For about 60 years, patrons have come to feast on roasted oysters, to paint graffiti on the walls, and to enjoy a breathtaking view.
There’s nothing fancy here, but the place is perfect for those who love their oysters served with a side of quaintness.
That combination of delicious oysters and other seafood and its slightly unusual atmosphere have earned it a boatload of honors. Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines have named it one of the country’s Best Seafood Dives. In 2006, the James Beard Foundation named it an American Classic restaurant.
The restaurant sits on a 13-acre island that owner Robert Barber’s grandparents, May and Jimmy Bowen, bought in 1946 for $3,900. By trade, she was a hair stylist and he was a printer. But they also owned a restaurant on Folly Beach, Bob’s Lunch, named for Barber’s father, Bob Barber. She turned operation of the Folly Beach restaurant over to Bob Barber after World War II, and he ran it while attending the Citadel as a veteran student.
“She came over here and built a little one-bedroom shack, and she lived over here and started what evolved into a pretty big seafood restaurant operation,” Robert Barber said. “Until the day she died, we never cooked any seafood in there except in old cast iron skillets. I suspect if we were still doing that, we’d have to have about 250 cast iron skillets to cook as much seafood as we do now.”
The Bowens didn’t intend to open a restaurant on Bowens Island; they built a dock and set up a fish camp. But people began asking them to cook the seafood they caught, and soon they were running another restaurant.
“We used to cook oysters in the yard. You could get oysters by the peck or bushel. We had some plywood on some sawhorses, and we cooked them on a sheet of steel with some burlap on top.”
Eventually a small cinderblock restaurant was built. Fire destroyed the restaurant in October 2006, only months after Barber had traveled to New York to accept the Beard Foundation’s American Classics award. (No doubt he was memorable in his tuxedo and white shrimp boots.)
Going to the old restaurant was an experience. Pictures of it show stacks of old TV sets, rustic tables and unmatched chairs, and walls covered with graffiti. The Bowens ran the restaurant with the help of longtime cook John Sanka.
“Everybody wrote on the walls, floor to ceiling,” said Paul Hadley, who has been visiting the restaurant since 1968 when he was stationed in Charleston with the Navy.
Spiral-bound notebooks were left for visitors’ musing, and Hadley remembered one, obviously written by a young woman with beautiful handwriting.
“I’m paraphrasing, but her remark was: ‘Oh, what an interesting place. I can’t wait to get home and bring one of my friends here so that they too can say: Just where the hell are you taking me?’
“It used to be dirt all the way from Folly and when you left, you had to go through the marsh -- through the water if it was high tide. It was dark and it was pretty funky looking so it hasn’t changed all that much. It’s a big piece of Folly Beach culture. It’s marvelous.”
So marvelous that Holy City Brewing even makes a beer with oysters, Bowens Island Oyster Stout.
A second-story restaurant has been built over the old restaurant, along with a wide deck to take advantage of beautiful sunsets. And in 1996, indoor restrooms were added after many visitors told Barber they’d come more often but their wife really hated walking across the road to the bathroom.
Barber, who is unabashedly sentimental about the restaurant’s early days, points out timbers that show the boundaries of the original restaurant.
Just on the other side of the block wall is the original oyster room. Diners today sit in the same oyster room to slurp down oysters cooked on the original oyster pit. One difference is that propane gas is used to heat the pit instead of an open fire.
“It’s about a ½-inch sheet of steel and a burlap sack over oysters, and it steams them beautifully and we just shovel them on the table.”
The restaurant serves an average of 170 bushels of oysters a week, Barber estimates. Oyster pickers gather them nearby bring them in by the bushels, dump them on a slanted, cement wash basin where they’re washed with water from the creek.
Washing them with salty water helps prevent diluting the mollusks’ natural salinity, Barber said, and makes them tastier.
While some of the pickers are young men, one of the best known is Victor “Goat” Lafayette, who has been picking oysters for more than 50 years. Lafayette and the restaurant are featured in films by Southern Foodways Alliance that will be screened during a Charleston Wine and Food festival event at the restaurant March 3.
Barber didn’t set out to carry on the family’s restaurant tradition. He’s an attorney, and although he isn’t practicing now, he still has his shingle hung on a lower-floor office below the restaurant.
He represented his area in the S.C. House from 1989 to 1995, and served on the Charleston County School Board during the 1980s. He lost a race for lieutenant governor to incumbent Andre Bauer in 2006 and ran against Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom in 2010.
These days, he seems content running the restaurant, even if he says it was “nothing premeditated exactly.”
One of the signs hanging in the new restaurant quotes May Bowen: “Bowens Island: People either like it … or they don’t.”
Barber clearly loves it. He loves this island that is home to him, the restaurant and other family members.
And he loves oysters. Sitting in the old oyster room, he demonstrates how to get into an oyster that hasn’t popped open during roasted.
“These come out of great salty water. I don’t even like to waste the water in this oyster. I drink the water, too.
“That was a good oyster.”