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Happy Fish

A trending Bluffton art gallery and a revived Hilton Head seafood restaurant are connected in typical Lowcountry fashion.

By Lisa Allen + Photos by Lisa Staff

In retrospect, how could it NOT have happened that the revival of Steamer restaurant and Signore Coastal Art came together?

First, you have Dale Augenstein of Hilton Head taking a friend out for her birthday at the original Steamer restaurant on Lady’s Island near Beaufort in the 1990s. That night, he falls in love with Steamer’s food and ambiance and later talks the owners into opening a second restaurant on Hilton Head. Within a year, he buys it from them. Now you have Dale as owner of Steamer because of a chance dinner on Lady’s Island.

Now, Chris and Kadie Signore. Chris was a graduate of the culinary program at Rhode Island School of Design. That’s a big deal. Then, he meets Kadie, who spent countless family vacations on Hilton Head. That puts the two of them together, a sprinkling of creativity and their desire for a new destination.

Stick with me.

In 2016 Dale’s Coligny Plaza lease is up at the restaurant that he’s now owned for 25 years. He has his eye on a new location at Shelter Cove. Then Hurricane Matthew comes along, damaging the intended location. Steamer goes dark.

Hurricane Matthew also wrecks countless docks all over Hilton Head, creating a nearly endless supply of lumber that an enterprising couple could use for art — happy, coastal art that would be the foundation for a new life in the Lowcountry. Enter the Signores.

Three years later, Dale happens to see an ad for Signore Gallery in, well, LOCAL Life. He was putting plans together for reopening Steamer and thought the art would be perfect for the restaurant. A short time later, he heads to Old Town Bluffton for lunch. He finds a parking spot, gets out and looks up at the sign above him. Signore Coastal Art.

“I loved that they make their art from reclaimed materials found after Hurricane Matthew,” Dale said. “After all, it was Hurricane Matthew that closed my restaurant. I considered it a sign. Their artwork was a natural. It’s so full of character and color. It helps tell the story of the Lowcountry.”

The Signores chose the colors for the restaurant, used reclaimed wood as accent walls and filled the restaurant with art.

(Another odd coincidence: Dale decided to reopen the Hilton Head Steamer just as the original Steamer closed on Lady’s Island. That restaurant just won’t die.)

The Signores say the gallery gives them the joy they were looking for. “We wanted a meaningful life that gives happiness to others,” Chris said. “This is it.”

“I remember a chef saying ‘food as an artistic medium that is enjoyed in the moment and remembered for a lifetime.’ I want our art to be enjoyed and remembered for a lifetime,” Chris said.

Their art and furniture creations started as home décor for themselves, then grew from there.

Fish, turtles, coastal birds and sailboats adorn the gallery, most of them made from reclaimed wood and other materials.

“We started with dock that washed up after Hurricane Matthew. Now people come in the store and offer all kinds of material,” Chris said. “I would love to have my own sawmill so I can cut my own wood.”

Two nine-foot tuna are made from old windsurfer boards. A table is made of a World War II era boat-hatch cover.

“We don’t have a specific product list,” Chris said. “Our art is spontaneous.”

And Steamer? It reopened in May, pandemic be damned.

“We closed in a hurricane and opened in a pandemic,” Dale ruminates. “That’s just how it goes. Life is an adventure.”

“Many of our customers are return customers from either the Hilton Head location or the Lady’s Island location. We still have those original tables with the signature hole in the middle with a bucket,” Dale said. For the uninitiated, the bucket collects the carnage from cracking through mounds of delicious crabs and lobsters.

So there you have it. Tons of coincidences, a bit of island history, a pile of hurricane debris and some pandemic-inspired creativity come together to revive an island mainstay and provide a happy reset for a creative couple and a determined restaurateur.

You just never know where happy fish might lead you.

Steamer restaurant

The first Steamer restaurant opened on Lady’s Island in the 1980s and become a must-stop for locals and families headed to Hunting Island State Park. A second location opened on Hilton Head in the early 1990s. That location was soon under the ownership of Dale Augenstein and was an island favorite until it closed because of Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Augenstein reopened it at a new location, 8 Executive Park Road, this spring.

Signore Coastal Art

The gallery at 14 Promenade, #304, Old Town Bluffton is owned by Kadie and Chris Signore and features their sculptures, photos, paintings, wall art and furniture. Each is unique, inspired by the reclaimed material used to create it. The gallery opened in 2018.