New Jersey transplants Pam Bates and Ken Knox are new to the Myrtle Beach area, so they are always on the look out for good restaurants to try.
On Tuesday night they hit the jackpot, stumbling upon the biggest and best all-you-can-eat buffet of the year at the 36th Annual Taste of the Town.
"We moved here about a year ago so this is our first time," said Bates, who only learned of the event earlier this week. "It's a wonderful event."
Polishing off dessert, Knox concurred: "Every time we stop at a booth to get something to eat we say, 'We have to remember to go to this restaurant.' "
That was the concept when Taste of the Town began back in 1984 with about 20 restaurants in the tiny cafeteria of St. Andrews Catholic School, which now hosts the event at the massive Myrtle Beach Convention Center.
Restaurants donate their time, food and money in order to put their best dishes in front of thousands of potential future in-house customers.
"We've been doing it every year since 2012 and it works well for us," said Trent Terry of the Bar-B-Q House, whose smoked pork belly tacos placed third in the judges' voting.
"We don't have any locations in Myrtle Beach, one is in North Myrtle Beach and the other one is in Surfside, so this gives us a chance to get our name out to people who might not know about us."
The number of participating restaurants has increased slightly over the years, generally ranging between 30 to 40, but attendance has grown tenfold. More than 4,000 foodies turned out for last year's affair, and despite Tuesday's rain the early crowds appeared to be on pace with recent events.
"This is a big fundraiser for us, but it's much more than that," Taste of the Town chairperson Jenna Cunningham said while surveying the growing lines of early birds as the doors officially opened. "This is a community event. This is something special for the people of Myrtle Beach."
Patrons were able to take a virtual tour of the Grand Strand restaurant scene and a culinary cruise around the world, with sample-sized dishes from many cultures - Asian (Co Sushi, Nakato, Jimmyz), Hispanic (Fiesta Mexicana, Bandito's, Taquerio Las Comadres), Italian (Ledo Pizza, Ducati's, Franco's), Mediterranean (Peno, Pita Planet), European (The Melting Pot, Pulaski's Deli) and good ol' American cuisine (21 Main, Melt, Sticky Fingers).
Of course, it wouldn't be Myrtle Beach without seafood, and this year's Taste of the Town did not disappoint with Bimini's Oyster Bar, Lobster House and Bonefish Grill serving aquatic-based dishes to long lines of customers.
Last year's Best Overall champion Mr. Fish returned to defend its title in full force, driving the trademark bus into the ballroom and unveiling its new mascot, Sharky. This year's entree entry, a blackened shrimp salad sandwich called the Romeo, finished second behind unanimous judges' choice Co Sushi's Curry Laska.
To cap the well-balanced meal, many patrons saved the best for last - sweets and treats by Kilwin's Chocolates, Jupiter Pies, Benjamin's Bakery. The St. Andrews Catholic School's bake sale sent some overly satisfied visitors home with goodies in to-go boxes.
There was so much good food and fellowship, Bates and Knox felt like seasoned pros by the end of the night, offering advice to future first-timers:
"Be sure to get plenty of food tickets the first time," Knox joked. "We keep having to go back for more."
Taste of the Town award winners were:
* Judges' Choice: (Entrees) First place, Co Sushi, Curry Laska; Second place, Mr. Fish, Romeo Sandwich; Third place, Bar-B-Q House, Smoked Pork Belly Tacos; (Desserts) First place, Melt, Brioche Chocolate Bread Pudding; Second place, Carolina Quench, Chocolate Premium Italian Ice; Third place, Benjamin's Bakery, Apple Fritter Dossaint;
* People's Choice (Entree) 21 Main; (Dessert) The Melting Pot); Kid's Choice (Entree) Ledo Pizza; (Dessert) The Melting Pot).
* Booth Design (Small Booth) First place, Ledo Pizza; Second place, Macro Mom Cafe; Third place, Bimini's Oyster Bar; (Large Booth) First place, Fiesta Mexicana; Second place, Mr.Fish; Third place, 21 Main).