The Grand Strand Gourmet

Murrels Inlet Grand Strand In the Seafood Capital of the United States known as Murrels Inlet, the shrimp are sweet and the briny cluster oysters explode in your mouth. the pace of life here is mirrored in the shimmering waters lapping gently under the Inlet’s boardwalk lined with rustic restaurants. murrels is just one of 12 Myrtle Beach communities that make up 60 miles of coastline known as the Grand Strand.

Myrtle Beach is the northernmost part of the Lowcountry, defined as such for its geographic drop in sea level, where picturesque towns lined with shrimp boats have inspired a style of cooking known for its fresh-from-the-sea simplicity.

One of the great time-honored traditions here is an oyster roast. In it’s most natural form, a group of people eat roasted, or steamed, oysters over a makeshift table with a hole cut out of it, on top of a big empty bin. Everyone happily shucks and slurps on the oysters and throws the shells in the hole.

Then there’s the venerable Lowcountry boil. You grab a huge pot and boil up local blue crab, snow crab, red potatoes, corn, shrimp and whatever else is lying around.

“Then in season we’ll throw in some crawfish, maybe some smoked sausage flavored in Cajun spices and serve it up on a big checkered tablecloth,” says Mr. Fish, aka Ted Hammerman. “We just did that for a real estate convention for 150 people.” Hammerman owns a 22-ft mobile kitchen to cater parties up to 500 on the beach and around the islands.

Do you use forks or hands for that, Mr. Fish?

“Well it depends how down and dirty you want to get,” he says. “We like being hands-on around here. For instance, some people catch their own fish for dinner, like cobia, grouper or snapper. We’ll teach them how to scale ’em, gill ’em and gut ’em if they want.”

Kimberly Miles, spokesperson for the Myrtle Beach CVB, adds that, “People don’t come to Myrtle Beach just for our food, but it certainly is a huge draw.” She credits chef Kurt D’Aurizio for popularizing “Carolina Coastal” cuisine. As director of cuisine for South Carolina’s Divine Dining Group, he oversees the only two restaurants that have earned 4-diamond ratings in the area, Umi Pacific Grille and Divine Prime, both of which are popular venues for corporate functions, Miles explains.

She says in this part of the Lowcountry, cooking revolves around regionally-grown produce and herbs, sustainable meats and fresh seafood, without a lot of heavy sauces. It’s food best eaten within earshot of the ocean and seasoned with salt-tinged tradewinds.

Becky Billingsley is secretary of the Myrtle Beach Culinary Federation and owner of Myrtle Beach Restaurant News. She just established Grand Strand Culinary Tours, catering to groups Easter through October who hunger for a taste of Carolina Coastal cooking. The idea came to her when she heard that the “number one travel option groups want is a culinary tour. They’ll go home and tell stories about the food and their experiences for years,” she says.

Choices of tours vary from an hour-long boutique restaurant experience to day tours for 30-50 people at select historic sites and restaurants along the Grand Strand, sampling regional dishes enroute such as chicken bog, a hardy 1-pot dish consisting mostly of chicken, onions, celery, smoked sausage and rice. Need a breather? Drunken Jack’s offers local pirate and ghost tales while groups snack on seared sea scallops piled on risotto and topped with lump crabmeat in a creamy parmesan sauce.

One of Billingsley’s walking tours is to the area’s county seat of Conway, “a river city that takes you back in time because most of the buildings are on the historic register,” says Miles. Groups also sample the Ocean Fish Market’s specialty of the house, a Spot Fish sandwich—“a small mild fish cooked with its head on and served open-faced on plain white bread,” describes Billingsley. Another group tour is a half-day package aboard the 205-foot Sun Cruz VIII casino boat in Little River, offering a gaming session and cooking lesson whipping up a local fave dish: shrimp ’n grits.

Planners should also look into Brookgreen Gardens, a thriving and colorful nature park and zoo housing the largest collection of outdoor American sculpture in the country.

“Someone looking for a private, unique venue that offers natural beauty, art and education within 9,200 acres should come to Brookgreen Gardens,” says Helen Benso, vp of marketing for the historic landmark. Group facilities include the former Southern Living Showcase House that hosts groups up to 20, and the Lowcountry Center’s 150-seat auditorium. The Welcome Center conference room seats 30 boardroom or 70 theater with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the portico and Sculpture Garden.

HOTEL CAROLINA The 250,00-sf Myrtle Beach Convention Center is surrounded by over 89,000 guestrooms, with 3,000 of them either oceanfront or oceanview. Almost all are within a mile of the Convention Center, including the adjacent 402-room Sheraton Myrtle Beach Convention Center Hotel. More than 20 of the area’s hotels and resorts contain meeting space for groups from 10 to 2,000.

For groups like MillerCoors Brewing Company, the decision to return for the second consecutive year to the Hilton Myrtle Beach Resort had less to do with being amidst the hustle-and-bustle of the immediate convention area. It has more to do with “the spectacular ocean view from the north lawn, excellent service, and being in an ideal setting that was secluded enough to offer privacy, even on the grounds of a resort hotel,” comments Arlene Ryan, operations administrator for MillerCoors.

“Chef Peter Gennarott and his catering staff just never said, ‘No that won’t work’ to any of our requests for pairing up four of our beers with food,” says Ryan about the meal for 90 MillerCoors sales team from six states and DC. “The meal gave them firsthand knowledge of pairings that they could use in their pitches to clients.”

The menu was “just perfect,” she adds. “Our Miller Chill was served with a lobster and crab cake appetizer, and the Blue Moon Belgian White came with a grilled granny smith apple salad atop romaine”—a salad she credits Gennarott for creating just to match the flavors of the beer. The entrée was a sesame-coated chicken breast, asparagus and baby carrots accompanying the Leinenkugel Classic Amber, but the topper to the evening was the Leinenkugel Berry Weiss beer accompanying a chocolate lava flourless cake.

Will MillerCoors return again to Hilton Myrtle Beach?

“It’s three weeks later and they’re still talking about that cake with that beer. What do you think?”

The Hilton is part of Kingston Shores, sister property to the 145-acre Kingston Plantation. The Shores opened a new 14,400-sf conference center last year, bringing total meeting space to 48,000 sf.

Sequestered away to the north end of the Grand Strand, the 230-room Marina Inn at Grande Dunes is a member of Small Luxury Hotels. The atmosphere here is more residential in nature with some of the best dining in town. In fact, the WaterScapes restaurant recently hosted a training seminar for sommeliers associated with Societe Mondiale du Vin. The 4-diamond resort features 15,000 sf of meeting space and two golf courses cascading around 34 acres of freshwater lakes and the intercoastal waterway.

Mix golf and 1920’s era Southern charm at the vaunted Pine Lakes Country Club, which just reopened after a $15 million renovation. One of South Carolina’s most regal golf facilities, the Clubhouse was originally opened in 1927 as the Ocean Forest Hotel, a Great Gatsby-esque structure noted for its elegant balls and receptions. In 1954, a group of men playing golf here had a couple meetings and dreamed up Sports Illustrated. But not really the place for a Lowcountry boil. Instead, book the Azalea or Magnolia ballrooms for a true Southern Social, with champagne and blue crab hors d’oeuvres out on the patio overlooking the gardens.