Travel Destination: Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
Even in the seafood and southern barbecue-heavy restaurant scene, there are many great gluten-free and vegan-friendly places on Hilton Head Island. After not visiting for a few years, I was excited to rediscover old favorites and try out many new places during my recent trip.
Lentil pasta. Gluten-free – celiac safe – and vegan snickerdoodles. These were several items I did not expect to find being offered at the restaurants and bakeries across Hilton Head. Yet, find them I did. Hilton Head is a Spring Break, golf and retirement destination, but it’s growing lineup of food establishments continues to attract and draw in tourists and new residents alike.
I grew up traveling to Hilton Head with my family, so my memories of dining out go back several decades. The island has changed a lot in that time. A giant Kroger has opened to satisfy the many Michiganders and Ohioans who turn to HHI as an escape from the cold, snowy winters, as well as a modest Whole Foods Market. Between both new grocery stores, I was able to source many of my favorite snack brands: Hilary’s veggie burgers, bites and breakfast sausages; Simple Mills sprouted seed and almond flour crackers; and Siete Family Foods tortilla chips among them.
Even though I stocked my hotel’s pantry and freezer for my frequent snacking, I didn’t have to worry so much about cooking meals… something I remember having to do more of on my last visit. Below is a recap of my experiences eating out at a handful of places on Hilton Head. These meals met or exceeded my expectations, making me look forward to my next visit.
Santa Fe Cafe
Santa Fe Cafe is a longtime favorite. Authentic southwestern cuisine and one of, if not the only, Hilton Head restaurants that has dedicated menus for gluten free and vegan. Both menus have only changed slightly over the many years I’ve been eating off them. On this visit, I learned that their black beans side was no longer vegan, having diary now added to them instead of cheese being sprinkled on top.
Nevertheless, my old standby, the veggie fajitas, were still on the vegan menu, along with a new Southwest salad and veggie burrito. All three dishes could be made gluten-free by swapping the flour tortillas for corn tortillas on the fajitas and boing a burrito bowl instead of a wrapped burrito. I went with the fajitas, but asked if I could get the kidney beans, which come on the burrito, tossed in as well.
My waitress was happy to accommodate my request. Then after my family ordered guacamole for the table, she asked if I would like cucumber slices to go with it instead since the tortilla chips are not made in a dedicated fryer. I said that be be great, and she brought out a plate of cucumbers to go with the giant guacamole.
My veggie fajitas were beautiful (pictured above) and packed with a variety of veggies, beans and corn. It was also served with their house salsa, which has a bit of a kick to it. It was a great meal as usually. Next time I might try one of the other entrees. The roasted sweet potatoes on the salad sound like they’d be a great choice.
Santa Fe continues to be a reliable source of great food and a knowledgeable staff.
Healthy Habit is a new build-your-own-salad and juice bar. As a major bonus, Healthy Habit offers a daily gluten-free and vegan soup. On the day I visited, the soup was a white bean and kale stew.
Since it’s relatively new, I could tell the staff was still being trained on how to handle severe food allergies and intolerances, such as celiac disease. Each salad is chopped on a cutting board before being tossed with dressing and additional toppings in a large bowl. When I placed my order, I confirmed with who I’m assuming is either the owner or manager that they would use clean or separate items to prepare my salad. She assured me they would.
As it turned out, on first try the salad makers dumped the vegetables a part of my salad on a used board. However, after seeing the allergy, the employee went make to check with the owner/manager about what to do. She instructed him to change gloves and use a clean cutting board and chopper. With this instruction, I watched as they swapped everything out and safely made my salad.
Both the salad I created from the tons of gluten-free and vegan vegetables, legumes and grains available, and the soup were very tasty. I enjoy the chopped salads and Healthy Habit reminded me of The Big Salad, a chain back in Michigan. It was a great lunch place, and they clearly cater to nutritious eating and food allergies. I’ll definitely be back next time I’m in town.
Although they’ve been around for seven years, this was my first time dining at Pomodori. But once you see it’s location (hidden behind trees at the end of a strip mall) it’s easy to see why. However, Pomodori serves up some of the best scratch-made Italian food on the island in an authentic and intimate setting. The chef also recently won Savannah’s edition of the Food Network show “Bite Club.”
For gluten-free and vegan eaters, you have two pasta options. Pomodori offers a corn penne and zucchini spirals. Once I told our waitress I was both celiac and vegan, she immediately recommended their off-menu, go-to vegan/allergen dish: pasta primavera. Essentially chickpeas and whatever seasonal vegetables are on hand tossed with the zucchini spirals in their homemade delicate tomato sauce. This dish sounded exactly like one I’ve ordered variations of at many different restaurants and I happily agreed to go with her request.
In addition to the pasta, I asked if the roasted brussel sprouts could be prepared gluten-free and vegan. They typically come with cheese, but our waitress said she could put the cheese on the side so I could share them with my family. When the sprouts arrived, they looked great and tasted great with a light lemon sauce on them. Unfortunately, once we got near the bottom of the bowl, I spotted a piece of fried breadcrumb.
Our waitress alerted the manager who went back to talk with the chef. The chef showed him that he cleared a section of the kitchen off just to cook my meal and had no idea how the breadcrumb ended up in the brussel sprouts. Now, usually if I’m served gluten by accident I won’t eat anything else from that restaurant for fear of a repeat occurrence. This time I decided to let it go (even though I was terrified I got glutened) because of the precautions the chef was taking to make my food.
After that, my pasta primavera was nice and quite tasty. The mushrooms tossed in were my favorite. Unfortunately, they didn’t put chickpeas in it, but after the mixup with the sprouts I wasn’t going to complain. The delicate tomato sauce was light and flavorful, although it didn’t stick on the spirals. My father had a thicker, marinara sauce on his veggie lasagna – which he swears was the best he’s ever had – that I’d like to try with it next time. I will give them a second opportunity because they do seem to take food allergies and dietary preferences seriously.
Plus, my family was overwhelmingly happy with their meals.
The Quarterdeck Waterfront Dining
Located in the Sea Pines Resort, next to the iconic Harbour Town Lighthouse, Quarterdeck overlooks the Calibogue Sound and is an ideal spot for watching yachts and fishing boats come and go or golfers finish a round. The restaurant has an outdoor patio with live music during the summer and a two-story interior dining room. With its waterfront setting, Quarterdeck specializes in seafood, but offers a variety of chicken, meat and vegetarian fare, too. Every gluten-free dish is marked on the menu.
My family and I were seated inside at a table on the second floor of the restaurant. I had called to confirm beforehand that a vegetarian entree – a spaghetti squash with grilled portobellos, roasted tomates and arugula – could be prepared vegan, since it’s already labeled as gluten free. I was assured it could be.
When our waitress came by to take our orders, I had her confirm with the chef just to be sure. I also asked her if it came with a sauce, and when she said it did not, I asked if they had a tomato sauce that could be put on. She came back a few minutes later and explained the chef could make the dish vegan by omitting the butter it’s usually cooked in, and that they did have a tomato sauce that would be safe for me.
All sounded good, and I ordered an additional side of the seasonal vegetable to accompany my meal.
When my meal arrived, I immediately was glad that I asked for the tomato sauce. It was a simple vegetable plate with the grilled portobellos, roasted tomatoes and greens resting on the squash, and I eagerly dumped the sauce on to bring it together and give it more flavor. By doing that, the dish was tasty and I ended up tossing the julienned squash and carrots in, too.
After our dinner, my family and I agreed that the quality of the food wasn’t up to the high prices we paid for our meals. We felt like we paid for the view, but received “Denny’s” or “Ruby Tuesday’s” quality. In fact, my roasted squash tasted nearly identical to one I used to get at Ruby Tuesday’s. As a result, I likely won’t be back anytime soon. I appreciated their effort and enjoyed the waterfront scenery, but I prefer the spaghetti squash entree at Frankie Bones, another Hilton Head Island restaurant that we did not eat at this visit.