February 2018

May River Grill: Culinary Comfort

Author: Kitty Bartell | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

Charlie Sternburgh, owner of Bluffton’s May River Grill, can pinpoint the exact moment he fell in love with food. “I was a kid washing dishes in Muskegon [Michigan], in this little restaurant that was one of the better mom-and-pop places in town,” he said. “A waiter brought a meal back to the kitchen with this big pork chop that had one bite taken out of it. I asked the chef if he would put it back on the grill, because I was hungry. He cooked it for me. I’d never eaten anything so good in my life. That was a life-changer for me.”

The child of a meat-and-potatoes mom, Sternburgh reveled in the new taste experiences. “They gave me my first shrimp, then I went to work for Red Lobster, where I had my first crab legs and lobster. I got addicted to the food, because it was something new I had never experienced.” While he readily acknowledged that by all manner of restaurant regulations, that chop should never have been put back on that grill, Sternburgh was set on a life-long culinary journey that day—a fortuitous event for which his grill patrons are forever grateful.

Sternburgh’s route to his charming May River Grill was replete with fortuitous turns. Three days into a week-long vacation visiting a friend on Hilton Head Island in 1982, he called his boss and gave notice; Sternburgh was going to work for Ed Murray at Murray’s namesake restaurant, just outside the gates of Sea Pines Plantation.

Then, a turn as front-of-house manager at Daufuskie Island’s Haig Point Club led to The Jazz Corner. “I was going to be the bar manager. The day before we opened, the chef quit. I said, I’ll cook. We pulled it off. It was like I’d done it my whole life. I found where God wanted me to be, and it was cooking. I’ve been doing it now for 20-plus years.”

Once a canary yellow deli, May River Grill’s location in Old Town Bluffton is just a few short blocks from the bluff overlooking the May River. Now, the walls and shutters are ocean blue and sea green, and the fish-inspired artwork ranges from whimsical to realistic. Sternburgh transformed the space and the menu into an inviting, bustling grill, where the cuisine is decidedly old-style with new flair. It is a place where guests feel very much at home, even when the seats are filled and the kitchen is in high-gear.

Opening Thanksgiving week 2007, it took only a couple of evenings for word to get out. “That Friday night, the phone didn’t stop ringing, and it’s been great ever since,” Sternburgh said. Overlooking the dining room, the kitchen is complete with a wooden-framed, screened door, reminiscent of his northern Michigan youth, where lakeside, slamming screened doors were the sound of home. The door is as much a gateway through which his family of team members comes and goes, as it is where deliveries of local, and signature-worthy fish and the finest beef, and fresh fruit and veg arrive, making it easy to imagine the source of Sternburgh’s culinary magic.

The menu is a wide-ranging blend of local and further-afar dishes. “The walleye is what got me noticed,” Sternburgh said of the lesser-known freshwater fish. “I happened to get a phone call from Mathews Seafood one morning. The fishmonger, Manny, asked if I had any use for walleye. He said they got it by accident and nobody knows what it is; I said bring it to me. We sold out that first night.” Like a goldmine for a Michigan kid, walleye is now a staple on the menu, sometimes sharing space on the specials board with its freshwater kin, perch and smelt. “The walleye is prepared with a creamy caper dill sauce; people drink the sauce.” The Jack Daniels New York strip steak rotates on the specials board with the ribeye, as well. “We call it the Delmonico because we cut it a little bit different.”

The very best veal is sourced from Pennsylvania and New Jersey. “We have all the classics: veal marsala, veal piccata, Weiner Schnitzel. Who doesn’t like a Weiner Schnitzel every now and then?” The selections range further from duck and ribs, to salmon, locally caught fish, crab cakes, a pork chop, and the tortellini, a favorite from the start. With a daily early bird (arrive between 4:45 and 5 p.m., and have your order in well before the 5:25 cut-off), dinner is served Monday through Saturday until 9 p.m. The wine selection is outstanding. “I’m sure I have the best cabernet list in Bluffton,” he said. “I’ve heard that from many people.”

At the heart of his business, Sternburgh’s staff knows the menu well, the wine list and its best pairings, and they know their patrons. “It’s a huge family thing,” he said. “And it’s an easy place to work. I’m going to give my best every single day, so I expect that from my staff. I hang out with some of our regulars and some of my staff hang out with them.” Bringing it all together, the restaurant’s annual December dinner is an invite-only event where regulars and friends of May River Grill are wined and dined and then participate in a raffle-style fundraiser, where all their locally minded energy is directed to raise funds for community schools and charitable organizations.

From his meat-and-potatoes beginnings, Sternburgh has found his Lowcountry home to be very hospitable to his culinary perspective. He also found Jill, a local picture framer and florist, whom he married in the spring of 2017. “She keeps me in line; she puts me in the frame,” he said. Nearing completion of Sternburgh’s May River dream home, the couple have naturally included a screened door in their plans. An avid golfer and fisherman, Sternburgh just may bring the catch of the day through that door, of course, letting it slam behind him, as he continues to stir-up new ways to help people fall in love with great food.

May River Grill is located at A-1263 May River Road, Bluffton. For more information or to make reservations, please call (843) 757-5755 or visit mayrivergrill.com.

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