According to Dan Huntleyâ€™s article posted in the Charlotte Observer, a fire on Sunday destroyed the Bowens Island restaurant located in James Island. In Dan Huntleyâ€™s words,
â€œAn open fire on the concrete floor to roast oysters was part of the charm of Bowens Island restaurant.
And early Sunday, it was fire that destroyed the Lowcountry eatery that tens of thousands of Carolinians visited since Sarah May Bowen opened the seafood joint on a dead-end dirt road in 1946.
Since 1990, her grandson, Robert Barber, has run the restaurant that Jimmy Buffett once described as one of his favorite top 10 dives in North America. One wag said it was the kind of place that to be properly appreciated, had to be allowed to ferment.
Eclectic does not convey the true nature of Bowens, which doesn’t advertise, have menus or even accurate road signs. The closest description of Bowens comes from Barber: He gives it in metaphysical terms: “Bowens — as island, a restaurant, a state of mind.”
The first time I visited Bowens in the early ’90s I was so frustrated trying to find “that oyster place” near Folly Beach that I called the Folly Police Department.
“Oh, you must mean Bowens.” “Do you know how I could reach them by phone?” “Don’t think they gotta phone.” “Do you know what the address is?” “Don’t think they’ve got no road numbers out there.” “Could you tell me how to find it?” “Sure, just come out LeGare (pronounced La Gree) toward the beach on Folly and take a right at the life-boat wreck. Don’t look for no signs because they ain’t none, but don’t worry, you can’t miss it.”
When I got to the end of the road, there were still no restaurant signs, just the butt end of a rambling one-story building with ramps and closed wooden gates. After walking completely around the place, I still couldn’t find an entrance. The only indication I may have been in the right place was a dump truck-sized pile of bleached oyster shells that spilled into the marsh.
I walked in through the kitchen, hollering as I went, and came into a room full of old hair drying equipment (from his grandmother’s former salon) and busted TVs. Frat boy graffiti covered the walls: “Don’t Believe Everything You Think.” I couldn’t smell that yeasty smell of spilled beer, but I knew from looking around that a lot of brews had been quaffed inside these walls.
And then suddenly the most beat up juke box on earth rattled to life and started playing — and I’m not making this up — “Frosty the Snow Man” by Jimmy Durante.
It was if I’d stepped into a Stephen King movie about a waterfront road house whose clientele consisted of … the ghosts of drowned sailors.
“You must be the newspaper fellow,” said a kindly tall man, wiping his hands on a towel before reaching out to shake mine.
It was Robert Barber, former state legislator, lawyer, minister, Charleston School Board member and legislative lobbyist for the Sierra Club. He had given it all up for THIS?
Barber is currently a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, running against incumbent Andre Bauer.
Last spring, Barber, 57, went to New York to receive the prestigious James Beard Award for American Classic restaurants. He wore a black tuxedo with his formal pants stuffed inside white rubber shrimper boots. He said he wore the boots to honor “all the folks out there who harvest the food, shrimp and vegetables.” In short, the workers whose bounty often gets lost in all the glitzy praise of the rock star-like chefs.
Barber plans to rebuild and be ready by next oyster season.
On that particular day, I was writing a story on the place and he hooked me up with his able assistant, Goat Lafayette, an elderly Gullah oysterman to “fetch us some `iysters out back a’ de marsh.”
Three hours later on a gray January afternoon, we took off our muddy waders, washed three bushels of oysters and put on some water to boil.
A wood fire roared in the corner of the dining room with a large sheet of iron. When the iron was nearly glowing, a bucket of oysters were dumped onto the hissing metal. Fifteen minutes later, Goat lifted them out with a wide-mouth coal shovel and dumped them on our table. I had to take my glasses off, there was so much steam rising from the pile of shellfish. The Carolina oysters are thinner, shelled with smaller meat but the taste… it was the briny taste of the sea.
With a dose of fiery cocktail sauce and handful of saltine crackers, we devoured the mound and Goat brought us more.
By closing time, I don’t remember ever getting a bill, but we forked over enough cash until the cashier was satisfied. When I asked for a receipt, Goat shrugged and then carefully wrote out on a torn paper napkin “15 bux.”
In a sea of franchised mediocrity, come back Bowens, we need your broken TVs and a sack of Carolina oysters salty as the nearby Atlantic.
And a fire on the floorâ€
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