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For more than six decades, the Barber family’s landmark Bowens Island Restaurant has stood in tribute to the plump oysters and fresh seafood found in local waters. But its steady parade of fans doesn’t come just for the food—they come for the experience of spending a cold winter evening sitting among crates and space heaters, shivering by the water to revel in the unmistakable scents of the marsh and the large batches of oysters steaming nearby.
The setting has been particularly rustic since October 2006, when a fire destroyed a major portion of the restaurant. The new, two-story building being constructed next door is scheduled to open in March, offering considerably more space. Until then, the enclosed dining room suffices, supplemented with seating on the deck when weather permits.
The intriguing décor has been a work in progress since the restaurant’s inception. The wait for dinner seems very brief given the fascinating graffiti scrawled on every conceivable surface, with often-dated messages attesting to the generations of loyal customers. My own inaugural trip in the ’70s is ingrained in memory: The jukebox was rockin’, and piles of notebooks recording hundreds of diners’ messages and drawings made great reading. When our group mentioned a less-than-stellar food moment to the cook, we even got the response, “So what?”—much to our delight. And there you have it: the philosophy that has engagingly endured for all these years.
The drive to Bowens Island is scenic and relaxing, but don’t let your guard slip as you’re cruising down Folly Road, or you’ll miss the palm-lined gravel road that leads the way. Winding through a small community of marshfront homes, it essentially ends at the restaurant’s front door: a “welcome shed” where guests order, gather the necessary accoutrements, and choose their beverages.
On a recent trip early one frigid night, the moon was clear and bright and a number of guests had already arrived. Due to an unexpected cooker shortage, we were sadly informed that the “all you can eat” option was not available. Rallying in spite of this news, we ordered a tray of steamers and a few other items, collecting our oyster knives, drinks, saltines, and recycled soda bottle full of cocktail sauce on the way out the door. Heading to the dining area, we were pleased with the sight of glowing space heaters and chose a cozy table as close to one as we dared.
Service was cheerful, though in keeping with the rule of the house, we were pretty much on our own, which didn’t stand in the way of an entertaining evening.
The oysters arrived quickly and proved juicy and delicious. Next, we received the heaping seafood platter that included excellent lightly battered fried shrimp and fresh whiting that was tender and delicious. We loved the peppery vinegar coleslaw and crispy french fries; however, the crab cake lacked the usual lump crabmeat, and the shrimp and grits could have used more seasoning and sparkle.
But no matter, on this evening, it was all about the oysters—in fact, they, and the unique atmosphere, are why folks visit Bowens Island. And in fairness, we suspect that our visit may not have been a typical weekend experience, considering that it took place at the end of a holiday week. Ultimately, this restaurant, which was honored as an “American Classic” by the James Beard Foundation in 2006, still captures the same Lowcountry state of mind that it has for decades. Calling ahead before you make the drive is a good idea, as private events may affect hours.
Bowens Island Restaurant
1870 Bowens Island Rd. (off Folly Rd.), (843) 795-2757,
Tuesday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
Average entrée: $12.25
Tray of oysters: $13