Any discussion of great food in Santee Cooper —and by some gourmands’ estimation, in all of South Carolina—must begin with Sweatman’s Bar-b-que (1313 Gemini Dr., 803/, Fri.–Sat. 11:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m., $8 cash only). Located outside of the small town of Holly Hill on the western side of the lakes, there’s nothing else of note near the restaurant. But that’s OK, since Sweatman’s is worth a trip in and of itself.
Indeed, I’ve heard of people driving two and three hours, from literally the other side of the state, just to eat here on a weekend. While a certain amount of this popularity is driven by the media’s trendy fondness for “authentic” Americana—Sweatman’s proudly displays signed items by TV gourmand Anthony Bourdain—there’s no doubt that this is a special kind of place, if a humble one.
Sometime in the 1970s this old farmhouse in the country off Highway 453 morphed into a roadhouse. They cook their pork the old-fashioned way: the proverbial whole hog, slow-cooked over wood in a blockhouse out back. The result is served buffet-style, in two types: the dry white portion, the “inside meat,” and the glazed outer portion, “the outside meat.”
Don’t miss the “cracklin’s,” delicious, crunchy portions of fried pigskin. You get your choice of sauces, either the indigenous mustard sauce or vinegar-based. You also get the requisite serving of the staple South Carolina hash, some coleslaw and rice, and of course sweet tea.
Sweatman’s closes for most of August—it’s too hot to tend the pit then—so if you’re vacationing during that time you’re out of luck. And remember, they only take cash. To get there, take exit 90 and then head east on Highway 176, which becomes Main Street in Holly Hill.
Turn left onto Highway 453 and head north for a few miles, and Sweatman’s is on your right. (When in Holly Hill looking for your turn, keep in mind that Highway 453 is not contiguous through town. You’re looking for the spur of 453 that begins on the west side of the railroad tracks.)
In terms of culinary ’cue, Sweatman’s has only one serious competitor in the area, and that’s ,br /> McCabe’s Bar-B-Que (480 N. Brooks St., 803/435-2833, Thurs.–Sat. 5:30–9 p.m., $10) on the eastern side of Lake Marion in the town of Manning. (While technically part of the Pee Dee , I include McCabe’s here because for all intents and purposes Manning is part of the lake country and markets itself as such.) The pork here is finely pulled and the sauce is the tangy, kicky Pee Dee-style pepper-and-vinegar variety. Served with that distinctive hash side dish and sliced tomatoes, this plate is often considered the equal of Sweatman’s—though because I don’t wish to start another civil war I leave that call up to you.
If you’re in Santee and need a meal, hit Clark’s Family Restaurant (8920 Old No. 6 Hwy., 803/854-2101, Sun.–Thurs. 6 a.m.–9 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 6 a.m.–10 p.m., $10), an old mom-and-pop establishment known to generations of locals as well as travelers on I-95 (get here by taking exit 98 off of the interstate). As you’d expect given its lakeside location, their fried catfish is primo, though I’d refrain from describing it that way out loud.
Though not the best barbecue in the region, Lone Star Barbecue & Mercantile (2212 State Park Rd., 803/854-2000, Thurs.–Sat. 11 a.m.–9 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.–4 p.m., $10) in Santee is certainly well-respected, with the all-you-can-eat buffet typical of the area.
Sick of barbecue, or maybe it’s just not your thing? Head straight to Elloree  and Amporn’s Thai Cuisine (2727 Cleveland St., 803/897-1151, daily 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. and 5–9 p.m., $10). Yes, a genuine (and genuinely good) Thai place in a little South Carolina town. It’s even vegetarian friendly: they’ll substitute tofu for any meat.