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Feb 27, 2024

Traditions Continue as Family Legacies Meld in New Restaurant

Lynne Cope Hummell

Photography By

The new Benny’s Coastal Kitchen off Squire Pope Road is built on what some might call hallowed ground. The Main Dining Room at Benny’s Coastal Kitchen overlooks Skull Creek, with floor to ceiling windows boasting expansive water views.  It was on this land alongside Skull Creek that the late Benny Hudson continued to build the […]

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The new Benny’s Coastal Kitchen off Squire Pope Road is built on what some might call hallowed ground.

The Main Dining Room at Benny’s Coastal Kitchen overlooks Skull Creek, with floor to ceiling windows boasting expansive water views. 

It was on this land alongside Skull Creek that the late Benny Hudson continued to build the fresh-caught seafood empire that his forebears began in the 1880s. The family has been selling seafood on the island since the days when steamboats traversed Lowcountry waters.

In the 1960s, Hudson and his family lived in a house about a mile away, also on Skull Creek, with nearby docks where he ran an oystering business. As transportation progressed – from wooden oyster bateaus to gas-powered shrimp trawlers – so did the wholesale seafood business. 

Hudson enjoyed entertaining, and he had plenty of shrimp, crabs, and oysters to serve. His dinner parties soon outgrew the family home. When asked what he was going to do with all that seafood, he said, “I think I’ll open a restaurant.”

On the land adjacent to his house, he built Hudson’s Seafood restaurant in 1968 (with no building permit, according to his widow, Barbara). 

“Charles Fraser had just started coming to the island, so everybody was by-passing the north end anyway and going to the Sea Pines area, so we were just kind of here, under the radar,” said Tonya Hudson, Benny’s daughter.

The restaurant was quite successful, adding dining room after dining room as the island population grew. Hudson sold it in 1975 to Brian Carmines, a banker from Atlanta. These days, Carmines’ son Andrew is at the helm of the restaurant.

The sale occurred about the same time the local shrimping season was over. Shrimpers moved their boats south to Key West, Florida, where the Gulf waters were warmer. Butch Hudson, Benny’s son, was one of those shrimpers heading that way. Benny and Barbara loaded up their recently purchased Winnebago camper and, with Tonya and their dogs, headed to Key West, too.

At the end of the summer, they decided to buy a house and stay awhile. Then, sometime in 1980, Benny told his wife he was homesick, so they moved back to Hilton Head – on the promise that he wouldn’t open another restaurant.

He agreed.

The bar and lounge area of Benny’s sits to the right of the main dining room. Here, guests can enjoy a full menu and creative cocktails. 

Five years prior, Hudson had bought his parents’ home a mile down Squire Pope Road – on the property where the new restaurant sits – so they moved into that house. He decided to build “a little dock” near their house to get back into the wholesale seafood business.

As shrimpers learned he was back in town, they returned to his dock, again offloading their catch for him to sell. But, as locals discovered the dock, they began to ask to buy “just a pound or two of shrimp,” Barbara said.

Eventually, Benny started building again. This time, he bought two shipping containers from Savannah and put them together on the property – one to store the shrimp and the other to sell them.

That enterprise soon became Benny Hudson’s Seafood Market.

Tonya was in college, and Benny wanted to get Barbara “out of his hair,” she said. Once again, he started building, and created a 10,000-square-foot furniture store on the property, closer to the road. When Tonya came home from college, she helped her mother with the store.

It was in that store that Barbara met Diane Reilley, wife of Tom Reilley, who had opened Reilley’s, an Irish pub on the island’s south end, in 1982. This was the beginning of many circles that began to intersect and are still connecting.

“She came in and said that they needed a bed,” said Barbara, who worked with her to order and deliver the bed she wanted.

In 1988, Benny contracted spinal meningitis and was in a coma for three months, Barbara said. “After that, he slowed down a good bit,” she said. He was blind in one eye, had a tracheotomy tube in his neck, and got to the point he could barely walk, but none of that stopped him. 

His next project was to build a railway, a structure used to pull boats out of the water to be cleaned or painted. The rail still exists and is being used by a boat maintenance company. 

“It’s the last one, I think, from Jacksonville all the way up to the Cape – one of the last working railways,” Tonya said. “And Daddy built it. He pulled one boat before he passed.”

Hudson died in April 1997.

But his legacy and his history will live on in Benny’s Coastal Kitchen, said Brendan Reilley of Coastal Restaurants and Bars (CRAB), which comprises nine other restaurants, including the original Reilley’s that was started by his parents, Tom and Diane.

“My goal is to have the story – the history – displayed as you walk up to the second floor,” Reilley said.

The 9,000-square-foot restaurant has two stories, with seating for 210 downstairs and 90 upstairs, where there is also a rooftop bar.

Chef Shaun Carter puts the finishing touches on a dish. 

The contemporary building features sleek lines and lots of windows. As with most restaurants built on the water, the view is of paramount importance.

The restaurant was designed by local architect Tom Parker, president of Parker Design Group, and built by Shoreline Construction. Interior design was done locally by Caroline Hamburg with CSH Designs. Most furnishings were custom-built by Nautical Furnishings of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

The original seafood market, which Tonya now runs, is no longer on the docks, but has moved into the building that used to house the furniture store. About one-third of the building was demolished, making room for a parking lot in front.

The boat maintenance operation near the rail will continue to operate as well.

“None of the businesses on the land should be disrupted by the restaurant,” Reilley said.

In addition to preserving businesses on the property, the ownership of the property is being preserved as well. Barbara still owns it and leases it to the CRAB group.

How that arrangement came about involves more circles.

Lively Libations (from left to right) Palmetto Paloma, Gin Basil Bliss and Rip Tide Blackberry Smash 

“We got the connection with Barbara through Janice Heuck, who is our neighbor at Fishcamp,” Reilley said. Fishcamp is a CRAB restaurant located on the site of Simmons Fishing Camp, where Gullah waterman Charlie Simmons had a general store, and where he ferried folks back and forth to Savannah on his boat.

Heuck lives next door to Fishcamp, and she works at Benny Hudson’s Seafood Market with Tonya. 

Heuck was pleased with how Reilley worked with the Simmons family on that property, and the fact that the CRAB Group is leasing the land from them – the same kind of arrangement he worked out with the Hudson family. She knew Reilley because he went to school with her son.

“Janice was really happy with us and how we did things there, so when Barbara told her, ‘I’m looking to do something different,’ she said, ‘Call Brendan,’” Reilley said.

Over the years, Barbara had gotten numerous offers from developers and other entities who wanted to buy their prime waterfront property on Skull Creek.

“We called them the ‘suits’ – these guys would get out of these big cars in their three-piece suits and say, ‘We’ve got an idea!’” Tonya said. Some had plans drawn up, but all of them wanted to build something huge, from condos, timeshares, and affordable housing to an embarkation for a gambling boat.

None of the offers felt right to Barbara. But the discussion that started with Reilley about five years ago was different. 

Oysters served chilled on the half shell with a bit of bubbly on the side. 

“I had a good feeling about him from the start,” Barbara said. “I felt like I knew him because I knew Tom, and he is a man of good character. I knew from personal conversations that he was a straight shooter. You’re not raised in a household like that without some of that fluffing on you.”

Her daughter agreed. 

“The other thing I think that really hit us with Brendan was he came at us like nobody else could because his main goal was to meld the Reilley and the Hudson history together,” Tonya said.

The View: Watch the coming and going of boats in and out of Skull Creek while you enjoy lunch or dinner. 

“When you do a deal, it has to be a win-win,” Reilley said. “And for us, this was a win-win. It wasn’t either one of us trying to take advantage of the other.”

CRAB broke ground on the restaurant in November 2022, after several years of planning, drawings, permitting, and such. As early as last August, the CRAB team planned to open February 5 this year. “I’ll be very disappointed if we are not open by Valentine’s Day,” Reilley said at the time.

After months of hard work, it was time for the final push. 

“We had the staff hired and ready. It was stressful on a lot of us, for sure,” Reilley said recently. “It took a group effort and a big push from our contractor to get that done.”

Benny’s Coastal Kitchen opened as planned on February 5, with more than 200 diners that evening. 

Brazilian Fish Stew: Coconut milk, shrimp, clams, fish, scallops, Carolina Gold rice

“Opening night was an emotional roller coaster. You are running on fumes to get everything completed – exhausted and excited at the same time,” Reilley said. “I felt super confident in our team. I already knew we had the best executive chef, Shaun Carter, and sous chef, Wes Waters, on the island. The rest of the team had only been in the building a few days, but the energy was all positive and they all had the same mindset to be better than anyone expects. I think we did that Day One and will continue to make things better and better every day.”

Among those first guests were Tonya and Barbara Hudson. Reilley said Barbara intentionally had not seen the inside of the building since framing. 

“We had a few surprises for her, like the hanging boat chandelier ‘Barbara H’ and the history map,” Reilley said. “I am so thankful for the two of them and the trust they put in me to put this project together.”

Tonya said the atmosphere and the food were “fantastic.” 

But what struck them most was the way the Benny Hudson story was shared. 

Butter Lettuce Salad: Tomato, sweet peppers, strawberry champagne vinaigrette, toasted pistachios, feta crouton

“He (Brendan) couldn’t have done a more thoughtful presentation,” Tonya said, choking back tears. “The details, the way the pictures are framed, and the placards explaining the photographs and maps. …  You can tell there was just so much consideration and thoughtfulness in the way they did it.”

Asked what his personal interest was in the idea of preserving local legacies of land, Reilley said, “I just don’t want to take something that somebody’s had in their family for that long.”

As a man who was born on the island, where most of his family still resides, Reilley has learned the importance of honoring the history of place and the people who helped make Hilton Head Island what it is.

“The restaurant, although it’s not going to be five generations – it’s not going to be 200 years old – it is going to have the history of the Hudson family,” Reilley said. “When you’re there, you should be able to feel and hear and read part of that history.”  

Benny’s Coastal Kitchen is located at 75 Shrimpers Row, off Squire Pope Road on Hilton Head Island. Hours are daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. For more information, visit

Grilled Scallops: Farro pilaf, chimichurri, Caulilini


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