October 2008

The Brick Oven Cafe

Author: Frank Dunne, Jr. | Photographer: John Brackett & Rob Kaufman

It happens all the time during Hilton Head’s busy tourist season. I’ll be sitting in a local coffee shop, frequented equally by locals and visitors, banging out my next CH2 article, and a wandering clan of hungry Buckeyes in search of food will politely interrupt me to ask for a restaurant recommendation. After careful consideration of the desired carte de jour and budgetary restrictions, I send them happily on their way to “the perfect place.” Another vacation dream fulfilled.

These conversations serve a purpose for me as well in that I am often reminded of favorite places of my own that I may not have visited for some time. The Brick Oven is one of those places.

I recall dining there for the first time very early in my island “localship,” some eight years ago. At the time I declared it “the best place to share a pizza and a bottle of wine,” and became a fairly frequent customer over the years, particularly during the time that I worked across the street from Park Plaza. That no longer being the case, my visits to the Brick Oven dropped off in recent years, but it is back on the radar screen since I stopped in to chat with owner Mike Wilson about, among other things, the Brick Oven’s longevity in a place where restaurants seem to come and go with the seasons.

“I’d like people to know that we’re not just a pizza place, that we have some nice entrées as well and we’ve got the tappas—everything from the sweet potato lobster cakes to sesame seared tuna to seafood enchiladas,” said Wilson of the menu designed to appeal to many tastes. “There’s this one family who has been coming here about four times a year since we opened. They said the reason that they like it so much is because they can come in and have a nice steak or seafood pasta or something like that, Mom and Dad can have a glass of wine and the kids can have their pizza.”

Wilson attributes the Brick Oven’s durability to the ability to maintain a level of consistency while also being able to adapt to changes in the market. “I’ve been here for coming up on 13 years and the chef, who’s back there cooking, Miguel Sanchez, he’s been with me almost since day one,” said Wilson.

“The biggest change I’ve noticed over the years is that Hilton Head has become more of a family place as opposed to just a golf destination. I’ve had to change with the times, and now I feed kids for free (from the children’s menu) on Tuesdays during the summer,” he continued. “Twelve years ago I would have never dreamed that I’d have to do something like that; but these days, unless you’re in Shelter Cove, you’re non-existent on Tuesday night unless you do something special.”

While adapting to meet the needs of the tourist market, Wilson has not forgotten the locals. “I think we’re still targeting the locals a lot. The cool thing is, we serve until 1 a.m. Always have and always will. Even in the dead of winter we don’t close that kitchen until five after 12:00 for the entire menu and five after 1:00 for pizzas, because as soon as you do that, you’re going to let somebody down. A lot of our locals are in the food and beverage business, and they like to have a place to come and unwind after work.”

For members of the local crowd who keep more conventional hours, Happy Hour at the Brick Oven has long been a popular choice. “People come in for a few drinks and, with the “Tappatizer” menu, can order two or three items and have dinner,” said Wilson. “Our Sunday night “locals night” with Jessie Watkins is coming on strong, too. He plays guitar and does this stuff that he calls surf jazz. It’s a really cool sound. We’ve been doing it for about two months now and it’s really starting to take off,” he continued.

“I think of us as more of a locals kind of place, but I like the locals to pass it on to tourists. I think they are, because we’ve been having great summers. We’ve been successful because we’ve been value based since the beginning.”

Tucked away in a corner of Park Plaza just a few doors down from the Park Plaza Cinemas, the Brick Oven is a perfect spot for dinner and a movie nights, or for a post-concert refreshment after performances at Stages, which is right next door. Wilson has recently expanded the location into cyberspace. “We have a new Web site (www.brickovenhhi.com) and we now have the ability to take reservations online. For an old guy like me that’s a major leap into the 21st Century! It’s our first real Web presence.” The Web site will also soon have a retail area where you can purchase merchandise such as logo golf balls and T-shirts.

Will this successful formula ever evolve into additional Brick Ovens? “I might do something off-island,” said Wilson. “I’ve got a bar manager, Phil Mullins, who can take care of things here so I am able to focus on something like that. I’d probably do it somewhere out by the college.”

The Brick Oven is located in Park Plaza at 33 Office Park Road, Unit 224, Hilton Head Island, SC 29928. Call (843) 686-2233 or visit www.brickovenhhi.com.

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