Author: Kent Thune | Photographer: M.Kat Photography
If there was a short list of quintessential Hilton Head Island restaurants, Bistro 17 would be on it. From the food, to the inner ambiance, to the beautiful harbor view, Bistro 17 has the perfect recipe for an outstanding dining experience.
The not-so-secret ingredient to the restaurant’s success is owner Jim Buckingham’s knack for creating a food experience that customers want. In 1973, when he was working as entertainment director for Sea Pines, he noticed there were no Mexican restaurants in the area. In 1976, he opened the first San Miguel’s, and in 1992, he opened Santa Fe Café, both which remain Mexican/Southwestern cuisine favorites among Hilton Head Island locals and tourists.
Buckingham would eventually sell both restaurants and had good reason to begin thinking of retirement. But along came the Bistro 17 opportunity.
“When I looked at this beautiful space that had just become available at Shelter Cove, it just looked like a bistro to me. And so I decided to make it into one.” Buckingham said. That was 2008, and like a fine wine, the restaurant has improved over time.
For those of us who are not up on our French dining terminology, a bistro is a small restaurant, serving reasonably priced, simple meals in a modest setting. With the history probably beginning in Paris, bistros are defined mostly by the foods they serve. French home-style cooking and slow-cooked foods are typical.
Bistros likely originated in basement kitchens of Parisian apartments where tenants paid for both room and board. To supplement income, the landlords could open the bistros to non-tenants looking for simple, tasty meals, served in a cozy environment. And yes there was plenty of good wine to go along with the food!
The interior of Bistro 17, located at Shelter Cove Harbour, as the evening begins. Jay Samuels entertains guests Wednesday-Saturday on the Baby Grand Piano. The Blue Cheese wedge salad.
The same goes for Bistro 17 on Hilton Head Island. The menu is full of familiar items that don’t require a degree in French to understand and enjoy. A sampling of the dinner hors d’oeuvres (that’s appetizers for us), includes delicious familiar items like French Onion Soup Gratinée (au gratin), Coquilles Saint-Jacques (seared scallops, mushroom and shallot cream sauce), Escargot En Croute, Mussels Marinere, Baked Brie, and a local staple, the Crab Cake.
Dinner entrées include Wild Salmon, Grilled Jumbo Shrimp, Duck Confit (that’s French for cooked slowly), Beef Bourguignon (braised in red wine), and Steak Frites (Ribeye steak served with Pomme Frites, similar to what we call French fries).
Lunch is also served daily, when many of the same appetizers are offered, along with sandwiches, such as Crabcake Sandwich, French Dip, Tuna Melt, and Croque Monsieur (grilled ham and Swiss). Lunch specials include Chicken Crepes (mushrooms, caramelized onion, roasted red peppers and spinach topped with parmesan and roasted garlic cream sauce) or a classic omelet with bacon, Swiss cheese, mushrooms and onion.
Buckingham’s knack for food probably started back in his childhood. “I grew up on a farm in Iowa and had a lot of fabulous cooks in the family,” he said. It also helps that he enjoys working with food and people. “Working seven days per week at a restaurant can be strenuous, but I love the service aspect, and it’s a happy experience for people to eat out. That puts me right in the middle of it!”
But the complete story of Bistro 17 isn’t just about Buckingham and the food. The intimate inside offers a cozy atmosphere where soft piano plays in the background Wednesdays through Saturdays and piano and clarinet on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Dinner guests can also enjoy a spectacular view of the sunset over Shelter Cove Harbour amidst boats resting quietly on Broad Creek. If you want to be even closer to the water, there’s also spacious outdoor seating, where guests are welcome to bring their dog while enjoying lunch or dinner and the view.
And all that still doesn’t mention the wine! Choices range from French wines like Chapoutier Cote Du Rhone and Gérard Bertrand but also Californian, Argentinian and Italian wines like Acacia, Portillo Malbec and Davinchi Chianti, respectively. You can also splurge and opt for a bottle of red, such as Chateauneuf du Pape, or a nice bottle of sparkling Perrier Jouet Flower.
And on those evenings when you just want to the perfect way to relax after a long day, you can stop by Bistro 17 for a martini or your favorite cool drink and enjoy one of those famous Hilton Head Island sunsets.
All of this sounds inviting, but what are people saying about Bistro 17? A quick Google search for the restaurant easily yields a link to reviews on Trip Advisor, where the average rating is 4.5 out 5 (from more than 500 reviews). Here’s a recent one: “Went there while exploring cute Shelter Cove. Quiet place with excellent customer service, really good martinis and an excellent and well prepared menu. Our lovely waitress was a great conversationalist, along with her job. Highly recommend for a tasty dinner and an overall lovely experience.”
With the combination of Bistro 17’s wonderful food, great service, and magical ambiance, you might guess that the prices are through the roof. But the menu items and wines are quite competitively priced for the market. And if you take advantage of their Early Bird dining, you get a 15 percent discount plus a free glass of wine!
Therefore Hilton Head Island has what is truly in keeping with the long tradition of the French bistro: a simple and charming setting with delicious food and fine wine without breaking the bank. Add Shelter Cove Harbour into the mix, and you get the magic of Bistro 17.
Bistro 17 is located at Shelter Cove Harbour, 17-D Harbourside Lane, Hilton Head Island. (From the parking lot, walk past the Neptune statue and turn right). Reservations are gladly accepted; call (843) 785-5517. For more information, visit Bistro17HHI.com or Facebook.com/Bistro17HHI.