When picturing the food of a coastal resort town, such as Hilton Head Island, one often conjures images of red plastic baskets generously filled with french fries and deep-fried fish and shrimp.
The words "fine dining," "haute cuisine" or "gourmet" rarely come to mind. For more than two decades, the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce has set out to change that by showcasing the talent of area chefs and the diversity of the island's restaurant scene through its annual Taste of the Season.
The event, now in its 23rd year, will be from 6 to 9 p.m. Nov. 16 at the Hilton Head Marriott Resort and Spa. Tickets are $45.
Chamber officials said about 40 local chefs will be cooking dishes from their menus and other specialties for the nearly 1,000 people expected to attend while also competing for the title of "Best Cuisine."
The competition for the event's top prize can be fierce, said Charlie Clark, chamber spokesman.
"Chefs are a competitive bunch," Clark said. "Winning that award gives you bragging rights for the rest of the year and the satisfaction of knowing you're the best on the island. The chefs really pull out all the stops."
Among the dishes diners can expect to sample Nov. 16 are day boat scallops with bacon and butternut squash risotto from chef Chaun Bescos of Red Fish and nachos smothered with pulled pork, smoked gouda cheese and chive creme fraiche off the menu at NEO, chef Russell Keane's new restaurant near Moss Creek in Bluffton.
Keane said events like Taste of the Season have helped shape the island's culinary reputation across the region and elsewhere.
"When people think of culinary destinations on the East Coast, they tend to think of Charleston ... and of Savannah, and Hilton Head often gets overlooked," he said. "Over the last 10 years, the level of culinary expertise and the food quality on the island has really gone up a notch."
Clark said that was the goal when chamber officials created the event.
"We really wanted a way to showcase the island's restaurants," Clark said. "It's incredible that on an island that is 12 miles long by 5 miles wide we have over 200 restaurants. That's what we hear most from our visitors. They expect great seafood when they come here, but we have such a wide array of restaurants."
The event Nov. 16 also will feature live music and a silent auction, organizers said.
Over the years, Taste of the Season has helped ring in the holidays on Hilton Head, prompting some of the participating chefs to don Santa Claus hats and other festive gear during service.
"Since we live in a coastal area where it's like 70 degrees and don't usually see a lot of snow, this event kind of lets everyone know that the holiday season is coming," Keane said. "It's a great community event."
Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/IPBGPatrick.