I am still incredulous when I encounter local people who have never been to (or, more stupefyingly, never heard of) Bowens Island Restaurant. It's one of "those places" found in towns with some real character -- out of the way, found only by those truly seeking them out, and absolutely unforgettable.
My ex-wife found out about the place in 1996, shortly after we'd moved to town. It was New Year's Eve, a holiday we both cheerfully and regularly remanded to the drunks and the freaks. We decided to schlep out to Folly Road at a reasonable 8 p.m. to have a leisurely dinner and get home in time to catch Dick Clark.
For the uninitiated, Bowens Island Restaurant is virtually indistinguishable as a restaurant when viewed from the outside. If the fryers are on, hints of frying fish might give it away, or perhaps the huge piles of sun-bleached shells outside, but mostly it just looks like a ramshackle building with piecemeal additions of a porch here, a dock there. Simply finding the front door is a bit of a challenge.
We walked in to find rooms a riot of mismatched furniture, walls festooned with indescribable bric-a-brac and graffiti, corners stuffed with old boxes and appliance parts, but no people. We called out a couple of times before an older man appeared.
"What can I do fer ya?" he asked. No mention was made of there existing, say, a menu (which there actually is).
"Can we eat here?" It was a question with at least two levels of meaning.
He looked at his watch, looked at us, looked at nothing in particular, and said, "Well, I'm leaving at 9:30, and so are you." Oh.
"Beer?" I asked hopefully. He reached into a decrepit reach-in cooler and came up with two Buds. He noted them on a notepad next to our names. I reached for my wallet and he told me we'd settle up later.
He handed us two hand towels from a large pile and two oyster knives. Next, a box of generic saltines, and a 16-ounce Pepsi bottle half-full of red liquid (which turns out to be not-very-hot-at-all house hot sauce), and then cocked his head towards the next room.
That room is the oyster room, oblong and cinder block, with 20-odd (some very odd) chairs around assorted tables in various stages of disintegration. At one end is a gas burner under a very large plate of steel, upon which oysters steamed under wet burlap. Encouragingly, there were other diners. We sat.
An aside about the graffiti. There's lots. People have been encouraged to write on the walls of the entire restaurant since time immemorial, and the place looks like it. Scrawled handwriting covers every surface. Diners have resorted to writing on the jukebox, on chair legs, light bulbs, windowpanes. The effect is unique and ever-changing.
After some time spent reading the newspaper covering our table, the oyster cook approached the table and unceremoniously snow-shoveled a heap of steaming oysters onto our table. He put a bucket at our feet, and returned about every 15 minutes to repeat the process. We rolled on, washing the fresh shellfish down with Bud after Bud, stopping only to respect the "I'm leaving" time.
Bowens has been doing pretty much what I just described above for a long time. In a conversation with Charlie Cole, current CEO at Corporate DevelopMint, about his days at the Citadel (1964-1968), Charlie told me that they spent a good bit of time at the restaurant in the '60s. I asked if the place seemed more new to him at the time, and he just laughed -- "No, not at all!" His was a nostalgic reminiscence, in which he recalled the restrooms being outhouses, Patsy Cline playing on the jukebox, and a good high tide making it impossible to leave the island. Seems that if you timed it right, you could be stuck in the land of beer and oysters for an extra three hours.
Charlie also mentioned a couple of other bits of trivia, including the policy that if a customer was able to find two matching chairs, their meal was on the house, and that back then, they rarely went for the oysters. Seems heaping plates of boiled shrimp were the thing -- saltines and shrimp on a paper plate for $1.25 -- and I can't say that I blame him.
Current owner/operator Robert Barber has had Bowens Island Restaurant in his family all of his life. I talked with him for a few minutes, and he told me the place was opened in the mid-1940s by his grandparents and has been in his family ever since. Barber moved out of town for a while, but came back to practice law in the early 1980s. When his grandmother passed on in 1990, Barber stepped in to keep the family tradition intact. The bearded man behind the register is, and I swear I am not making this up, named Jack Daniel London, and he's been working there "quite a while." He agrees with Charlie's memories about those earlier days, saying, "It was quite the hangout back then." That jukebox actually functioned until a year or two ago, staggering given the thing is a 1947 model that only spins 78s, and more staggering if you've actually seen the thing lately. Five plays for a quarter -- can't beat that.
I've been back many times since that first visit, and the experience is largely the same as it was nine years ago, the same as (I'm told) it's been for over 40. There have been expansions -- a dock here, an outdoor deck there -- but the rooms and the formula remain the same. I've discovered their fine seafood platter (excellent shrimp, fresh fried fish, and largely forgettable deviled crab), but I'm still mostly drawn back for the oyster experience.
In truth, eating oysters at Bowens Island Restaurant is much like oyster roasts many Charlestonians have at home all the time. The beauty of it is that one can do it on the spur of the moment, with no gas burner or oyster pot required. Bowens offers everyone the opportunity to see what a rustic oyster feed is all about. That is to say, if you don't end up with a little mud under your fingernails, if you don't shed a little blood, you're not doing it right. Throw in the history of 60 years of shellfish and socializing, and it's not too hard to see why the place endures, unmolested.
Summertime finds people outside, pulling up in boats, bands playing on the back deck, patrons of every stripe tossing down cold beers and munching on seasonal sea creatures. Winter brings good local oysters and still a few days of outdoor-friendly weather outside. Through it all, new diners find their way there, and the oyster shell piles grow ever larger. And finding a clear space for your graffiti gets harder still.