The Reward in Dining Fine: Hugo’s Seafood & Steakhouse
Author: Kitty Bartell | Photographer: Photography by Anne
Hugo Arrieta, Sr. knows a little something about creating a great restaurant guest experience, and his son Brandon Arrieta is building on that legacy at their restaurant Hugo’s. Emigrating from Argentina, Arrieta, Sr. spent eight years in New York working as a restaurant manager; joined Fitzgerald’s on Hilton Head Island when it opened its doors in the 1970s and managed it for 28 years, establishing it as a must-dine, ocean-side destination.
Shortly after closing the doors on its reign as one of the island’s finest restaurants, the Arrietas took the Fitzgerald’s model, made only a few changes to meet the changing island demographics, and opened Hugo’s in the Village at Wexford. “In the 1970s, the island was radically different. It was more of an exclusive place for golfers to go,” Brandon Arrieta said. “There were just a handful of restaurants. You didn’t go to dinner. You went dining; and when you dined, it was a three- or four-hour event. At Fitzgerald’s you could have your whole evening prepared and served tableside; appetizers, Caesar salad, Steak Diane, Bananas Foster, cordials… fun, fun stuff.”
The Wexford location was the perfect launching pad to establish the restaurant’s character, maintaining a significant portion of the Fitzgerald’s menu—much to the delight of its legion of fans—while beginning work on their ever-evolving identity. “Dad understood how change must happen to stay alive in the restaurant business,” Arrieta said.
In 2011, Hugo’s relocated to South Island Square, where there was more room to stretch their culinary wings, and where the younger Arrieta knew it was the perfect time and place to initiate a rebranding of sorts. “Not a total overhaul, but a shift,” he said. Starting by adding linen tablecloths to the décor, Arrieta’s goal was to make people feel that any night could be a special night.
“We wanted the customer to have their cake and eat it too,” he said. “We wanted the experience to be more intimate. Anywhere you sit in the restaurant you are off in some little area. We were very deliberate with how we did the layout of the place. We want people to feel like it’s their private time—like you’re in your own little world. There’s not a table that doesn’t have that feeling, and there’s still room for the tableside cart to cruise around.”
Hugo’s is building a neighborly relationship with the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina through their show nights VIP program. Making a reservation with Hugo’s for this experience includes your show tickets waiting in a gold envelope at your table, a three course menu selected to be related to the show, and being personally seated at the show by the stage manager.
That tableside cart is a highly anticipated feature of dining at Hugo’s; with a wink to its fine dining roots the cart also provides the team with the opportunity to test imaginative, new, menu offerings. Ever-entertaining, the flaming desserts prepared on the cart provide a variety of tastes, including bananas, cherries, apples, peaches, butterscotch and chocolate. The latest incarnations of the cart are guacamole and crab dips, the perfect foil to the new surf & turf (think lobster and tenderloin), tacos, and personal-sized, salt-encrusted snapper, served with a mallet for the customer to crack open the citrusy fish inside its little cocoon.
Another item on the menu that is so new it is still being vetted and doesn’t have a name yet is classic mac and cheese, elevated with lobster that is coated in a specially seasoned flour, deep-fried, and served with a sherry cream sauce. “It’s interesting, it’s different, and no one else has it,” Arrieta said. “It has the Southern influence and then the almighty lobster. It’s amazing.”
Hugo’s really began flexing their penchant for innovation when, in 2012, they started entering food competitions and winning rather frequently. Garnering victories during Restaurant Week and at Taste of the Season, Arrieta and his team raise the bar with each competition. “For Taste of the Season this year, it’s going to be ever-more complicated,” Arrieta said. “I don’t know if we have a chance, but they won’t be able to say that it wasn’t absolutely amazing—the best one yet.”
Anchoring this steak and seafood house is some of the best beef offered on the island. “Hugo’s is only one of two or three restaurants on the island that serves Certified Angus Beef,” Arrieta said. “Of those, I think we’re the only one that uses 100 percent Certified Angus Beef. With 100 percent certified, you know everything about that steak: how it was raised, where it was raised, how it was fed, how it was managed.” That translates to a win-win with fewer steaks being sent back to the kitchen and very satisfied customers.
Building on their Lowcountry identity, Hugo’s sources local ingredients as much as is possible. “We use Certified South Carolina Grown produce, Certified South Carolina local seafood. We’re getting anything we can that’s on our menu from South Carolina, or even more locally, from Beaufort County. About one-quarter of our beef comes from South Carolina,” Arrieta said.
The catering division is finding a solid fan-base from their regular customers and word-of-mouth, and their catering prowess won Hugo’s the 2013 Island Packet’s Best Catering Award. Hugo’s is also building a neighborly relationship with the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina through their show nights VIP program. Making a reservation with Hugo’s for this experience includes your show tickets waiting in a gold envelope at your table, a three course menu selected to be related to the show, and being personally seated at the show by the stage manager. Your server will be sure you have a superb dining experience and make it to the show on time.
According to Arrieta, it is all about an exceptional guest experience. “It starts there and it stops there.” Hugo’s’ legacy has been firmly established in the soft sands of Hilton Head.
Hugo’s is open for dinner seven nights a week from 4:30 p.m. – until, and for Sunday Brunch from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., offering lunch favorites, brunch classics and bottomless Mimosas. Early dining specials are offered nightly from 4:30-6 p.m., along with $17.99 Hugo Nights nightly specials. Hugo’s private dining room is available for special events. For more information or to make reservations, call (843) 785-HUGO (4846) or visit hugoshiltonhead.com.