A Long Weekend in Myrtle Beach

Kelly Alexander rediscovers a favorite childhood spot

Myrtle Beach, S.C., is the second beach I ever visited and the first one I really remember. My grandparents took me, we stayed at a Sheraton, and I ate a cheeseburger for the first time; I was 9 years old. I didn’t know then that Myrtle Beach had only become incorporated in the 1920s, and that it was the sort of beach that Southern people visit when they go on vacation (as opposed to, say, Miami Beach, which is a place that New Yorkers visit when they go on vacation). To me, it was paradise.

See A Long Weekend in Myrtle Beach Slideshow

In reality, Myrtle Beach has historically had to deal with a reputation that it's the kind of place where people comb the beaches with metal detectors and the hotels have signs that say "Welcome Snowbirds" and offer early-bird specials. As I grew up I visited fancier, less democratic beaches, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the "Grand Strand," as the 60 miles of Atlantic coastline stretching from Little River to Georgetown, S.C., and containing Myrtle Beach, is known. I am hardly alone: Myrtle Beach happens to be one of the most visited vacation destinations in America, attracting what its Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates as an annual haul of 14 million tourists. A lot of them come for golf (there are 102 courses currently, including a couple of public ones that have been rated among the country’s best of the genre). A lot of them come for special events, including the annual shag festival (the dance was "invented" in North Myrtle Beach) and Beach, Boogie & BBQ, a competitive cooking contest officially sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society (a big deal, if you follow such things).

I brought my family with me to investigate, because if an 8-year-old and a 5-year-old can’t be entertained in a place like Myrtle Beach, they’re doing something wrong. And I figured that if I could find something delicious to eat in the process, I’d be doing the memory of my grandparents justice. If you’re going to Myrtle Beach, here’s the best way to enjoy it.

Friday
4 p.m.:
To fully take in the town, you must drive both Ocean Drive and Kings Highway, the twin main drags that run north and south parallel to the ocean. Behold the frenzied array of all-you-can-eat buffets, strip clubs situated next door to mini-golf emporiums, every so-called "big box" chain you’ve ever heard of, T-shirt shops, pancake houses — it’s an incredible explosion of a certain notion of an "American vacation," whether you like it or not. Either way, there’s a lot to enjoy, from vintage 1950s-era signage to enormous statues of crabs. Literally: There is a giant crab affixed to the roof of The Giant Crab Seafood Restaurant. There are also more and better billboards than you are ever likely to have encountered in one place. Current favorite: "Your Mom? Yeah, We Did Her." (The product is, of course, "all area carpet cleaning" for $99.)

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7 p.m.: After cruising the strip, an extremely rarefied experience sans giant crab sculptures is in order, and, thankfully, is easy to find at The Brentwood Restaurant in Little River. So what is a Breton chef doing 20 miles north of Myrtle Beach? "That’s a very good question that a lot of people ask me," replies Eric Masson, the suave salt-and-pepper haired chef and proprietor. Turns out Masson came to Myrtle Beach by way of Paris, where he was cooking at the restaurant Le Quincampe in Les Halles when in walked an American girl from Amsterdam — not that one, the one in upstate New York. Soon enough, Masson, too, was in upstate New York, where he married the girl and began cooking classic French cuisine at various restaurants — to good reviews — in Saratoga Springs and Albany. After Masson’s in-laws retired to Myrtle Beach, Masson and his own family followed in 2007. Only, instead of setting up stove at one of the established resorts, they bought an historic old home off the beaten path and quickly began making it their own.

That means a menu of canonical dishes that Masson has adapted to local tastes: Instead of the usual "Coquilles St. Jacques," Masson prepares "St. Jacques Rockefeller," consisting of seared diver scallops with spinach, bacon, and Pernod-scented Mornay sauce. The name of the dish may sound like sacrilege but it works beautifully: And not only is Masson most likely the only chef within 50 miles who knows what sauce Mornay is, he’s probably also the only one who can prepare it textbook-perfectly. Other highlights of the menu include local black grouper, a properly heady, garlicky, and cognac-spiked escargot bourguignon, and, surprisingly for such a sophisticated dining room but perhaps in connection with its beach locale, a terrific children’s menu featuring pork chops with homemade apple slaw. Also nice: the staff is unfailingly gracious, not missing a beat even when very young guests happen to spill water everywhere and damage their mother’s iPhone (that’s anecdotal evidence, of course).

Saturday
10 a.m.:
The term farmers’ market evokes images of outdoor marketplaces where food purveyors display their wares and shoppers pick up tomatoes and sniff lettuces and sometimes there’s a selection of meats, cheeses, and locally grown items like wildflowers and plants and even beehives. Lee’s Farmers Market is not like that: This is a brick-and-mortar building with a ragtag assortment of gourmet groceries and deli (including imported pastrami and corned beef from Manhattan’s Carnegie Deli, a thrilling enticement for both visiting and relocated Yankees); local in-season produce (on one visit there was spectacularly fresh okra pods waiting to burst and practically begging to stew); a truly impressive array of dried beans, imported spices, and condiments; and many, many other products from hither and yon, like local honey, more than 200 types of cheese (the Italian selection is especially rich — think meltingly creamy burrata, aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, ricotta di buffala, and many more), and prepared foods (the thing here being crabcakes, made with treasures previously trawling the bottom of the inlet waters across the street). There’s also a lobster tank, steaks cut to order, and vintage-looking "penny" candy. Note that nothing is precious here; while Lee’s Farmers Market is not exactly what we’d call the cleanliest semi-gourmet grocery store, what it has in sawdust it more than makes up for in selection, service, and "authenticity."

12:30 p.m.: The first thing to know about "Mr. Fish" is that "he" is really three unique entities: a funky-modern seafood shack, a wholesale and retail local fish market, and a man named Ted Hammerman. The shrewd, cheerily potbellied Hammerman, a New Jersey native who came to Myrtle Beach by way of Scotts Bluff, Neb., and then Columbia, S.C., is the classic hardscrabble dude with a heart of gold: He’s been working with various restaurant chains as a fish buyer and supplier for years, he’s invented and patented crab traps (and a french fry-cutter, too), he’s opened and closed restaurants up and down the Grand Strand, and now Mr. Fish is in business with his daughter, Sheina, a 29-year-old graduate of Johnson & Wales University’s culinary program. Together the father-daughter team has created a very bright space, complete with vibrant sunshine-golden orange walls and handwritten giant chalkboards listing specials, in what is otherwise a nondescript strip mall.

The restaurant Mr. Fish is a place with lots of charm and gumption, a reflection of Sheina’s can-do attitude, but it wouldn’t be nearly so remarkable if the food weren’t such a pleasure to eat. This restaurant is a classic beach place with an attitude: You can get your fish and shrimp and oysters fried, blackened, grilled, or sautéed, like in any good sea shanty, but you can also get fish tacos, a "tower" of fried green tomatoes with fried shrimp, or a cup of smoky cumin-spiked chili with toothsome chunks of tuna filet. While the best dessert option at most beach joints is often at the ice cream shop around the block, here the butter-pecan cream pie served on a crust made of sweetened grits is outstanding.

See Sandwich of the Week: Black n' Bleu Tuna at Mr. Fish in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

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4 p.m.: There are a lot of what is euphemistically referred to in Myrtle Beach as "attractions," and that term can mean anything from one of the area’s more than 50 miniature golf outlets, with themes ranging from pirates to the jungle to dinosaurs, to Myrtle Waves, an enormous water park, to the Alabama Theater, where Bill Cosby happened to be performing. Someone wanted to go enjoy a little retail therapy on the Grand Strand. Beckoning were The Hammock Shops on Pawley’s Island and a new shopping center called The Market Common right on the main drag, both of which have local boutiques. I was, of course, outvoted the minute we drove past the NASCAR Speedpark. I’d love to tell you that not having an actual NASCAR follower in the house would make you immune to the charms of this spot, but that is a lie. One of only four such NASCAR -owned "speedparks" in the country, the Myrtle Beach branch has seven go-cart tracks, a few rides (think a race car-themed carousel and a tea cup-style ride made out of oversized Valvoline oil cans), a batting cage, and an indoor arcade with the usual Skee-Ball and pinball delights. My boys were so happy.

7 p.m.: It would be worth the 25-mile drive south from Myrtle Beach to Pawley’s Island just for the chance to visit one of the South’s most historic and beloved — and famously private — vacation spots. A narrow barrier island only four miles long, Pawley’s (town motto: "arrogantly shabby") has been a coastal retreat since the early 1700s, when rice plantation barons took their families (tip: a number of the antebellum homes in the historic district are available as beach rentals; for more information visit www.townofpawleys.com). The main reason to head slightly out of town, though, is for dinner with one of America’s best chefs, Louis Osteen, at his new restaurant Louis’s at Sanford’s.

Osteen is a native of Anderson, S.C., who has been making low-country diners clamor for his fine-dining versions of regional staples like she-crab soup and shrimp and grits since his days at Louis’s Charleston Grill in the 1980s. From that time, Osteen has become something of a wandering chef: after semi-retiring to Pawley’s in the mid-90s, he has opened and run restaurants all over the country, from Las Vegas to Nashville with several points in between. Firmly re-established back on Pawley’s since January, Osteen — along with his equally talented spitfire of a wife, the red-haired and sassy Marlene, who has always managed the front of the house and the wine program for her spouse — is back and better than ever, turning staples of his upscale Southern cuisine (yes, the world’s best she-crab soup is still there, as is his beloved pimento cheese, which the chef calls "pâté of the South" and is currently in development to market in gourmet groceries) and also proving that he’s one of those cooks who is always evolving and paying attention to what American diners want. I’d never expect to find meatballs on this chef’s menu, but Osteen’s veal and ricotta version ("I got the idea from reading Mario Batali," he says) are moist, tender, juicy, and served as sliders on small potato buns with piquant marinara sauce — as whimsical and lively an appetizer as you’re likely to find below the Mason-Dixon right now.

Osteen has also taken up the barbecue practice of slow-smoking meats and a category on the menu contains offerings "from a truly long visit with our smoker," the best of which are the hard-to-find, marvelously intense and gamey lamb ribs served with tarragon-mint pepper jelly (a fusion concoction if ever there was one). "Fried pies" are staples at Southern gas stations, but here Osteen takes the familiar and elevates it, serving tiny miniature half-moon fried peach or apple crescents depending on the season with locally made vanilla bean ice cream. A meal at Louis’s at Sanford’s is not only the best meal to be had in this town, but probably any town anywhere — a great way to spend a Saturday night, and you can always have a nightcap at the restaurant’s Fish Camp bar and hang out awhile; most likely Marlene will tell you everything you might want to know about Pawley’s while you digest.

Sunday

10 a.m.: "There’s something in a Sunday, makes a body feel alone," singer Kris Kristofferson wrote in "Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down." And there really is no better way to be alone than in that place of worship known to women and metrosexuals everywhere as "The Spa." Some spas are better than others, of course, and in Myrtle Beach in a brand new planned-urban-development complex called North Beach Plantation there is a good one called Cinzia. One of the things that makes it excellent is the "meditation room," a large solarium where you can preside in an impossibly plush bathrobe, drink a glass of (complimentary) wine while you collect your thoughts, nosh on a Dixie cup full of granola, listen to New Age music, and read the latest copy of InStyle. It’s amazing they ever got me out of there, but the siren call of an Island Hydrating Wrap, in which "your skin is gently dry brushed and then warmed oil containing vitamins and antioxidants is applied" after which your body "is wrapped while a warm oil scalp massage relieves all your tension." If you understand what that means, great; if you don’t, know that the masseuses are experienced, polite, and discreet, the products are topnotch, and the word "NASCAR" does not occur. After your procedure, take a walk on the beach.

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4 p.m.: I would never advise anyone to drink and drive, but I will suggest hitting 21 Main at North Beach for happy hour on your way out of town. The brand-spankin’-new steakhouse, an outpost of the original 21 Main in West Sayville, N.Y., owned by the Lovin Oven corporate catering company, is a high-ceilinged, vast affair decorated in trendy tones of light blue-and-mahogany, and is, in general, a place that screams "company dinner" or perhaps, "my father-in-law is paying." That said, it’s not without its place: The Manhattan is icy cold, the New York strip is suitably dry-aged, and the sushi bar is generally rocking. The menu is big and not everything works; it’s best to stick to staples like shrimp cocktail over "creative" listings (who knew cream was such an important ingredient in clams casino?), but this is a swell (enough) place to drink and feel clubby and rich, and leave a sophisticated taste in your mouth that wasn’t what you thought you’d find in Myrtle Beach.

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