A Saturday evening review:
“What are you doing here?” the old man asked with a sharp tone. His voice seemed to come out of nowhere, especially since I thought that I was totally alone, under the hot summer sun, while fishing off a remote wooden dock on Bowens Island, near Folly Beach, S.C. Clearly surprised, I glanced around and saw a man, leaning up against a tree, wearing a ball cap and holding a cigarette. The tone of his voice was not only sharp, but it was also accompanied with a seasoning of anger and distrust. His eyes looked like they belonged to one of those dogs you meet in a dark alley, with a look of purposeful, mad confusion.
“I, I’m just a, fishing,” I said turning glancing in the direction of his voice. “We usually charge $4.00 to fish off this pier,” he said with distain. “Oh, I’m sorry sir, and you are?” I asked, because he really didn’t look the part of any official authority. “I’m the god damn manger of this place,” he exclaimed. As I began searching for my wallet, I said, “I’m very sorry, I’m happy to pay you, where do I put the money?” When I looked up again, he was gone, and I was left awkwardly standing alone in a very unwelcomed environment.
As I quickly gathered my fishing equipment and walked back to my car, I actually had visions of being killed for trespassing. Not yelled at or fined, but murdered. Why, for the sport of it, or because I was in such a perfect place to be disposed of. This was my first visit to Bowens Island, on that remote and hot summer day, so many years ago, and since that day, I’ve steered clear of that island.
In Charleston, S.C., back in the 1970s, the Charleston Post and Courier hired a man, who I remember as, Hester Clarke Smith, to write a weekly column on restaurants; he had the esteemed pleasure of being paid by the paper to critique eating establishments in and around Charleston. Hester would enter a business, totally incognito, have dinner, and write some of the most eloquent articles of the week. He wrote, not only about the taste and quality of the food, but the presentation, service, cleanliness, and over all experience. Hester could blast a massive hole in a dining establishment one day, while beautifully praising another place, the very next night. Hester was hated by some, loved by others, but read by so many, because his articles were fun to read, he spared no words in either direction his opinions would lead him. As a restaurant owner in Charleston, you had better beware of Hester’s pen, because most of the time, owners had no idea that he had dined there the night before, until they opened the paper the next morning.
One of Hester’s articles, that was particularly interesting to me , was his review of the Bowens Island Restaurant, and the fact that if you wanted to the best oysters in Charleston, then the tiny restaurant on Bowen’s Island is where you need to go. Hester painted a visual picture of a rustic shack with crude tables with holes cut in the center, for which you expel the shells. A mysterious old woman, would roast shovels full of oysters, under wet burlap, over a flaming iron grate. That was it, no fancy side dishes, no salad bar, no matradee, just an old woman, a dark room, and the best smoked oysters this side of the Pacific Ocean.
Hester’s description of the tastiest oysters tempted me for year, but each time I ventured on to the privately owned island, I never could identify the actual restaurant, and always found it closed. Not only was the island devoid of people, but the entire environment had an unfriendly chorus of spiritual voices telling me not only to leave, but to: “get the hell out!”
From the main highway heading to Folly Beach, Bowens Island exits off, perpendicular to the right, with nothing but a narrow dirt road, leading back up to the mysterious woods in the distance. There is pseudo-friendly roadside-sign that notifies the public that there, supposedly, is an actual restaurant somewhere in the distance. However, with no street light leading back to the abyss, most motorists would happily pass by, in search of a safer place, like a Red Lobster, or Captain Dee’s Seafood.
After completing a film documentary in Charleston this summer, pertaining to the decline in the domestic seafood industry, caused by foreign imports, I, once again, fell in love with the area and decided to move back to Folly Beach, and devote all of my time to film production and news reporting.
Also, after finishing my documentary on Shem Creek, an interesting phenomenon happened to me; and as a result of what I had learned, I found that I could no longer eat farm raised fish, and most especially imported seafood. I soon promised myself, that if I were to consume seafood at all, it would only be fresh and local. Not just because it was a good thing to do for the locals, but because, from a health standpoint, it was safer.
So here I am, living on Folly Beach, writing by the day, and walking the sunsets at dusk. I don’t know how the idea of taking another stab at Bowens Island entered my mind, but once conceived, I found that I had to go back. At first, I thought, no way will I go there again, but soon, I began getting a little pissed off. Why not, I asked myself, the place has been here forever, plus, they have sign up inviting people there. I could take my camera and audio recorder with me for protection, if I was killed, well then there would at least be a record of my death. So with iphone and recorder in hand I set off on my evening adventure to the unknown island of Bowens.
The wind was gusting over the marsh and the rain was pouring down, as I drove north up Folly Road, towards the dark entrance of Bowens Island, and of course, I passed it. I turned around several yards down, and back on to the pavement I returned. The gods were laughing at me, as I steered my vehicle down the vacant dirt road heading out to the unknown.
As I’m heading away from one level of civilization to that of another, I found myself completely in the darkness. Everything about the trek into the dark island was weird. The road itself was twisty and knurly, weaving around every palm tree and puddle along the way. Soon a spooky sign emerges out of the darkness, “Bowens Island Restaurant”. “Yeah, sure,” I mumbled under my breath, thinking this was like the Dark Forest out of the Wizard of Oz. As I maneuvered my truck deeper into island, the vegetation became thicker around me, to the point where the sky disappeared. I start to chuckle, thinking, “how in the hell can there be a restaurant out here!”
I soon come upon a clearing with a light in the distance, and glowing through the darkness was a Charlestonian- style, island home, complete with multiple levels and fashionable lighting. Not only was the house an odd spectacle, but it was also decorated with candle lit luminaries. On the other side of the dirt road, I come upon another home of similar size and prominence. What a strange dichotomy, here on the spooky island. Who would live in such a place, Dr. No?
Suddenly I find myself weaving around a huge water oak that stood prominently in the center of the road, and then there is stood in all of its glory, “This must be it,” I gasp, “Bowens Island Restaurant!” As I turn into the parking lot, I meet a huge wall of oyster shells that runs for several yards. The entire parking lot and walk ways were comprised completely of oyster shell, which must have come from decades of oyster feasts. To my surprise, the dark parking lot, which terminated almost to a tidal creek, was almost completely full of cars. The sheer number of patrons suggested to me, that there really might be a hidden secret buried here among the guts of this barrier island.
There is no doubt that the Bowens Island Restaurant is shabby on the outside, as a matter of fact, the place looked like an absolute dump. Entrance signs, hoses and lumber are strewn everywhere. One wall looks as if it was constructed entirely out of cheap plywood from a Home Depot, and there are remnants of structures that were both ill conceived and dropped half way, or successful ones that had since became dormant, and are left to hopefully drift away by some tropical storm.
As I walked toward the restaurant, I had to pause, because, not only was the exterior warn and shabby, but the building was void of any architectural lines. I had no idea where the formal entrance was, but what was clearly visible, was the existence of an over-built wheelchair ramp, that zigzagged back and forth for at least five levels. It was as if the owner was warned by the local governmental authorities, to install a handicap accessible entrance or else! To which the apparent owner might have responded by saying, “okay, if you want me to build a wheel chair ramp, then hot-damn, I going to build a wheelchair ramp, so there!” The resulting structure, while meeting code, resembles a structure out of a Dr. Seuss story.
I noticed some activity, and the flicker of a fire, through what appeared to be an open loading dock door, so in I ventured. On both side of me, people quietly sat at wooden tables, shucking oysters, and swilling beer out of cans. The propane burners were intensifying as I approached a man tending to a number of large steam boilers. Next to him, was a mountain of beautiful oyster clusters that looked as if they had been harvested that morning? The coloration of the clusters was that of earth tone grays along with fresh organic greens. The smell of sea salt emanated from the steamer lids as the cook lifted a huge serving of perfectly cooked shell fish onto a woman’s serving tray.
“I’ve been coming here for my entire life,” the female patron explained, as she began telling me about the history of the place. “I can still find my name that I wrote upon a wooden plank way back in the early eighties,” she exclaimed. The original restaurant was built in 1946 on the site of an old fish camp. In 2006, a fire destroyed much of the building and the owner vowed to build a new structure directly on top the remains of the old one, and clearly it appears that way today. “Go upstairs to the bar, and pick up a ticket for some oysters and order some for yourself,” she said. “How do I get to the bar?” I asked, to which she answered “you go through there!”
Down a dark hallway, was an even darker doorway that opened to the back of the building? When I finally opened the door, the wind that the rain almost blew me over, as the storm continued to rage outside. I climbed a flight of stairs on the outside of the building, with the rain and wind criticizing me as I moved, as if saying “enter at your own risk!” As I entered the top level, my eyes rested upon the warmth of a wonderful vision, an actual restaurant!
Now let me pause here by saying that every day, restaurants all over the world desperately try to capture ambiance. Some hire design consultants in an effort to make a dining establishment inviting. Some ideas work, some don’t, but most good creations, never last. Restaurants, like apartments, condos, and houses, either have it or they don’t, and you know it as soon as you enter. It’s the smell, the lighting, the seating, the staff, the pictures, and perhaps the ghostly spirits that inhabit the area. Some restaurants actually have no souls, no spirits, and no ambiance at all, but spend millions of dollars trying to create it. Some establishments appear to have ambiance, but the patrons either don’t see it or appreciate it. How ambiance is created is a total mystery, and most importantly, how do they retain it?
As I opened the rickety screen door, on the upper deck, I entered a totally different world. All at once, almost all of my senses were stimulated, sights, sounds, smell, and the feeling of warmth. The floors were wood, the room was large and wide, the tables were full of food and people. Lively conversation between fashion-conscious, Charleston women, sipping cosmopolitans, white wine and dark beer, while young men in Gamecock shirts were tilting cans of Bud Light. A huge tray of comfort food appeared on the bar in front of me, staged for consumption by the people to the left of me. Fried fish, shrimp, crab cakes, fried oysters, shrimp and grits, Frogmore Stew complete with corn, potatoes and smoked sausage.
There was only one place for me to go, and that way was forward, directly to the bar. A beautiful blond bartender appeared like an angel, greeting me with a smile, as I instantly made myself comfortable on the bar stool. “Would you like to try our Bowens Island Oyster Beer?” She asked, “Sure, I said”, thinking she could have sold me a can of dirt. She poured a dark porter into a pint glass and assured me that the beer was not made from oysters, but it was actually a proprietary name given to them by the local Holy City Brewing Company.
Now back to my thought about ambiance, cleanliness plays a big part. Eating establishment can be rustic, complete with graffiti, and paper menus, but they must envelope at least some spectrum of organized cleanliness. This bar was clean and complete with almost every wine and beer selection needed. High tech point of sale computer terminals, were simply part of their work flow infrastructure. Judging by the clean and well organized bar, one could only imagine that the kitchen in the back followed suit. This is the sort of intuitive perception I have gained through the years as I have visited the both the great and horrible all over the world. You know it when you see it.
After a minute, while of reading the small paper menu, that include only a limited but complete number of choices like Frogmore Stew, and She Crab Soup, I decided on the oysters. The bartender handed me a colored order ticket and dropped a tin bucket at the base of my bar stool, and down the stairs I went.
“Hello!” I said as I reentered the ground floor cellar, that reminded me of an engine room on a submarine. A young gentleman politely greeted me and told me to place my order ticket in a nearby basket. Then he went to work, shoving one end of what looked like a small snow shovel, under a huge mountain of oysters and dropped them into a large round steam basket. As other boilers were cooking at the same time, he turned the propane up high on a vacate one and dropped the basket into the steaming depths of the basin. “How much water do you use?” I asked, as he tightened the lid on top. “Just a few inches,” he said, “the more oysters you cook, the more naturally salty the water becomes”.
As the oyster cooked along, the steaming caldrons filled the room with a wonderful smell of marsh organics that permeated both my appetite and clothing. While the young man cooked he told me a little more history of the place. May Bowen was the old women, everyone referred to, and it was her primary job, night after night to prepare the oysters for all of the guests. The scary manager that had once terrified me, years ago, for fishing on his dock, was apparently a very lovely person, who everyone adored, even though his demeanor was scary as hell. His name was Jack London, and he had died a few years back.
The entire island is owned by Bowen family members, who for generations had all played some role in the operation of the family business. Up until today, the family harvests their own oysters on their own lease, catch their own fresh shrimp, and net their fish, a self-sufficient restaurant, with the exception of beer and wine.
Soon my oysters were done cooking and they were dumped in a large steaming pile, on what looked like a lunch tray. I thanked the cook profusely and traveled back up to the dining room above. As I reentered the bar, the place was alive with warmth, smiling people and great looking food. I sat the bar and feasted on these delicious clusters of oysters. Each cluster resembled odd configurations of oysters big and small. The taste and quality was nothing short of perfect. Even the very small ones had a taste as satisfying as the very large ones. There was no need for cocktail sauce or even drawn butter, the natural salt flavoring was the only seasoning needed. I was also told not to expect raw oysters, primarily because of the preparation time, but also because of health reasons.
As I was devouring my massive array of oysters, I noticed that the bartender and the cook were also feasting on a tray of their own. This is a good sign, the cook is eating what I was eating, and this combination of everything, was nothing short of a fantastic oyster roast. I consumed every single oyster on my tray, including the small oyster crabs that are to be eaten for good luck.
As I walked out of the dark entrance way, from which I came in, the rain had stopped and I saw my truck parked in the now empty parking lot. I navigated my way back up the twisty, dirt road toward civilization. The moon and stars twinkled and shined through the canopy above me. I was filled with a great sense of satisfaction and gratitude, that I was able to experience such a great place in this day and time. How often can you find a secret gem like the Bowen’s Island Restaurant, with so much character and history, hidden in the dark overgrowth of a privately owned island?
Above the entrance of the main dining room, hangs a wooden plaque that contains a hand written quote that reads: “Bowen’s Island – People either like it… or they don’t. - May Bowen 1909-90”. Maybe that must have been the spirit I was referring to, and the secret ingredient for continued ambiance.