To call Folly Beach eclectic would be quite an understatement. The place attracts such a diverse clientele that it makes the United Nations look like an Upstate klan rally; washed-up hippies and flamboyant homosexuals strut alongside beer-bellied rednecks and the occasional high-end Mercedes parked beneath a million-dollar pad. But Folly provides a bright ray of hope; a reprieve from the cookie-cutter beach landscape that afflicts most of the Lowcountry coast after Hugo wiped the slate clean. Visiting The Edge of America still provides an edgy experience and makes one think that America just might not be falling apart after all.
Such environments spawn interesting commercial ventures. How do you satisfy such ranges of taste and culture in a seasonal market sometimes too small to support the niche establishments that easily form in more urban areas? It provides a difficult challenge and the results are sometimes as interesting as the people themselves. Terrapin Café is one of these places.
Like Folly itself, Terrapin defies generalization. One struggles, even after stepping though the small, inconspicuous entrance off Center Street, to clearly ascertain just what this place is all about. The front room looks remarkably empty on a weeknight, dark and cave-like, with a long bar running the length of the room.
Devoid of the live music featured there on the weekends, you might think that you have stepped into an abandoned bar, rather than a restaurant — and you sort of have. Our party was given the choice of outdoor seating on the covered "porch" or an interior room just off the barroom. Hot nights call for the air-conditioned space, nice enough at first glance, with billowing yards of fabric hanging from the ceiling in some spots, a few scattered four-tops looking out the windows that line Center Street, and a vista of the Holiday Inn beyond. Jim Morrison crooned prophetically from the speakers in the room, "You men eat your dinner, eat your pork and beans — I eat more chicken, than any man ever seen."
The menu presents as interesting a façade as the restaurant or Folly itself. It is devoid of pork and beans, but they do offer a chicken dish or two — along with a diverse selection of sandwiches, small plates perfect for eating at the bar, soups, salads, and some pretty expensive entrées. We opted to start with some Oysters Rockefeller and an interesting sounding dish, the Eagles Landing Salmon. Both were acceptable, if a bit unrefined and smacking of the mediocrity that tourist dollars can bring.
The oysters came big and plump, cooked well and seasoned appropriately, but with a layer of nuclear grade cheese on top that smacked more of a Chuck E. Cheese pizza parlor than a sit-down restaurant. Nevertheless, it was easy enough to discard the cheese and enjoy the oysters and spinach beneath — sans the traditional hollandaise sauce.
The salmon was an eclectic take on that dip that mothers-in-law always seem to show up with at the holiday celebration. It combined cured salmon slices with cream cheese, capers, and dill, all presented above cucumber slices marinated in herbed vinegar, and ringed with baked pita chips obviously meant for embellishment. It was competent beach food, if not overly exciting.
Main courses sounded fancy. Steaks and chops call out from the menu, but the rule at the beach is seafood and that was the order of the day. We opted for a portion of the fried seafood platter, that old standby of beach eateries, a fish preparation, and two glasses of white wine. The menu offers a confusing array of fish options, listed in three columns that correspond to fish type, preparation method, and sauce treatment. You could theoretically mix and match hundreds of combinations.
Feigning the simpleton act, I asked for whatever combination the chef felt exemplified the best in the house and was served a blackened tuna draped with a mango and papaya chutney. It came all smoking and blackened, brandishing its badge of peppery heat, and boy, was it hot. The thing could take the tongue off a Guatemalan fire eater. Topped with the cooling papaya salad, saddled alongside an interesting rice combination, and accompanied by the sounds of classic rock drifting from above, it was acceptable fare. I did have to order a second glass of wine to kill the pain, but hey, they said it was blackened, didn't they?
The fried seafood platter left a bit to be desired. The fish, scallops, and shrimp were deliciously prepared, cooked to a perfect state of doneness, soft, tender, and tasting of the fresh sea, but the crust was flabby -- perhaps a victim of the hot lamp in the kitchen and poorly timed execution. We longed for the crispy crunch of the Japanese panko crumbs we saw mentioned elsewhere on the menu.
So what do you take from a place that slams together the multiple ambitions of an expensive fine dining restaurant, barefoot beach bar, and Friday night rock parlor? In any other location, the question would have an easy answer, but in Folly, I'm not so sure. Perhaps the quirkiness of Folly Beach is represented well by a throng of tourists paying too much for lackluster food, while band enthusiasts get down in a dark hole, and Jimmy Buffett wannabes knock back cold ones on a porch overlooking the main drag. As I sat there looking out of the window, tank tops and tattoos floating by in a parade of Southern flesh, the marquee at the Holiday Inn across the street flashed 266 degrees Fahrenheit. I could only think of one word: Surreal.