Vacation mecca Myrtle Beach may have a reputation for great golf courses and uber-casual dining. But aficionados of fine dining will find a number of stellar restaurants, including Aspen Grill, Kelly Graham's Sea Blue, and Capt. Dave's Dockside Restaurant.
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — The lights are low, the piano player's doing his best Billy Joel and the lobster bisque doesn't just taste like any regular bowl.
In fact, this is the best bisque you've ever had. And you've fine dined in Manhattan, Las Vegas and Paris.
You're golfing in Myrtle Beach. No, really. Stop the laughter. I'm not joking.
Sure, Myrtle Beach takes a lot of flak for being more fast food wrapper than white tablecloth (from this writer included). Golf Digest once sent two golfers in tuxes here, only to have them eat in spots like the Olive Garden and poke fun at the whole scene.
No doubt there are plenty of hot dog shacks and cheap breakfast spots with peeling wallpaper. Souvenir kitsch definitely rules over glitz. But the truth is Myrtle Beach dining can be what you make of it.
Do a little research, ask the right people (hint: the guy in a tank top chugging his third six pack in front of you at Wicked Stick isn't a go-to source) and you can experience some very satisfying culinary experiences in the land of $3.99 T-shirts, too.
Start with the Aspen Grill. This is the place with the piano player and sophisticated low country food — including that thin, flavor-packed bisque and a crab cake main course to relish. Not that you'd deduce any of this from its exterior.
Aspen Grill is found in a little strip mall on Kings Highway, one of about 100 strip mall centers on Kings Highway. It has a simple sign and a dark window that give no hint of what's inside. I'd like to say that great reporting brought me to this high-end find. Truth is, I just happened to walk in and stumble upon a restaurant worthy of many bigger cities.
Sea Blue in North Myrtle Beach carries a lot more buzz. Yes, it's next door to a Starbucks and across the street from a TGIF (it's Myrtle Beach, you learn to deal). But the inside brings the kind of sleek setting and mood lighting you'd get in a South Beach club (OK maybe, a South Beach club 15 years ago — think Miami Vice with a huge fish tank — but it's still cutting edge for the Grand Strand).
More importantly, the food from chef/owner Kelly Graham shows you how good Myrtle Beach's fresh seafood can be when put in the hands of a real pro.
If you and your golf buddies, or you and the wife you dragged along, are looking for a restaurant that fits a black and white movie's version of fine dining, a place where people feel like they should dress up, hit The Library. Right in the heart of downtown Myrtle Beach, The Library has tuxedo-clad waiters and an atmosphere the older crowd loves.
Of course, you are on the ocean. Chances are you might want to see something more than a Chili's outside the window when you're dining. For high-end food on the water, go to Capt. Dave's Dockside Restaurant in Murrells Inlet. It sounds frighteningly like a place that would have a mascot dressed in a captain's suit and laminated menus with tarter sauce stains from last month's diners.
Instead, it's a spot right on the water where those with a boat can pull right up to the dock, drop anchor and eat. The food's a little more sophisticated, too, with whole snapper, oysters and low country shrimp and grits (don't knock it, till you've tasted it).
The Grand Strand packs plenty of surprises like this. It may not be Chicago. But it's no Gary, Ind., either. No culinary wasteland here. You might not be able to find a foodie palace to match every top-notch, top-dollar golf course. But dinner need not be wasted.
While checking out Myrtle Beach's high-end restaurants, don't forget to pop in Sam's Corner — a 24-hour hot dog and beer diner that's an institution. Good dining doesn't always mean top prices. Or even shiny clean silverware.
Try it. You're in Myrtle Beach. You don't want everyone to think you're a snob. At least, not a complete snob.
June 11, 2007