Popular coastal destination is having a culinary moment.
Photo: Many of the original early American beach front homes, seen along the north end of the island undisturbed by high rise hotels and condominiums. Photo: Curtis Compton
Visits to beach towns like Tybee Island often conjure memories of childhood vacations when my extended family and friends would double up in crowded beach houses and spend all day playing in the ocean until our cheeks turned bright pink. At night, we would gorge on fried seafood platters, and later we might go for ice cream cones or play a round of miniature golf or stroll along the pier.
In an era when buttoned-up resorts tastefully appointed in earth tones and restricted beach access seem to dominate the coastal travel industry, it’s nice to know there are still places that families and friends on a budget can go for a casual beach vacation, a place where there is a “main strip” and it’s lined with beach shops selling brightly colored inflatables, flip-flops and puka shell necklaces, a place where beer is sold by the case and girls walk around the IGA in their bikinis.
Except for mini golf, Tybee seems to have everything my old vacation haunt did, but there is one thing it does much better. There is no reason to eat fried seafood platters every night because the island appears to be having a culinary moment, thanks in large part to Kurtis Schumm, 33, executive chef for three of the island’s restaurants.
If you make it to only one, go to Tybee Island Fish Camp. The name fits the restaurant exterior — a modest white house with a small weathered deck strung with lights visible from U.S. 80. But inside it is casual-chic with a minimalist touch that highlights the chef’s large paintings of stylized bathing beauties that occupy the wall space.
It is a small restaurant, serving just 30 people inside. Behind a white stone counter topped with lotus leaf place mats, bar manager Will Canepa whips up sublime craft cocktails using fresh fruits, herbs and infused liquors. The small, mostly seafood menu changes nightly except for two popular standards: a lobster and shrimp risotto made from barley and the baked oysters Pulaski, my new favorite comfort food combining plump, juicy bivalves with bacon, Andouille sausage, seasonal greens and a touch of jalapeño.
The home-taught chef, who names Atlanta’s Miller Union chef Steven Satterfield as a friend and mentor, also owns Bo Bien Hut, a Vietnamese carryout and sushi bar that reopens later this summer. The less ambitious but convivial Tybee Island Social Club, serving burgers and tacos, rounds out Schumm’s trio of eateries.
But Schumm’s operations aren’t the only game in town. North Beach Bar and Grill, located by the beach but, alas, not in view of it, offers a surprisingly good menu of Jamaican-influenced pub fare, including jerk chicken and pork, crabcakes, burgers, wings and seafood nachos. But by all means, get the white truffle lobster hoagie, big enough to feed two, or check out the specials and you may score a light, satisfying swordfish salad made with strawberries and cashews in a ginger-lime dressing. The laid-back vibe and the large screened porch make it a seductive place to knock back a drink or three at the end of the day.
The last time I’d been to Tybee Island was 15 or more years ago, when dining at the Crab Shack was de rigueur. Curious as to how it’s held up, I tried to go on a Saturday night. Big mistake. The place had quintupled in size, there was a huge line of people waiting to get in and the parking lot was total gridlock. I left and returned another day for a late lunch.
Despite having expanded its footprint to accommodate 700 guests, the restaurant has retained its somewhat goofy, weathered fish camp ambiance with a ramshackle sprawl of screened-porch dining rooms and open-air decks overlooking Chimney Creek. The menu has expanded, too. I recall a fairly limited offering of mostly steamed local seafood. Now the menu touts “Chilean blue lipped mussels in wine sauce,” “Louisiana crawfish” and a selection of chicken and pork dishes.
I opted for a dozen steamed oysters and a deviled crab, which was made the way God intended — with just enough breading to hold the crab together. It all went down well with a spicy bloody mary. Nothing is worth battling 700 people for a seat, in my opinion, but if you time it right, the Crab Shack is definitely worth a visit.
Photo: A series of extensive sand dunes seperates most of the developed resort area, residential, commericial, and publicly owned property, from the sea on Tybee Island. Photo: Curtis Compton
Finally, get up early or prepare to wait in line for a crave-worthy morning meal from the venerable Breakfast Club, a small, dimly lit diner serving hefty Philly steak omelets, toasty pecan waffles and crispy hash browns prepared to order with your choice of onions, mushrooms, cheese, bacon and/or jalapeños. The sausage and salsa are made in-house. Eat here once and you will definitely want to return.
Looking back on my recent visit to Tybee Island, I realize I never had a seafood platter, not even for old time’s sake. I didn’t miss it a bit.
IF YOU GO
If you drive around Tybee much, be prepared to constantly feed the ubiquitous parking meters, most of which take debit and credit cards. A typical fee is $4 for two hours.Dogs are not permitted on the beach.Tybee hosts an annual slate of festivals and special events, including Fireworks on the Pier on July 3, Labor Day Beach Bash on Sept. 4, and Tybee Island Pirate Fest on Oct. 6.
Tybee Island Light Station and Museum. Climb 178 steps to the top of this historic lighthouse, which was originally built in 1773, partially burned during the Civil War and rebuilt in 1867. The site also features the restored head keeper’s cottage, built in 1881, and two assistant keepers’ cottages, built in 1861 and 1885. 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Mondays. Last ticket sold at 4:30 p.m. $9; $7 seniors and youths 6-17; children 5 and younger free. 30 Meddin Drive. 912-786-5801, www.tybeelighthouse.org.
Tybee Island Marine Science Center. A modest facility with a dozen or so small aquariums displaying a variety of turtles, fish and sea urchin, and a touch tank with sea stars, spider crabs and lightning whelks. Check the board for scheduled demonstrations and guided beach walks. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. $5; children 4 and younger free. Off the 14th Street parking lot, behind the pier. 912-786-5917, www.tybeemarinescience.org.
Fort Pulaski National Monument. Not long after he graduated from West Point, Robert E. Lee designed and oversaw early construction of the five-sided fort beginning in 1829. Part of a system of coastal fortifications, it was built to protect the mouth of the Savannah River against foreign invasion. Completed in 1847, it could mount 146 cannons. State troops occupied it just prior to Georgia’s secession from the Union in 1861. It fell to Union attack in April 1862, after which it was used to prevent shipping from Savannah and to imprison Confederate troops. It was designated a national monument in 1924. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. $7; children 15 and younger free. U.S. 80, Savannah, 5 miles west of Tybee Island Light Station. 912-786-5787, www.nps.gov/fopu.
North Island Surf and Kayak. Kayak Little Tybee Island, Cockspur Beacon and other locales. Half-day tour, $50; $35 children 10 and younger. Full-day tour including lunch, $100; $85 children. Two-hour surf lesson, including equipment, $50. Equipment rental and sales also available. 1C Old Highway 80. 912-786-4000, www.northislandkayak.com.
Capt. Mike Dolphin Tours. Offering daily, 60- to 90-minute dolphin tours throughout the day. In addition to spotting scores of dolphin, guests get a great view of Cockspur Beacon, a lighthouse built in 1855 on land slowly being claimed by the ocean. $15; $8 children 12 and younger. Reservations recommended. Dogs with proof of current rabies vaccination permitted. Not handicapped accessible. Sunset cruises, as well as inshore fishing and offshore fishing tours, are also available. Lazaretto Creek Marina, 180 Old Tybee Road. 912-786-5848,www.tybeedolphins.com.
Tim’s Beach Gear. Daily and weekly bicycle rentals for adults and kids, adult trikes, bike trailers and pull-behind child carriers, $10 a day. Tandem bikes, $20 a day. Beach chairs, umbrellas, beach carts and baby cribs are also available. Two locations: 1101 E. U.S. 80 and 1510 Butler Ave. 912-786-8467, www.timsbeachgear.com.
Tybee Jet Ski and Watersports. Jet ski rentals, $99 a day. Tours, $119-$139. Kayak tours, $38. 1C Old U.S. 80, 912-786-8062, www.tybeejetski.com.
Doc’s Bar. Ownership has changed, but the vibe remains the same at this small, smoky dive bar, established in 1948. The clientele leans toward locals and professional drinkers, but tourists come here, too, for the cheap drinks and Jell-O shots. No food served. Happy hour 4-7 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; karaoke 8 p.m. Thursdays; live music on weekends. 10 Tybrisa St. 912-786-3627.
Rock House Original Bar & Grill. The name and logo — a sunglasses-wearing, guitar-playing shark — say it all. Loud rock music and occasional live acts; a selection of fruity liquor drinks heavy on shooters; and a huge menu of burgers, tacos, pizza and seafood make this spot popular with the college crowd. 1518 Butler Ave. 912-786-7176, www.rockhousetybee.com.
The Breakfast Club. Diner specializing in omelets, waffles and hash browns. 7 a.m.-1 p.m. daily. 1500 Butler Ave. 912-786-5984, www.thebreakfastclubtybee.com.
The Crab Shack. Massive, rambling, casual institution with dining rooms on screened porches and open-air decks. Specializing in all varieties and preparations of crab, as well as other types of seafood and a few chicken and pork options. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. 40 Estill Hammock Road. 912-786-9857, www.thecrabshack.com.
North Beach Bar and Grill. Casual, Jamaican-influenced pub fare featuring seafood, sandwiches and salads. Daily specials. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. 33 Meddin Drive. 912-786-4442, www.northbeachbarandgrill.net.
Tybee Island Fish Camp. Intimate, upscale restaurant specializing in creative, New American cuisine with an emphasis on seafood and craft cocktails. Menu changes every day. Reservations accepted. 5-10 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. 106 S. Campbell Ave. 912-662-3474,www.tybeeislandfishcamp.com.
Tybee Island Social Club. Serving tacos, burgers and cocktails. 11 a.m.-late daily. 1311 Butler Ave. 912-472-4044, www.tybeeislandsocialclub.com.
Desoto Beach Hotel. A beachfront hotel offering comfortable, spacious guest rooms with all the modern conveniences, including in-room refrigerators, coffee makers, hair dryers and flat-screen TVs. Continental breakfast, parking and Wi-Fi are complimentary. $254-$364. 212 Butler Ave. 912-786-4542, www.desotobeachhotel.com.
The Lighthouse Inn Bed & Breakfast. Built in 1910 to house an officer at nearby Fort Screven, this cheery three-bedroom inn features private baths and period decor. North Beach and Tybee Island Light Station and Museum are three blocks away. $259. 16 Meddin Drive, Tybee Island. 912-786-0901, www.tybeebb.com.
River’s End RV Park and Campground. Three blocks from the beach, River’s End offers full hook-up RV sites, tent sites and modest cabins. Amenities include a pool, fitness center and free Wi-Fi. 5 Fort Ave. 912-786-5518, www.riversendcampground.com.
More information. Tybee Island Visitor Center, 802 First St. 912-786-5444, www.visittybee.com.