While separated by creeks and marshes, Bluffton and Hilton Head feed one another, literally and figuratively. Many Blufftonites work on the island while islanders consider crossing the bridge “going into town.”
Chef Brandon Carter has been in Bluffton for years, first cooking at what was once Auberge Palmetto Bluff (now Montage Palmetto Bluff) and now running his own space, FARM, which he opened with farmer Ryan Williamson in 2016.
FARM was ready to open the weekend Hurricane Matthew hit. Despite having to evacuate, the team got their permits in place and were open within the next few weeks. But it took a minute for Carter to find his footing with the locals—while some went crazy for his lamb ribs and decadent pork chop, others were dismayed by the boundary-pushing flavors and sharing-plate portion sizes. “It was a little bit of a roller coaster in the beginning, but we found our people,” he says. Their compact dining room and open kitchen quickly went from serving around 60 people a night to 140. My husband and I like to go there for its fun, punchy small plates, like country ham carbonara and locally caught shrimp over Carolina Gold rice with Sea Island red peas.
FARM was really the first of its kind for Old Town—modern, ingredient-driven, music pulsing—and it paved the way for similar restaurants. The latest to arrive is Okàn from chef Bernard Bennett. The Chicago transplant was recruited by local developer Matt Cunningham, who had been a longtime regular at FARM and was looking to open a restaurant that would add another layer of depth to the Bluffton dining scene. Bennett’s goal was to take a close look at the diaspora of the transatlantic slave trade—specifically how West Africa and other Caribbean stopping points on the trade routes influence the foods found in the Lowcountry today. Once they banded together, the team relied on people like Carter to help get them off the ground, first with a food truck and now with a smart, casually elegant brick-and-mortar restaurant in the heart of Old Town.
“We African Americans have this very deep, rich history—we are so much more than the stereotypes of fried chicken and grits,” Bennett says. “I want to show people, through these ingredients, the importance of our history.” That might look like a platter of jerk goat, a traditional Caribbean preparation with plantains, or djon djon noodles, which are Haitian rice noodles with Asian elements, to pay homage to the generations of indentured servants that were brought to the Caribbean from China and India. The average diner may not even be aware of the meaning behind each dish, but for Bennett, the story is important just the same. “Because of the tragedies that happened through slavery, all of this mixture of food and culture is happening—the noodles are a nod to that. You might not know it unless you do the research, but I can share that history.”
The fact that Okàn exists within this idyllic Lowcountry destination speaks volumes to the area’s evolution. In some ways, Bennett’s restaurant intersects with the area’s Gullah community, tying together a legacy and bringing those combined histories front and center. They may not be the tidiest, easiest stories to digest, but they’re essential nonetheless.
Meanwhile, Carter is also quick to point out, Bluffton’s dining options are more exciting than ever. “We might have the highest number of taco trucks per capita in the country,” he tells me with zero irony. Six trucks for Bluffton’s 30,000 residents does seem high, but more importantly it speaks to the mix of the region’s inhabitants, many of whom have moved or travel seasonally from Central and South America to work here. One of his favorite haunts is La Poblanita, a market and taco shop on the side of a back road, where the fresh salsa bar is epic.
“We love that there’s such a sense of place and a community here,” he tells me. “And we definitely have a bit more culinary prowess these days.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by other locals, including my parents, anytime I’m here and one I hope curious visitors take time to get to know as well. It’s the reason I constantly try to dig deeper— and it gives me another good excuse to keep coming back.
Where to Stay
For as long as it’s been a destination, Hilton Head has drawn the Saturday-to-Saturday crowd—those who rent condos, villas, and houses for a week or two each season. Those options are plentiful and offer the convenience of a base camp. But don’t discount the island’s oceanfront hotels, such as the Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort (fun fact: It’s where my husband and I were married) or the Marriott Hilton Head Resort & Spa, which recently saw a massive renovation. If you want to take in a luxury resort experience, there’s nothing quite like the Montage Palmetto Bluff—just ask the countless families (and celebrities) who have dropped in for their own stays (and weddings). Forgo the main inn for one of the River View Cottages, where dolphins swim past the back door and complimentary bikes await your arrival. There is no shortage of dining options, but don’t miss the steakhouseleaning River House followed by a discreet drink in the speakeasy Hush, or lunch at the recently revamped Buffalos for beautiful grain bowls and roasted mushrooms over grits.
Eat + Drink
You don’t have be a guest at Montage Palmetto Bluff to enjoy one of the community’s recently upgraded dining spots. Buffalos reopened this past spring after an extensive renovation, bringing new life to the light-flooded, contemporary dining room. An extended outdoor patio overlooking the bluff is just the spot for enjoying their steamed littleneck clams, Sea Island pea salad, or squid ink orecchiette. @palmettobluff
With nods to the church theme, this distillery and tasting room feels like it was crafted in Kentucky bourbon country—stained glass, cathedral ceilings, big leather armchairs, and a wall of specialty bottles available to take home. Go for a tasting flight to sample some of the well-crafted spirits; their Anita’s Choice bourbon is a sixgrain spirit with layers of caramel that’s named for Lowcountry women’s rights advocate Anita Pollitzer. @burntchurchdistillery
I credit my sister for introducing me to this Bluffton institution—we used to pal around with co-owner Robbie Cahill when we were kids. The Cahill family farm supplies fresh produce inside the market while the restaurant, a casual, wood-beamed room, serves up a menu of meat-and-three platters, breakfast items, and the area’s best fried chicken sandwiches. cahillsmarket.com
Pushing the boundaries of Bluffton’s food scene, FARM provides a highlevel, seasonal-small-plates experience in a cozy, casual space. My favorites include the burrata and ham, country ham carbonara, and crispy crab croquette, but you can also go big with a celebratory New York strip for two. @farmbluffton
Chef Bernard Bennett brings together influences of the African diaspora, charting the route of the transatlantic slave trade with his ingredients. Dig into pumpkin seed dip, duck and oyster gumbo, curried oxtails, or peanut stew, and don’t miss his selection of hearthbaked breads. @okanbluffton
- by Hannah Lee Leidy
- by Amber Chase
- by Hannah Lee Leidy