39-D John St., Downtown
Serving dinner, nightly
Price: Moderate ($$-$$)
Just off John Street, down a narrow alley and past the French bistro tables of 39 Rue de Jean, turn right into an old indigo warehouse and you'll stumble upon Coast, a place appropriately named. They serve seafood, lots of seafood, to tourists, college kids, and a smattering of locals. It's a barn of a place, still packed with the tiki-hut décor and long, open bar that made it ground zero for the beautiful people crowd for months after its opening years ago.
Most everyone these days comes for the seafood. Ironically, in this port city of a town, a good seafood restaurant can be hard to come by. Coast certainly aspires to fit the bill. The menu offers little else — a grilled vegetable plate ($13.99) for the vegans in the crowd, a grilled ribeye ($23.99) for your red-blooded Uncle Fred. Everyone else eats fish.
There's a little niche out by the street, wrapped in plastic during the winter months, but filled with warm bodies, cold cocktails, usually a few entertainers, and the most creative ceviche in the city. Now, they don't have that much competition, of course, but for 16 bucks you can score a big plate of raw seafood cooked in lime juice (your choice of three) and it's pretty tasty. Little piles of the lobster ceviche ($12.99 on its own) come topped with the flavors of orange and lime. Nuggets of hearts of palm nestle in there, and crunchy fried wontons and chili oil provide an innovative surprise. The other ceviche variations take on similarly imaginative guises. Shrimp ($10.99) wallow around in the lime marinade with fried tortilla chips, while the tilapia ($9.99) gets dished up on small tostadas. I like the traditional offering ($11.99) which has nothing but fish, acid, spice, onion, and the crunch of a fried plantain.
Coast really does serve great bar food, and they offer a great, if often crowded, bar. If you're lucky enough to score a spot, you may want to try the cornmeal-encrusted oysters ($9.99). They'd make oyster lovers out of people from Kansas. Maybe it's the pool of papaya puree underneath, or the warm crunch of the shattering crust that gives way to the salty, perfectly cooked underbelly of the sea. But the little bit of caviar on top puts the whole thing over the edge.
They serve a decent crab cake ($10.99/$20.99), perhaps a bit slim on the "lump" part, but hey, this ain't Baltimore. Crab soup ($7.99)? Good. Bacon-wrapped sea scallops ($10.99)? About what you'd expect them to be. Grilled filet mignon for $25.99, in a seafood house? We won't even go there.
Get the fried stuff. Scarf down a combo platter ($18.50) of oysters, scallops, and shrimp. Dunk those babies in the cocktail sauce and ask for some drawn butter, because they're absolutely delicious. The scallops are so big, you'll need two bites to conquer them. The seafood speaks of quality, and the preparation is spot on. Same goes for the whole fried flounder ($23.99) — my brother-in-law won't order anything else — a big plate of a fish, crisped up and ready to dip in a custom cilantro/jalapeño mayonnaise sauce. And they still offer the wood-fired grill, but it's not the same without whole lobsters and fish steaming on the grates.
Coast pretty much has it made. The only problem is — they know it. Amateur service, cold food, horrible side dishes, and a menu with twice as many offerings as the kitchen can successfully handle sometimes means a disappointing meal. The wine list displays a decent number of white wines, but the servers usually can't speak to their characteristics, let alone pair them with food. Dishes like the "Baja" fish tacos ($10.25) and the "traditional" paella ($20.99) fail completely, being neither authentic nor traditional in flavor. Get the wrong waitress, order the wrong food, and Coast will make for a long, expensive evening.
Despite this, you need a reservation. People like the place, and locals go there to get decent fried seafood downtown. The disappointment comes from knowing what Coast could be, if it concentrated on what it does best, if it brought back the authenticity of a whole fish grilled on the open fire, if it was more concerned with the quality of the meal than the quantity of diners running through the door. It needs a smaller menu, more attention to detail, and a warm soul, of the non-corporate variety. Until then, Coast will still rank as one of the quintessential seafood haunts of Charleston. It will still make loads of money. And it will most likely continue to do just what it says it will: Coast along just fine.