.
Bluffton old timers surely remember the old Messex filling station at the corner of Bridge and Calhoun streets in Old Town back in 1968, when it opened. Locals could slip two quarters into the vending machine and enjoy crackers, hot soup and potato chips for lunch.
It wasn’t known for its ambiance, but it did have food. (The space gained ambiance when it later became the original Eggs ‘n’ Tricities store.)
Babbie Guscio, owner of The Store at 56 Calhoun St. that has been selling eclectic treasures since 1978, called it Bluffton’s “first fast-food restaurant.”
If you were hungry in the one-square-mile town from the late 1960s to 1990s, it was either Messex or nothing, unless you drove west along May River Road a few miles to Cahill’s Market, founded in 1918.
Then along came the iconic Squat & Gobble, which seized the business potential of a sleepy village waking up when it opened along May River Road. In 2001, it was purchased by the late Paul Riganas and his wife Star.
“The only competition (then) was the Sippin’ Cow across the street,” said Star Struce, the Riganas’s daughter who runs the hugely popular breakfast hotspot. “The Promenade was non-existent, there was no IHOP or Cracker Barrel.
“We have a lot of locals who come in on the same day each week,” she said. “We’re definitely a place where you feel like family when you come in.”
While the Squat & Gobble has remained at the same location, the Sippin’ Cow opened in 2001 within eyeshot of its competitor, changed ownership in 2010, moved to Pepper’s Porch for a short stint in 2015 before settling in to its new building in The Promenade in 2016. Alvin Ord’s deli now occupies Sippin’s original space, having expanded from its Port Royal origins.
Pepper’s Porch, founded in 1996, reincarnated with several new ownerships in the 2000s, reopened for four months as Jack’s Old Town Bluffton in 2014, and then became Pepper’s Porch again in early 2015 with the original ownership. Pepper’s is now closed.
Also in 1996, Michael and Shirley Sigler opened their classic restaurant, Sigler’s Rotisserie, in Sheridan Park, serving duckling, prime rib, chicken and other delectable dishes from their open kitchen. Two years later, they changed the name to Sigler’s Rotisserie & Seafood when they began introducing mussels, shrimp, scallops and other fish specials.
Together, the Siglers practice their mantra of “good food served in a comfortable atmosphere.” Reservations still are recommended, even 22 years later.
“It’s wonderful here,” Guscio said. “We can stay right here (on Calhoun Street) and eat. Pearl across the street is divine, so is The Cottage.” The Old Town Dispensary (2010) swings and swigs a few doors up the road.
Many restaurants in Bluffton have an interesting background story.
Pearl Kitchen and Bar, for instance, was opened in 2016 by the owners of Ela’s Blu Water Grille at Shelter Cove. It moved into the space that was occupied by the popular Vineyard 55 since 2011, which morphed into Calhoun’s at 9 Promenade St. two years ago by the same ownership team, taking over the site of the Infield Bar & Grill when it closed.
The multitude of restaurants today dot the culinary landscape in geographic pockets all over Bluffton’s more than 50 square miles.
At Moss Creek Village, diners will find French-born chef-owner Claude Melchiorri in the kitchen prepping his sauces for his loyal lunch and dinner guests, as he’s been doing since Claude & Uli’s Bistro opened in 2005.
“Everything is about the sauce,” said Claude, who first opened La Normandie on Hilton Head upon his arrival in the Lowcountry in the mid-1990s. “It’s a specialty here.” His wife, Austrian-born Uli, and their daughter, Amanda, handle the front of the house.
Nothing changed the face of the Bluffton restaurant scene more than the development of The Promenade in 2006. Local developer and state representative Bill Herbkersman purchased the 8.2-acre undeveloped property, and Captain Woody’s was the first eatery to set anchor there the same year. Corks Wine Co. soon followed.
No site in The Promenade has undergone as many changes as 15 State of Mind. Moon Mi Pizzeria opened in 2013 next door to Woody’s, and became Mulberry Street Pizzeria the next year after it was acquired by the owners of Mulberry Street Trattoria, which opened on Fording Island Road in 2004. The Oyster Bar took its turn occupying the site in early 2017, soon to be followed by Local Pie, which expanded its base from Hilton Head.
Wedged between Local Pie and mainstay Bluffton BBQ (2009) at 13 State of Mind is Agave Side Bar.
Fine dining found a home on Promenade Street when The Bluffton Room opened its kitchen in 2014. Around the corner is Farm, a farm-to-table eatery that opened in 2016.
Down May River Road, chef-owner Charlie Sternburgh has been holding steady since launching his May River Grill in 2007.
The Corner Perk relocated to a sweet spot location in The Promenade from its perch on Burnt Church Road in 2014, and The Sugaree moved into its vacant space.
The Downtown Deli, Mi Tierra Mexican restaurant and the Bluffton Seafood House have kept their parking lot full for years along Mellichamp Drive. Across the street on Bluffton Road, diners will find Fat Patties (2015) and its Salt Marsh Brewery.
Chef-owner Joe Ventrice opened Dolce Vita in 2014, the first Italian restaurant in town. “I saw Bluffton being built up, and I wanted to lend my expertise in this area because there’s nothing like my restaurant,” Ventrice said.
Another Italian chef, Pepe Gialone, opened Nonna Rosa with Danny Tinnell in September 2016 in Okatie Village, in the space that was built for Gruby’s Deli, and later became Burnin’ Down South.
Chef Pepe and Tinnell then opened Nonna Lucia in November 2017 in Godfrey Place on Bluffton Road, near the circle. Carolina Tavern previously occupied the location.
Red Fish explored the possibility of opening a second location in Bluffton after experiencing fervid local support when it set up food booths at fairs and festivals.
Management purchased and renovated the building on Bruin Road vacated by Myrtle’s restaurant (which was previously the Bluffton Post Office) and opened in 2016 in a “very relaxed, upscale atmosphere,” said marketing director Katie Manley.
“We had seen the growth in Bluffton and how the Bluffton people are involved in their community,” Manley said. “We really enjoy being out there.”
Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.