Want to find authentic South Carolina seafood?
Along the Saltwater Edge of South Carolina, there’s a seafood heaven called Bowen’s Island Restaurant.
1870 Bowens Island Road
At Bowens Island Restaurant, a defiantly gritty riverside joint 8 miles —and many worlds —from downtown Charleston in Folly Beach, jagged clusters of oysters are steamed in a kitchen that might remind you of a hobo’s canteen and served in old metal buckets encrusted with pluff mud. Inhale deeply at low tide and the pungent aroma of that mud will stop you in your tracks. It's that gooey muddy substance in the marsh where all sea life begins.Stop beside the fire pit to pick up a few. Pry ‘em open with a worn knife and a rag, then wash ‘em down with beer.
To get here, head north out of Beaufort and Hilton Head and take a right onto Folly Road going toward the beach. Bowens Seafood is located just a little beyond a sign that welcomes motorists to the “Edge of America.” You’ll travel onto a narrow, rutted dirt road across a large expanse of marshland. Bowens Island is not an island at all but rather the end of a desolate peninsula surrounded by the tidal creeks and miles of vast coastal marshes. Roll the windows down and catch the warm salty breezes and turn all thoughts immediately to succulent oysters, hush puppies, and fried shrimp and flounder. This will be the real deal!
Roll right up to the front of the shack and park under an ancient live oak. It will be covered in veils of Spanish Moss and resurrection fern. Although Charleston is only 20 minutes north, this place is remote and scarcely looks like a place to eat. The restaurant itself is a coastal shack two levels high with outside stairs and decks that look slapped together from well-weathered, faded wood. While the main building is to the left, walk across the oyster shell parking lot to a screened-in dining deck extending out to the Folly River. There you’re likely to meet the owner, the Bowens’ grandson, Robert Barber. “Ours are local oysters,” he’ll tell you, “Most come to us from within 500 yards to a mile from here.”
It was all started by "Ma Bowen," as those who know her well will call her, in 1946 on a private 13 acre island behind Folly. Ice cold beer goes down mighty easy when the sun slowly sinks behind the creek and the crimson glow reflects off mounds of glistening oyster shells, the by-products of countless feasts. There is no other place like it anywhere.
Just about any day of the week you can spot a couple hardy souls off in the distance in small flat-bottomed boats, spending hours leaning over to pick oysters. They get down in the pluff mud to gather them off the banks using a hammer to break up the clusters. They leave the smaller ones behind to give the newly born oysters a hard surface to cling to. The oyster starts its life as a squiggly, squirmy little blob. It takes almost two years until it gets decent-sized. Barber’s oysters are the same species that grow in the Gulf and elsewhere up and down the East Coast, but exactly where they grow, and the constitution of their beds determines their cluster form and their flavor. Some call it their terroir - just like grapes grown for fine wine. They reflect the flavor of their location. You might want to call the South Carolina coast the Napa Valley of Oysters.
Be sure to grab a beer and hang out by the fire pit where oysters are steaming under burlap sacks the way they always have. No fancy equipment found here. Sit a while and be mesmerized before the crackling fire pit where Henry Gilliard shovels oysters onto a large sheet of steel suspended over the open flames. The oysters hiss and sizzle beneath the soaked croaker sacks, steam rising in the air, illuminating the graffiti on the walls of countless names carved by generations of Bowen’s fans.
The cooking process takes only a few minutes and infuses the meat of the oyster with its own juices, concentrating the flavor. Washcloths and dull knives are provided for prying the shells open and cutting the meat loose. Paper cups full of a thin red cocktail sauce made tangy and hot with horseradish and Texas Pete are on the table. The cocktail sauce recipe comes from Barber’s grandmother, May Bowen. The place has been a favorite spot now for generations of oyster lovers looking for fresh-off-the-boat oysters and shrimp.
Before the humble cinder block fish camp burned down in 2006, the main restaurant was covered in decades worth of graffiti scrawled by loyal customers. In July 2010, it reopened in a large, screened-in room on 18-foot stilts with one of the best marsh views around. The porch overlooks mountains of discarded oyster shells and features stunning sunsets casting bright crimson rays against the seemingly endless swaths of golden marsh grass.
Known for its no-frills service, creek-side sunset views, and oyster room where steaming oysters are shoveled directly from the fire pit onto rough wooden tables, the restaurant won the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award in 2006. It was named one of eight “American Classic Restaurants” that boasts timeless appeal and quality food that reflects the history and character of its community.
Owner Robert Barber accepted the award in New York City, wearing a tuxedo and white shrimping boots.
May this special place live on forever, bringing joy to seafood and oyster lovers everywhere who are lucky enough to stumble upon this slice of seafood heaven.