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Jun 1, 2024

Not Fancy, Just Good

Barry Kaufman

Photography By

“I don’t think a whole lot has changed here in that time,” Banks said. “Which is another reason why people keep coming back.”  

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The face of Hilton Head Island has undergone a dramatic change over the past couple of decades. Those of us who recall escaping the summer heat to The Mall at Shelter Cove’s air-conditioned confines can do so only in our memories now. In the spot where late-night munchies were once conquered at Huddle House, the beauty of Compass Rose Park now inspires visitors with island lore. And the haziest memories are all that remains of the legendary hedonism of Monkey Business.

That’s not a knock on progress. Each of these institutions has faded into the past, but in their stead has blossomed an island that will endure into the future. 

As an institution of that bygone era, The Sea Shack isn’t going anywhere. While there might be a new look to the dining room, with fresh paint, flooring, and furniture that elevates the restaurant’s famed casual approach, it’s still The Sea Shack. It’s still an experience defined by the delectable aroma of seafood when you enter, the smiling faces of a crew that have been there for the long haul, and hospitality that brings you back to a simpler time in Hilton Head’s history.

“We’ve seen it grow and evolve, but not change,” said Benjamin Banks.

Robert and Ben Banks

His son Robert Banks, who cut his teeth working at the restaurant while studying at USCB, took over as manager two years ago. 

“I actually worked here in the very, very beginning, here and there for Gary and Kelly (Willams, who owned the restaurant until 2004),” Robert Banks said. “I was going to school across the street at USCB and sometimes I would come out to find a note on my windshield that said, ‘Hey, can you come work for a few hours?’ So I would ride over here and I would work.”

The interior of The Sea Shack offers a few tables for dining in. 

When general manager Gene Baldwin decided to take a step back after 19 years at the helm, it was Banks’ chance to step in. Having seen firsthand how The Sea Shack’s reputation was built, he knew that the first order of business would be to simply keep a hand on the wheel.

“The place really does work like a machine. Everybody has their own little part. And when everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing it, it works really, really well. You know, people go crazy for this place,” Banks said. “Just trying to sharpen it up is the best thing that you can do at this place; just trying to make it run as efficiently as possible. And, you know – don’t fix what isn’t broken.”

The Sea Shack is located at 6 Executive Park Road, off of Pope Avenue not far from the Sea Pines Circle.

That means cleaving to the elements that made The Sea Shack an institution that has endured even with so much change around it. It’s still the same broad menu of seafood favorites, cooked to order. It’s still mouth-watering food that doesn’t particularly care if it becomes Instagram famous. And, if you’re a local, it’s still a matter of getting the timing right.

 “They know when to be here,” Banks said. “If you come first thing when we open or late in the afternoon, you’re usually good. But between 12 and 2 p.m., it’s going to be crazy in here.”

“Crazy” might be a strong term. Yes, there will be a line stretching out into the parking lot. But that’s part of the experience. Not only for the diners, who use that wait as an opportunity to work up their appetite to a fever pitch, but also for the staff. For the past 19 years, those moments when it seems the entire island has lined up at the door of The Sea Shack are the moments that have fueled Head Chef Sonya Brown.

“I don’t pay attention to the line. You can’t,” Brown said. “I just get into the zone. I’m just looking at tickets and cooking.”

When she’s in the zone, she’s creating the kind of seafood that has fueled the restaurant’s reputation as the island’s culinary standard. And when she’s not, her wide smile and easy humor create the experience that has kept that line long.

“Seeing the customers come back year after year after year, you remember their names,” Brown said. “You remember their faces and a lot of times you remember what they order.”

That rapport with the customers is something Brown has developed over the past 19 years, an indelible part of the restaurant’s famed reputation. 

“The only reason you find people working in the same place for that span of time is that they do well, they’re treated well, and they’re just happy to be here,” Banks said. That applies not only to long-time employees like Sonya, but to the customers who find themselves drawn back time and again. 

“There are two customers, Cindy and Larry, from Virginia. They come down twice a year and stay for two weeks at a time, and they will bring us food,” Banks said. “The cupboard, that table, and this side counter will all be covered in ham, cheese and crackers, pepper jelly. … Sometimes they’ll make soup or they’ll bake a whole turkey for us. I mean, it’s crazy. And they’ll eat here almost every day.”

You don’t get that kind of loyalty overnight. And when you have it, keeping it is just a matter of remembering what brought them there in the first place. The food. The people. And the atmosphere. If you nailed them all 26 years ago, why mess that up?

“I don’t think a whole lot has changed here in that time,” Banks said. “Which is another reason why people keep coming back.”  

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