Lowcountry cuisine dominates most perceptions of South Carolina’s food. However, an alternative collection of recipes and cooking styles prevails through the northeastern corner of the state. Calabash fried fish, blackened shrimp, big breakfasts, and craft beers served ice cold fuel visitors traveling through the small coastal towns dotting Highway 17, the route for travelers who value the journey as much as the destination. Although this corridor has long been characterized by its pancake houses and fried seafood joints, new faces are setting the scene with craft beverage creators and interactive dining that brings the surrounding environment to life.
Each stop along the way is accompanied by earnest Southern hospitality. Small-town business owners, chefs, and staff are thrilled to welcome you in and the pride they take in their work is nothing short of infectious.
HIGHWAY 17 ROAD TRIP: LITTLE RIVER TO CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA
Stop 1: Little River
Traveling from the north, Little River greets visitors when they cross the state line into South Carolina. Established as a quiet fishing community, the town now offers a getaway just north of Myrtle Beach’s bustle.
Begin that getaway at 1233 Distillery where you knock on the wood-paneled wall and whisper the secret password to enter the speakeasy. Don’t be deceived by its modern surroundings (Dunkin’ Donuts is right next door to this roadside business)—elements from the black-and-white photos of Prohibition pioneers to dark leather and walnut accents transport visitors to a 1920s urban speakeasy. With ten types of spirits—from a tequila-style agave liquor to peach vodka and multiple types of whiskey—there’s a vice for everyone. Pop in to tour the facilities and finish with a flight of up to six of their spirits. Tell the bartender your favorite and let them pour you one of the signature cocktails.
Stop 2: North Myrtle Beach
If you’re looking for more draft than craft, head to Crooked Hammock Brewery, where the mismatched patio chairs and hammocks make it feel like you’re having a beer in your friend’s backyard. The beachside locale comes through in the beers’ undertones—look for notes of pineapple, coconut, guava, or citrus shining within the hops.
Stop 3: Myrtle Beach
There’s more to inner Myrtle Beach than fried seafood. Hook & Barrel was among the first eateries to establish that. It’s owned by chef Heidi Vukov, a former South Carolina Chef Ambassador. She was one of the city’s first chefs to toy with simpler seafood preparations where the protein shares the spotlight with the seasonal produce. The complimentary house-made pimento cheese and lavash crackers served on a South Carolina-shaped cutting board remind guests of the restaurant’s commitment to celebrating South Carolina ingredients and flavors. Fish, meat, and vegetables are sourced thoughtfully, coming from regional purveyors as available or, if from afar, commercial suppliers with sustainable certifications.
If you plan ahead a little, however, you can score reservations at the Fowler Dining Room, where students from the International Culinary Institute practice their cooking and service skills in a restaurant environment serving multi-course lunches and dinners to the public. The menu rotates through global themes each week. Bites might include sweet potato sope with smoked and braised pork; parsnip soup topped with a coconut, lime, and mint foam; and banana-sesame mousse covered in chocolate to finish. Because the menu changes so frequently, students rarely get to prepare dishes more than twice, but you wouldn’t know from the level of technique that goes into each bite’s components.
Fuel up the next morning with overstuffed biscuit sandwiches, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and espresso drinks at 10/Fold Biscuits. The white subway-tiled interior with black accent walls gives the daytime spot a modern, sleek aesthetic akin to something you’d find in the big city. Go for the Smokey Sally—salty Norwegian lox, Old Bay cream cheese, onions, tomatoes, and capers sandwiched in a buttermilk biscuit that leaves your fingers buttery—or the strawberry shortcake with bourbon vanilla whipped cream.
Stop 4: Murrells Inlet + Pawleys Island
Mosey on to Murrells Inlet, a waterside community known as the seafood capital of South Carolina. Its mighty fishing industry supplies much of the seafood that appears in the Holy City’s first-class restaurants. Park the car and explore the main drag: a boardwalk, dubbed the MarshWalk, through the salty, Lowcountry estuary. The half-mile stretch packs in restaurants and bars right on the water. Live music throughout the year makes this a scenic gathering ground—particularly at sunset—where visitors can stroll (or dance!) along the boardwalk, beverage in hand, while musing over the dinner options.
Stop 5: Georgetown
Georgetown marks the last vestige of civilization before Highway 17 hits the Francis Marion National Forest. Gas up the tank, find a restroom, and—obviously—pick a place for lunch on the Mayberry-like main street, lined with antiques shops, boutiques, ice cream parlors, and bistros. Fresh ingredients shine at Root, a nouveau-Southern bistro with an artsy, rustic ambiance. Order the crispy ponzu-tossed brussels sprouts for the table (a favorite on the menu) and follow with the pickle chicken sandwich—breaded tenders piled high on a pillowy brioche bun—their juicy riff on the popular fast-food staple. It’ll power you through the final stretch of the pine tree-lined highway leading to Charleston.