THE CULINARY MASTERMIND BEHIND ONE OF THE ISLAND’S MOST ICONIC EATERIES SHARES WHAT IT TAKES TO KEEP CROWDS COMING BACK, YEAR AFTER YEAR.
Story by Barry Kaufman + Photo by Mike Ritterbeck
There are some restaurants where the food is almost secondary to the experience. To be clear, Salty Dog is not one of them. Although it certainly could be, with its breathtaking views across the marshes of Braddock’s Cove, its delightful seaside atmosphere and its rotation of great live musicians. The fact is, it could have a menu featuring nothing but Pop-Tarts, and it would still be enough to recommend it for a night out.
That’s what makes Herb Britton’s 20-year run in the kitchen at Salty Dog Café so extraordinary. He very easily could have coasted and let the inimitable atmosphere of the restaurant do all the heavy lifting. Instead, he has waged a two-decades-long campaign to make each dish better than the last.
“My expectations are to be perfect,” he said. “We strive every day to open those doors and get better and better.”
His is a passion born of a culinary journey that brought him from washing dishes to running one of the busiest restaurants in a world-class resort destination.
“Honestly it sounds like a line, but as soon as I started in the restaurant business, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “I pretty much made up my mind on day one I was going to culinary school.”
Emerging from Baltimore’s competitive culinary scene in 1993, Britton found himself coming down to Hilton Head Island following a friend who needed a chef. Initially working at the South Seaport Café, he quickly moved into the kitchen that would be his home for the next 20 years and counting, Salty Dog Café.
“A lot of things have changed at the Salty Dog, but 20 years in it’s all about how you run the kitchen and treat people. Most of my kitchen managers have been with me for 20 years,” he said. “We’ve all pretty much grown up together.”
It’s true that some things have changed, but many things have not. The crab cakes still dazzle, inspired by Britton’s upbringing. And the shrimp and grits, Britton says, are still some of the best you’re going to find.
“I have free rein to be creative. I can kind of choose my own adventure in terms of what I want to do with the food here,” he said. “Having that kind of freedom is really cool for a chef in my position. And as hokey as it might sound, I love the people I work with, and I love the marina. It’s a perfect office to come to.” LL
Nice and toasty
Set sail with this Salty Dog classic made with wild-caught American shrimp tossed with a shredded jack and cheddar cheese blend, garlic and spices. It’s not just for breakfast.
SALTY DOG CAFE: Jake’s Famous Shrimp Toast
1 1/4 pounds cooked, peeled medium shrimp
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
4 tablespoons sliced green onions
4 hoagie rolls
DIRECTIONS  Mix ingredients well and spread onto a sliced hoagie roll.  Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown.
Are you squidding me?
Spice up your next meal with crispy calamari tossed in an original calypso sauce and island spices. These blazing rings are cooled off with a little fresh pineapple salsa and served with ranch dressing.
SALTY DOG CAFE: Ring of Fire Calamari
2 1/2 pounds calamari, tubes and tentacles
Your favorite seafood breader
INGREDIENTS (pineapple salsa)
3 cups diced pineapple
1/4 cup diced red pepper
1/4 cup diced red onion
1/4 cup sliced green onion
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 teaspoon chopped ginger
1 tablespoon soy sauce
INGREDIENTS (calypso sauce)
1 bottle of Matouk’s Calypso Sauce
3/4 cup orange juice
3/4 cup pineapple juice
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
DIRECTIONS  Marinate calamari in buttermilk for 5 minutes.  Drain, then toss in breader.  Fry in 350-degree oil for 2-3 minutes.  Toss with calypso and top with the pineapple salsa. Serve with ranch dressing to cool down the heat.