When I heard about Runaway Bay, a new Jamaican-inspired restaurant in Riverfront Park at the Navy Yard in North Charleston, the first thing I did was check out their website. The elegant pictures contrasted with my mental image of the discombobulated, paved-over industrial feel of the Navy Yard complex. Runaway Bay looked like a high-end Caribbean resort with well-dressed patrons, swaying palms, romantic sunset river views, brunch tables spread with plates of French toast, platters of bacon, pitchers of orange juice, and carafes of coffee. The sample lunch and dinner menus were alluring, too, with an inspiring lineup of authentic dishes like jerk shrimp, slow-cooked beef and lamb wrapped in pastry, beef and lobster patties, cassava, callaloo bammie, lamb aubergine, oxtail, ackee, and salt fish.
A Jamaican restaurant in Charleston seemed exciting, especially given Charleston's historical and architectural ties to the Caribbean. But I wondered about its North Chuck setting. Then, after meandering through the Navy Yard complex, I arrived at Runaway Bay for my first visit and realized that the riverfront setting really is unique. The restaurant is housed in one of four buildings in the Officers Housing Historic District, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Built in the '30s, the buildings dutifully acknowledge the river and feel colonial and Caribbean with sturdy concrete construction, expansive second-story windows, and low-slanted roofs. The downstairs has been converted to a bar that adjoins Riverfront Park, and the three dining rooms upstairs offer even better views. The decor is neutral and warm with heart-pine floors. So as I sat down at my table, I could understand why the owners — sisters Mary Kong-Howes, Lileeth Kong, and Donna Kong-Jeffries — were proud of the setting.
But what about that drool-worthy authentic Jamaican food I was so excited about? The size of Runaway Bay's menu was surprising. I knew that the website version was just a sample, but the actual menu was sparse. There was only one starter — a sweet potato and butternut squash soup ($5) — and six entrées ($8-$12): jerk chicken, jerk pork, curry chicken, seared tilapia, a large house salad with jerk chicken, and a sautéed vegetable plate. Otherwise, there were four desserts (with an asterisk indicating limited availability) and basic drinks (but no liquor license yet) — and that was it.
But the setting was so relaxing and the staff so welcoming I wasn't fixated on the size of the menu. I was hungry. So I decided on the jerk pork, which comes with a side salad and choice of dressing. The salad was a nicely chilled and shredded mélange of lettuces and red cabbage, sliced cucumbers, pineapple chunks, cherry tomatoes, and a tangy and sweet, creamy curry dressing. It was simple, with an interesting mix of components, just like you'd expect to get at a nice beachside dinner spot in the Caribbean. The pork itself was also no-frills but fantastic. Buttery-tender slices of deeply flavorful jerk pork were ladled over with a succulent, hot, meaty, and spicy jerk sauce and set alongside a mound of traditional Caribbean peas and rice (mostly rice, a few peas). I could taste years of meat-cooking experience and jerk tradition in this one, with muted garlic, spices like cumin and clove, and the bold, round fruity flavor of Jamaican scotch bonnet pepper all complementing the pork that had been baked and then smoked until tender.
On another visit the food was just as comforting (even if the menu was the same). I cozied up to a sun-drenched table underneath one of the big south-facing windows and ordered the sweet potato and ginger soup. It was a really good, delicately spiced purée of sweet potatoes, warmed and balanced by the gentle heat of ginger and thickened at the end with just a little cream. The curry chicken ($10) was good too. Tender chunks of marinated poultry were braised in a bright yellow curry and nestled alongside a few potatoes and the requisite rice and peas. It was a generous portion and tasted even better when perked up with a dash of scotch bonnet hot sauce I asked for on the side (chef Lileeth Kong says she happily adapts the spice to suit the customer). I also ordered the mélange of sautéed vegetables ($8): thinly sliced zucchini and yellow squash, celery, and red onion — essentially a much better and more plentiful version of the token side vegetables you'd see alongside steak or fish in an upscale Caribbean resort. It came with rice and peas, too.
When I asked Lileeth about the small size of the menu given that they had been open for more than two months, she told me that in the new year, the online sample menu will indeed be the actual restaurant menu. Until then, they're rotating individual dish items in and out periodically, and they're happy to make kids dishes on request. Kong says they usually offer one egg and one fish dish at brunch.
So all in all, the story of Runaway Bay is incomplete. Each time I visited, patrons were few and far between, and I couldn't help but wonder when, with a menu this basic and at prices that seem a little high for a kind of out-of-the-way location, things will get consistently busy at Runaway Bay. Kong says they've been booked solid with office parties in recent days. The owners and staff definitely understand hospitality (the Kongs have had restaurants before), though things feel a little incomplete there, too. My waiter had to go back and ask a manager to answer several questions that I, and diners around me, had about the menu. But otherwise, the service was great and the staff welcoming and helpful.
Can Runaway Bay become the elegant escape envisioned on its website, the place it wants to be? It's not there yet, but with the expanded menu and continued execution on the cooking front it can easily get there. To that end, why not head over to Runaway Bay next time you're nearby for some simple and authentic Jamaican food? Get to know them and let them know what you think. The views are good and so is the food, and the ethnic flavors are a great addition to the Charleston restaurant scene.