A casual, beachy restaurant concept has percolated through the DNA of Hall's Hospitality Group founder Bill Hall and his wife, Jeanne, for quite some time. In the summer of 2013, the owners of Hall's Chophouse on King Street were presented with an opportunity to purchase Rita's Seaside Grille on Folly Beach from RPM Holdings, the folks who brought us the Kickin' Chicken.
The Halls know the value of location and Rita's had that in spades: Positioned across the street from Folly's beach, within walking distance of the Folly Fishing Pier, and at the intersection of sand and surf where sticky and salty need food and fuel, this acquisition was a no-brainer.
Gibson Thompson Guess Architects rehabbed Rita's in 2009-10. They stayed true to Rita's beach roots, keeping her coastal, corrugated and casual. The Halls refreshed this "bathing beauty" with a good "physique": a new kitchen, a fresh coat of island paint colors, new booths and enough Dewey Weber to keep The Washout top of mind. Bright red girders punctuate the ceiling with color and whimsy, vintage photos speak to a "Folly state of mind" and the driftwood mobile assembled over the entry conjures up Boneyard Beach washing up at the Sea and Sand festival.
Hall's Hospitality Group retained the staff at Rita's and reinforced their base operation by dispensing Hall's executive chef Mathew Niessner to review the menu and recipes and bring RSG in line with the high standards of the Hall's marque.
When possible, they promoted from within; added a breakfast menu (now on hiatus); served weekend brunch; and upgraded the lunch and dinner offerings with local sourcing and seasonal alignment.
They initiated a barbecue program with an outdoor smoker/grill and "que" is available by the pound or by the portion.
Their smoked chicken wings are exceptional and can be had with a dry rub, sweet and spicy seasoning, and BBQ or Buffalo style. Served with a cooling balm of ranch or blue-cheese dressings, these full wings are not to be missed.
They culled Rita's menu successes and have stayed the course for a tourist/beach-front eatery.
Warm blue crab dip, hummus, nachos, dip trios and buttermilk-doused calamari keep the appetites at the community table at bay as they enjoy signature drink specials and local beers.
Fan's of Sonic's "slush" will find an adult version at Rita's in which fruit-infused vodka is served over crushed ice. The jars layered with the fruit inventory provide an eye-catching display at the back bar.
Rita's also lays claim to being the "home of the world famous swizzle AKA the "FRIZZLE" and this frozen, slurpy-like drink rolls with the season. A cinnamon-apple combination celebrated late fall.
The kitchen is clearly adjusting recipes and the menu as they calibrate their beach location and the eating needs of locals and tourists.
The shrimp and grits (a favorite of our server) has appeared with a red gravy, brown gravy, and chunked tomato gravy as it winnows its way to preference. Local shrimp have star billing and can be had as a "burger," in a fry basket, topping a salad, partnered with fish in a taco and in a po' boy.
Do try the Chicago-style Allen Brothers "steak" dog where a premium meat purveyor (Allen Brothers) dabbles in tube steak and Rita's layers it Windy City style.
The salad menu is not a stepchild to the sandwiches and entrees and the kitchen plates sufficient twists to release you from the same old boredom of greens, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and carrot shreds. Here you will find a kale Caesar salad, red and golden beets dealt a handful of arugula and goat cheese crumbles, all tossed with a bright lemon dressing. The classic wedge is crowned with avocado and a simple green salad is offered as a reasonably priced side.
Sandwiches straddle most of the menu real estate and if you were expecting a bit of the Chophouse options, you are out of luck. Only a strip loin was on the menu at the times of our visit and the burger, though well structured and balanced in size, toppings and meat-to-bun ration, did not "whisper" steakhouse pedigree.
Pork ribs are available in whole and half racks and although the seasoning was pleasant, the meat left the bone with one easy tear of the teeth.
If "falling off the bone" defines tenderness (that works for me in a braise, such as short ribs), when it comes to pork ribs I want attached suppleness, flesh that gets your saliva going. These ribs did not have that. Accompanied by the house-seasoned fries (too salty) and the coleslaw, (bland) this dish did not, as they say, "cut the mustard."
Rita's brunch menu was not sampled for this review. But if the thought of fried chicken, topped with an egg, bacon, and sausage gravy between two pancakes sluiced with butter and maple syrup gets your deglazing juices going, plan a weekend visit. Captain Crunch French toast and an option to create your own Bloody Mary makes Rita's brunch one to check out.
The milkshakes have not left the menu and a peanut butter one can be yours for dessert, along with key lime pie, chocolate cake and cheesecake. With Rita's creative slush and crush menu, your sweet ending might best be an "adult" beverage one.
Servers were friendly and well-trained. Management by "walking around" was in evidence at the times of our visit. It was clear at the bar that locals had made their mark and their drink of choice was quickly procured. Tourists from the nearby Tides Hotel had returned for another round of Happy Hour and locals quickly filled the tables as the season of ease took hold at Folly Beach.
Rita's Seaside Grille is clearly at home in a beach community that hosts a "Flip Flop Drop" and a "Folly Gras Parade."
What she will struggle with is her Hall's Chophouse pedigree. The words of Linus Van Pelt (of the Peanuts comic strip fame) came to my mind: "There is no heavier burden than a great potential" and that is what Hall's holds over Rita's.