Our endless Southern summers showcase the best the Lowcountry has to offer: glistening whitesand shores, teeming with sun worshipers, wind-surfers and boaters of all kinds—and the surrounding coastal waters, teeming with blue crab, the best shrimp in the East and fish of all kinds. With a longstanding reputation for good waves and plenty of fun dives, Folly Beach is considered by many to have Charleston’s best beach scene. And Rita’s Seaside Grille is vying to be the new darling of the shabby-chic seaside town locals call the “Edge of America.”
“It’s always been a dream of mine to have a place at the beach,” says new owner Bill Hall Sr. of Halls Chophouse fame. The hospitality veteran spent over 40 years managing corporate fine dining restaurants from California to Florida and destinations in between. When he retired in 2009, he teamed up with sons Billy and Tommy to open his own steakhouse on upper King Street in Charleston.
“Even then,” continues Hall, “I was looking for a beach joint. My wife, Jeanne, and I both grew up on the water … we wanted to do something casual where people can go for a good burger or salad, a cold beer or cocktail and be at the beach.”
A purchase-offer from the former owner of Rita’s crossed Hall’s desk in August 2013, and he dove wholeheartedly into the casual dining arena. “I’m excited to be at Folly Beach—I know it’s a great location!” says Hall, noting that the whole family is involved in the operation, dividing their time between Halls Chophouse and Rita’s Seaside Grille on a daily basis.
Anchoring the end of Center Street at the crossroads of blacktop and ocean, Rita’s is a rambling collage of Caribbean colors and corrugated tin. The eatery got a major facelift when the Hall family took over: fresh paint inside and out, an all-new kitchen, roof and large booths. “The former owners left me a great spot with great bones,” says Hall. “We just went in and freshened everything up.”
The restaurant’s prime location, just a stone’s throw from the Folly Beach Fishing Pier and the Atlantic Ocean, begs for alfresco dining. To that end, Hall is exploring options to build a rooftop deck to make ocean views a reality. In the meantime, two full exterior walls of double garage doors are, on balmy days, thrown open to let in the sea breeze.
For now, the fine art of barbeque finds expression in a lot behind the restaurant where the cook, Reggie Anderson, mans a huge smoker. The sea air, thick with the aroma of hickory chips, reels in the uninitiated with the promise of prime meat, slow-smoked under a summer sky. Under his watchful eye, rows of baby back ribs cook for hours, reaching fall-off-the-bone perfection.
The house-smoked ribs and chicken wings are happily among several core items that transferred over during Rita’s change of hands. Halls Chophouse executive chef Matthew Niessner spent 90 percent of his workdays fine-tuning the kitchen operations for the new endeavor. “We looked at items on the old menu that were very popular, like the barnyard burger—the one topped with a fried egg—and the blackened tuna nachos, and we embellished them with high quality ingredients.”
Niessner points out that high standards in food and service are the linchpin of the Hall philosophy. He says diners at Rita’s can expect a unique experience centered around these principles just as downtown diners do at Halls Chophouse.
Following the Hall practice of hiring from within the company, Neissner promoted his lead cook, Danny Kane, to head the new kitchen, saying he was a perfect fit for Rita’s.
The former New York-based sous chef says his goal is to execute the standards set by Neissner with food that’s a blend of Lowcountry cuisine and the flare of the islands.
“I’m putting my own spin on a new summer menu,” says Kane, hinting that a crab cake is on the roster. “We’re keeping it fresh and healthy and will add more items for gluten-free and vegetarian diners. We’re also introducing a breakfast menu soon.”
Local shrimp dominate the all-day menu: tacos filled with blackened shrimp and a pan-seared fresh catch; sautéed shrimp and bacon served over Carolina stone-ground grits; and lightly spiced shrimp, battered and deep fried to crunchy perfection.
Rita’s beach joint standards come with a few twists: the aforementioned housesmoked ribs, a pulled pork sandwich, an oyster po’ boy and burgers—including a vegetarian one composed of falafel with a tzatziki sauce. They even offer a bison burger.
Upgrades to the menu include two USDA prime steaks—a filet and a rib eye—sourced from Allen Brothers of Chicago, the primary meat purveyor for Halls Chophouse.
Dishes on the lighter side include mussels steamed with garlic-and-shallot white wine broth, harissa and andouille. There’s also a chopped green salad heaped with smoked bacon, tomatoes, black-eyed peas and feta cheese.
Signature cocktails enhance the laid-back island vibe. “Rita’s Crushes” are fruitinfused vodka confections loaded with a variety of fresh juices, citrus and sodas. There’s also a winning jalapeño margarita.
Frosty milkshakes, ice creams and desserts such as a citrusy key lime pie add the finishing sweet note to a meal at Rita’s.
And as you’ll find at any great beach hangout, a steady stream of local bands rock the (dog-friendly) patio five nights a week. Listings can be found online.
“It’s an evolution,” notes Neissner. “We listen to the guests. They’re the ones who are determining what we should be doing out here.”
“Our service aims to be nothing short of excellent,” adds Kane. “We want to be the No. 1 restaurant on Folly Beach.”
Wendy Swat Snyder is a freelance writer and public relations consultant based in Charleston. E-mail Wendy at email@example.com.