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Tucking into briny Bowens Island Restaurant
Unbeknownst to him, my friend Rob Dunlap, cofounder of the New Charleston Mosquito Fleet rowing group, was present for the slurping of my last oyster. It happened the winter after I moved to Charleston, at my first oyster roast with the rowing crew. Shucking ’round the tables, I quickly became stupid off the romance of it all—cinder-block fire pit, wet croaker sacks, and buckets of local clusters wearing that exotic scent of pluff mud. Little did I know I would spend the night on the bathroom floor, negotiating with God to see me to sunup. After a few similar run-ins with mussels, I, who had for 30-some years never met a bivalve I couldn’t down, was done with the things.
“You really have to get over that,” Rob recently told me as he faced a mountain of just-steamed mollusks on the top deck of the newly rebuilt Bowens Island Restaurant. “Yeah,” echoed his wife, Leslie Kendall, as she savored a crisply fried oyster off her sampler platter. “Can’t you get a shot for that?”
Cruel, these friends of mine, to taunt me so. But the good news? Though I can no longer slurp the briny jewels, I can still load up on the scene. Which is why we’d driven out to the iconic dive two miles before Folly Beach. Started in 1949 when May Bowen obliged those fishing on her pier to fry up their catches, the place eventually became a favorite for locals looking for fresh-off-the-boat oysters and shrimp. The original cobbled-together building—with its graffiti-covered insides; newspapered tables; piles of chairs and TVs; and jukebox, beauty parlor, and who-knows-what-else relics—burned down in 2006. Thankfully, the owner’s grandson, Robert Barber, who constructed the 2010 version, retained much of the salty charm of the old place.
When we arrived, dunes of oyster shells lined the packed lot, the smell of fryers and pluff mud and saltwater hung in the air, cats scooted about, and the place boasted one of the best marsh views around. The stilted two-story structure links to old dock buildings via boardwalks, and from underneath rushed the hiss of gas cookers. Wandering the still-under-construction zone, I saw charred doorways, part of an old cinder-block wall mural, and a fellow on a ladder wiring overhead lights for the enormous oyster-eating area.
Upstairs—after walking layer upon layer of ramps—I got a drink while a man from Indiana told Mimi at the register he couldn’t believe how cold the beer was. “This place got fancy,” he said, eyeballing the matching tables and credit card machine. Mimi shrugged off his comments in the typical brusque Bowens manner. “It’ll look less fancy when the wood turns,” she said, gesturing toward the rafters. “It’s all new right now; that’s part of it.”
Following my nose outside to where oysters were being hauled in and hosed off, I met two guys in deck boots. In a low-slung boat, one wearing a wet suit slid around in the mud like a circus otter, tossing clusters into hampers. He asked if I’d be eating them for supper, and I sheepishly admitted I couldn’t. “Ha!” he yelled. “First thing I asked my girlfriend before lettin’ her move in was if she liked seafood. She said, ‘No,’ so I told her to come on over. The last woman I dated always wanted me to bring home the haul….” Who knew not being able to eat the catch could make me a catch?
Bowens Island Restaurant, 1870 Bowens Island Rd. Tuesday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m. (843) 795-2757, www.bowensislandrestaurant.com
Photographs: (shuckers) by Jenna Moore, (cooker & faÇade) by Katie Rowe; & (creek, interior, diners, & food) by Margaret Houston