Hank's Seafood, now into its 12th year of operation, is a firmly established landmark of downtown dining. It bills itself as "a modern interpretation of a classic Charleston fish house," and one of its primary inspirations was the legendary Henry's Restaurant, which for half a century after it opened in 1932 was the anchor of the Charleston dining scene in the era before the rise of the New Southern culinary revolution. That classic fish house inspiration can be seen in the details of the room, with its high-columned ceilings and lots of brown wood, including foot-wide hardwood plank floors and big booths with circular leather-topped seats. It's a beautiful setting, and within it, the waiters in their white shirts, black ties, and white jackets with pens in the breast pockets are a perfect match.
The modern/classic blend is reflected on the menu, too, which combines decades-old seafood recipes with more contemporary, high-end preparations. If you're going old-school, a bowl of she-crab soup ($7) — the signature Charleston restaurant dish since the 1930s — is a must. Hank's version is very thick and smooth and, thanks to a liberal dose of sherry, very sweet, too. The best part of the soup is when you uncover a big chunk of jumbo lump crab and it explodes with flavor as you bite into it. Another throwback, the Oysters Casino appetizer ($13), takes the classic recipe for Clams Casino, which originated in Rhode Island in the early 20th century, and adapts it for oysters, resulting in six half-shells topped with bacon, garlic butter, asiago cheese, and bread crumbs and broiled until golden brown. It is a savory dish: salty, smoky, and crispy on top, with a tender oyster underneath that's been heated just enough to warm it through but not cook it. While the texture of the oyster is quite nice, its subtle flavors are drowned out by the taste of sharp cheese and garlic, and the butter-soaked bread crumbs make it very rich and filling for an appetizer.
Quite different are the cold appetizers, which include modern fusion flavors like the sesame-crusted rare tuna with Asian chili red slaw ($12) and a ceviche of fish ($13) marinated in lime juice with jicama and tomato. Both dishes are subtle but have bright flavors that complement the fish instead of overwhelming it.
The entrées show a similar mix of the old and the new. The menu is expansive, but only two choices — a fried chicken breast ($20) and beef tenderloin over blue cheese grits ($33) — ever walked on land. Five seafood platters ($23-$26) provide various permutations of broiled or fried grouper, shrimp, oysters, flounder, and crab cakes all with coleslaw and french-fried sweet potatoes. The "Local Specialties" include the requisite shrimp and grits ($22), along with two dishes that were once specialties of the house at the old Henry's.
The curried shrimp ($22) surround a mound of white rice and are covered in a pale brown curry sauce made from onions, leeks, coconut, mango chutney, and bananas. While the shrimp are plump and delicious, it's a rich, spicy, and — to my taste, at least — overly sweet dish. The cubes of cooked carrot and celery that garnish it provide a mushy, anticlimactic explanation of why cubes of cooked carrot and celery are seldom used as a garnish any more.
The other Henry's classic, Seafood a la Wando ($26), is also heavy and sweet. A big round cake of fried yellow grits sits in the center of a white bowl surrounded by a mixture of finely-chopped fish, shrimp, and scallops cooked in a saffron and sherry cream sauce and decorated with white lump crab, diced red peppers, and green scallions. One can see how the thick, sweet, creamy dish once connoted luxury and elegance, but it's the kind of heavy, indulgent concoction that makes you realize why the whole country took up jogging in the 1980s.
But things are quite different on the chef's specialties section of the menu, where you'll find more contemporary options, like grilled swordfish over white beans and arugula ($27) and seared tuna with caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes, and goat cheese ($27). It's these dishes that let Chef Frank McMahon, who's run the kitchen since the restaurant opened in 1999, show off the chops he developed working under Eric Ripert at New York City's Le Bernardin. The roasted grouper ($29) is a thick slab of fish that's crisply seared on top but is perfectly tender in middle. It's served over a bed of corn, leeks, and a splendid lobster and rock shrimp risotto. The risotto's creamy texture is offset by lumps of shrimp and chewy lobster, while the champagne citrus beurre blanc offers a subtly rich and tangy finish. It's a really good dish and a fine representative of today's Lowcountry cuisine.
Ultimately, Hank's is a restaurant of contradictions. On the one hand, its old "fish house" style offers a classy elegance and a wonderful traditionalist vibe. At the same time, it is the consummate tourist joint, loud and bustling with T-shirts, flip flops, ball caps, and a myriad other articles that no one in the 1960s would have even remotely considered wearing out for dinner. There's a strong romantic appeal to relaxing in one of the big leather-clad booths and sampling dishes that hearken back to an earlier era of luxurious dining, but the reality of those dishes makes one thankful for the revolution of Charleston dining that occurred over the last two decades.
For me, at least, the classics, though well executed, are best left as nostalgic relics from an earlier day. The high-quality shellfish from the raw bar and the many entrées from fresh, local fish, however, are top-notch. When they turn their eyes to the modern day, the team at Hank's can knock out some really superlative contemporary seafood dishes. So, take in the old fish-house decor while enjoying a classic cocktail from the bar, then order a plate of oysters on the half-shell and one of the up-to-date entrées for dinner. It's the best of both worlds.