The past few weeks have been a rather remarkable period of controversial decision-making, what with the Supreme Court rulings on DOMA and the Voting Rights Act, not to mention the much-watched case of Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District. In the spirit of landmark decisions, I figured that it was finally time to resolve once and for all the issue of the Wreck.
Last year, when the City Paper ran a piece on the seven most controversial restaurants in town, the Wreck of the Richard and Charlene was one of my picks. It had been a few years since I had eaten at the place, and I steadfastly refused to take sides, just reporting impartially the range of opinions I'd heard from others. These ran the gamut from delicious, ultra-fresh seafood to lowly, inedible dreck, from treasured gem of Lowcountry dining to overrated and overpriced tourist trap.
One can only stand on the sidelines for so long. It was time to go back to the Wreck with a critical eye and determine once and for all whether it's a miserable dive or a true Charleston classic.
You can see right off why the Wreck might rub some people the wrong way. It is, one might say, notably lacking in sophistication. The dining room is essentially a large screened-in porch with a concrete floor and exposed rafters. It's crowded with tables and mismatched chairs, and there's no air conditioning, just a bunch of ceiling fans overhead trying to whip up a breeze. The meals are served on paper plates, with iced tea in clear plastic cups, sodas in cans, and beer in bottles.
The restaurant isn't even easy to find. It's hidden down among the shrimp docks at the far end of Haddrell Street, and there's no sign out front, just a red buoy that you learn to look for once you've been there a few times. As you arrive, tourists from Georgia are prone to accost you in the gravel parking lot and demand, "Hey, buddy, is this the Wreck?"
Yes, sir, this is the Wreck.
There's not much in the way of starters beyond two soups — she crab ($7.50) and clam chowder ($5.95) — and boiled peanuts ($2.50). The peanuts come out in a paper bowl, hot and tasty and not too salty. They're a fine way to start things off while you look out over the orange and blue masts of shrimp trawlers and the shimmering waters of the creek.
You place your order by circling your selection on the paper menu with a red Sharpie. There are plates of shrimp, scallops, fried oysters, deviled crab, and stone crab claws, plus combination platters that mix and match. You can order grouper, mahi-mahi, or flounder fried or broiled, too.
The shrimp ($18 for 1/4 pound, $20 for 1/2 pound) are medium sized and encased in a light, almost powdery crust, which is the key to the whole plate. No big flakes of bread crumbs or gloppy batter here, just crisp and light with good, tasty shrimp inside.
The scallops ($16 for 1/4 pound, $19 for 1/2 pound) are about an inch or so in diameter and stay silky and tender inside the fried, powdery breading. The oysters ($16 for 1/4 pound, $19 for 1/2 pound) come out just right, too — cooked through but still juicy.
The deviled crab ($18 for one, $20 for two) come stuffed in little faux shells stamped out of aluminum foil. The outside is toasted a dark golden brown, and my impression upon first bite was that they were a little firm and heavy on the filler. But the texture grew on me, and the accompanying cocktail sauce, liberally spiked with horseradish, adds a proper spicy touch.
All the platters come with red rice and coleslaw plus a fried hominy square and a single hushpuppy. The slaw's green and purple cabbage is tossed in a dressing that strikes a good balance between creaminess and vinegary zip. The red rice is nothing to write home about — a little mushy and bland — but it's still pleasantly filling.
But let's pause a moment to consider the fried hominy. When you bite into the small cube, your teeth crunch through the crisp, golden crust then hit the soft, hot grits inside, which are tinged with a splendid smoky kiss of what I assumed was bacon but, the waitress told me, is actually ham. It couldn't be any better.
After we finished eating, we walked onto the dock out back and checked out Captain Magwood's Winds of Fortune trawler as the sun set over the creek. A welcome breeze blew in off the water, and I took a moment to reflect on all the excoriating reviews I'd seen from online commenters: cold, soggy, flavorless food? Slow, surly service? Uncomfortable, unsanitary environment?
That's not the Wreck I experienced. The food was hot and crisp, our waitress friendly and efficient. No undue wait for a table, drinks and refills arriving timely. Our fellow diners seemed to be enjoying themselves too: lots of smiles, no signs of necks craning to look for errant servers, no arms crossed in frustration.
I could understand why it might not be everyone's cup of tea, but I don't quite get the outright vituperation. Is the Wreck some sort of Jekyll and Hyde restaurant, where some nights it hits on all cylinders and on others gets everything completely wrong?
Perhaps it all goes back to the lack of air conditioning.
When you're dining out, one sour note can take things off track, and once out of alignment the evening spirals into misery. Taste buds become hypersensitive, tiny missteps that you ordinarily wouldn't even notice become magnified into grievous offenses, and you glaze right over any of the positives.
It works the same way in reverse: You start off on a good note, and the serotonins get flowing and everything's groovy. The beer tastes better, the food tastes better, and you'll forgive any service lapse short of having a bowl of soup dumped on your head.
Could it be as simple as the temperature? On a summer evening, the heat is palpable when you step into the un-air-conditioned dining room. Though the breeze from the ceiling fans do cut it once you are seated, you're in for a warm, sticky evening. Perhaps that just gets some patrons tilted the wrong way, and it's all downhill from there.
Of course, there are any number of other things that could trigger the spiral, for the Wreck is an "our way or the highway" kind of place. No reservations. No kids menu. No split checks. No substitutions on the No. 6 seafood platter. The lone non-seafood dish on the menu, London broil ($11), still bears the warning that "this is a seafood house claiming no expertise in the preparation of red meat . . . No returns!" I'm a little disappointed that in recent years the Wreck 86-ed their cash-only policy and started accepting credit cards, but that's the only visible concession to modern sensibilities.
I will agree with the aggrieved anti-Wreckers on one point: for a joint with paper plates and no AC, the prices do border on extortionary: $18 for a quarter pound of fried shrimp, $7.50 for a bowl of she-crab soup, $22 for a triple combo platter. This ain't a cut-rate seafood shack.
But the food is only part of what you're paying for. The rest is just to get a seat at one of the paper-covered tables. The Wreck has pulled off a sort of demand-leveraging, revenue-maximizing pricing model. The place is open just three hours Sunday through Thursday and four on Friday and Saturday, and they keep those tables filled and turning over fast.
For me, the experience is worth it. Every time I've visited my feedback loop has worked in the positive direction. It was definitely a little warm when we first sat down, and there was sweat on my brow by the time we placed our orders, but I expected that going in. Slowly and steadily, the things that struck me as run-of-the-mill at the outset seemed to grow better and better as the night progressed, like the hushpuppies. We started our meal with a bowl for the table ($2.50), and they seemed dark and overcooked to my initial eye. My first bite found them crunchier on the outside and denser in the middle than I would have expected, but it went down okay. The second pup seemed tastier, and when there was just one left in the paper bowl we ended up in one of those Chip-and-Dale "You take it, no you take it" showdowns where both parties are really just being polite, waiting for the right number of repetitions before saying, "Well, if you insist ... " We ended up compromising and cutting the thing in half to share, which satisfied no one.
And so it grew, each detail compounding the previous one. The conversation flowed, and the bustle of the crowded porch receded into a background blur. We swapped shrimp for oysters, scallops for shrimp, murmuring about the crisp batter while we watched the boats chug by in the creek. We ordered a second bowl of boiled peanuts since the first one went down so nicely.
By the end of the night, I had reached a sort of equilibrium between the sweat on my forehead and the beads of moisture on my cold bottle of Palmetto Pale Ale. The paper plates, the heavy wooden chairs, the whirling ceiling fans overhead. They all merged together into a single whole, and it just felt comfortable and right.
My deviled crab platter came with a single hushpuppy propped between the red rice and the slaw, and I saved it for last. Crisp, chewy, and brimming with rich corn flavor. It was transcendent.
So, consider me officially on board as a fan of the Wreck. It remains for me a unique and worthy Lowcountry experience. You just have to get off on the right foot.