From Murrells Inlet to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, these seafood dives serve the best shrimp.
"What would you recommend?" I ask Gloria, who's tapping a pencil on the once-white laminate counter at Dave's Carry-out in Charleston, South Carolina. She looks at me like I fell off the moon. "Shrimp," she says. "Fried." And jots my order on a scrap of paper though I never say a word.
Shrimp it is, at Dave's and at most establishments along South Carolina's State Highway 17 as it skims along this porous coast of land, marsh, tidal river, and ocean. Shrimp is to Lowcountry menus what Spanish moss is to live oaks—elemental, inextricable. No matter if they were hauled in by a trawler, by a cast-netter knee-deep in a creek, or by a late-night baiter whose johnboat lantern is just one twinkle in a constellation of fellow shrimpers out on the inky harbor. No matter, either, if those shrimp get fried, boiled, grilled, or browned in a whisper of bacon fat and then cradled in a heap of creamy grits. It's all shrimp, all Lowcountry, all local.
And this journey—from the funky outpost of Murrells Inlet through the culinary mecca of Charleston and south to a shrimp dock on Hilton Head Island—ties those facets of shrimp culture together like pearls on a thread. As that bumper sticker often spied along this byway says, "Friends don't let friends eat imported shrimp."
Kitschy bars abound in this little water-loving town, but at Lee's Inlet Kitchen, they're serious about shrimp. "We peel our own—150 pounds daily. Nobody does that anymore," says Kelly Lee Dorman, granddaughter of the Kitchen's founders, who created the still-used recipes, including the tangy (Duke's mayo only) Mrs. Lee's Shrimp Salad. Nearby, Kudzu Bakery sells a frozen shrimp-and-corn pie that merits packing a cooler.
Right on the working waterfront, Old Fish House (a.k.a. Big Tuna) is pit-stop-worthy for jumbo shrimp cocktail and a cold Palmetto IPA.
A screened door slaps behind you at the down-home T.W. Graham & Co., where the clientele includes longtime shrimpers. "Can't pull the wool over their eyes—not that I'd want to," says owner Patrick Runey about the freshness of the catch here. Nor would you want to overindulge on Claudia's Special Crab, Shrimp, and Corn Chowder, or miss the homemade pies.
The number of shrimp trawlers on Mount Pleasant's Shem Creek may be dwindling, but The Wreck of the Richard and Charlene holds forth. No AC, no signage, just creekside character, gratis boiled peanuts, and the lightest-ever crispy shrimp served with red rice and chunky slaw.
Charleston's fine-dining spots serve fine shrimp, but make a beeline to no-frills Dave's Carry-out, where regulars wait and chat on a worn vinyl couch, and $8 buys a Styrofoam "platter" of golden-battered deliciousness (with fries). For classic shrimp-and-grits, Hominy Grill remains the standard-bearer. Chef Robert Stehling delivers sweet shrimp flavor with just enough smokiness and heat to make them sing. At Bowens Island, it's hard to beat a draft Tradesman ale and peeling-and-eating a mess of steaming pink shrimp as the sun melts over Folly Creek—except maybe with extra hush puppies or Bowens's Key lime pie.
Stroll from Shem Creek to Mount Pleasant's Old Village Post House Inn for luxurious digs and historic flavor. The weekend brunch menu tempts with outstanding shrimp-and-grits. Rates start at $150.
Off Highway 174 toward Edisto Beach, Flowers Seafood Co. is a 45-foot trailer converted to a kitchen and to-go counter, with picnic tables and chairs out back. Owner Vincent Flowers is a shrimper himself; if you're lucky, his granddaughter will be around to take your order. Ask her for a po' boy loaded with big, fried shrimp.
WATCH: How to Make a Shrimp Boil
Hilton Head Island
Watch the catch come in from a dockside table at Hudson's Seafood House on the Docks while sampling the absolute freshest shrimp served every which way, including New Orleans–style barbecued beauties.
The recently renovated Sonesta Resort Hilton Head Island offers beachfront access and family-friendly amenities, from pools and tennis to bike rentals. Rates start at $199.
Best Time to Go
By the end of summer, spring's juvenile shrimp have matured to plump delights, and the tourists have thinned out. Bonus: Lowcountry sunsets are glorious in the fall.