GILLAN'S: FRESH SEAFOOD
Author: Michael Paskevich | Photographer: Photography by Anne
Joe and Ned Gilleland honed their love of seafood in the most authentic manner possible. The brothers, Ohio transplants whose father (Ned Sr.) developed South Beach Marina in the late ’70s, were constantly on the water while growing up, cutting their own bait, serving as mates on charters and, at the end of the day, savoring the fresh-caught fruits of their labors.
“We became instant seafood freaks and we’ve now been in the seafood and restaurant business since we were kids,” said Ned Gilleland, co-owner of Gillan’s Fresh Seafood & Oyster Bar, 841 Wm. Hilton Pkwy., where the brothers focus on serving customers the same fresh fare they fell in love with years back. “We hadn’t lived until we ate oysters that had just been shucked. There’s no comparison because you still get the salt brine before they start drying out and the fresh taste and plumpness goes away. If you’re an oyster lover there’s no other way to eat them and a lot of people from out-of-state who think they’ve had great oysters, well, they really haven’t.”
The maturing Gilleland Brothers went on to become the biggest restaurant brokers in Beaufort County, developing and remodeling hundreds of area eateries, including a half-dozen of their own; the most recent was Eugene’s at Palmetto Bay Marina, which they sold about six years ago. “But we always had it in the back of our minds to one day do a real oyster bar,” Gilleland said, “and we finally found a spot with great frontage (on Highway 278) and an outdoor deck for dining and live entertainment. We wanted to create something that’s fun and casual, not a fancy-schmancy destination restaurant, because we’ve watched as Hilton Head has become much more family-oriented over the years. So we do a lot of discount specials and run a daily happy hour (4 to 6:30 p.m.) with 75-cent oysters, 40-cent shrimp and half-priced drinks. We serve happy hour throughout the restaurant, not just at the bar, and it’s a come-as-you-are place where it’s fine to wear shorts and flip-flops.”
Mid-island Gillan’s, sporting a simplified version of the family name that twists its share of tongues, opened last July and has been luring a steady supply of knowing locals and learning vacationers. And while Gilleland agrees that the word “fresh” is tossed about too freely in the restaurant game, the siblings and staff simply won’t serve anything else. “We literally open the oysters as you order them and get them fresh daily from Oregon to Maine,” he said. “At any given time, we have three of four different oysters available, and the local ones began arriving in September. We serve them steamed, fried or raw, which nobody else does, and we’ll start getting local shrimp in June. We never use shrimp that are imported from overseas. “
Likewise, Gillan’s doesn’t stock so-called grouper from South America or domestic clam strips that arrive pre-breaded in freezer-ready packaging. “We bread each clam ourselves and do everything from scratch; about the only thing you’ll find in our small freezer are the French fries and crab legs, which don’t come any other way these days.” All-you-can-eat steamed snow crab ($28.95) is available every Tuesday and Wednesday, with rotating specials such as Maine lobster dinners ($14.95) surfacing as well. The market-priced seafood roster is constantly changing, and a small shipment of striped sea bass from upstate recently made its way to a menu that’s influenced by seasonal changes and what actually lands in fishing boats.
“We have about six or seven purveyors that we’re in constant contact with,” Gilleland said. “They’ll call us up, tell us what they’ve got and we’ll have it here by the next day. Almost everything comes from within a 200-hundred mile radius of our local beach although products have been moving farther offshore due to overfishing. You can hardly get real American red snapper anymore, and the real stuff probably runs about 20 bucks a pound. But we’d want it so some of our people can enjoy something special,” he continued. “Our motto is: ‘If it swims we’ve got it’.”
The intimate eatery at South Island Square seats 90-people indoors in a slightly rustic setting that features deep wooden booths and hanging copper lamps plus a collection of mounted sport fish that includes some caught by members of the Gilleland clan. A shaded outdoor deck has room for another 40 lunch and dinner patrons and will showcase performances by musician David Wingo from 6 p.m. every Thursday and Friday through summer months, or inside near the ice-packed oyster bar if the weather turns uncooperative. Brunch is served Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. with entrées priced from $8.95.
“We’ve always got a lot of different things going on,” Gilleland said, “and we try to have a little something for everyone.” That means Chef Robert Ovens oversees a kitchen that also prepares select steaks, pasta, veal and chicken dishes for those who aren’t in the mood for even the freshest choices in seafood. “We make sure little Johnny can order a cheeseburger or chicken fingers, and if dad wants a five-pound live Maine lobster or a great steak, we’ll take care of that, too. Believe it or not, there are actually some folks out there who somehow don’t like seafood,” he added with a smile.
Gillan’s Fresh Seafood and Oyster Bar is located at 841 Wm. Hilton Pkwy., serving lunch Monday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m.; dinner daily 4-10 p.m., brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. For more information, visit Gillan’sfreshseafoodandoysterbar.com or call (843) 681-FISH.