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May '09

Ashes and Oyster Shells: The Bowen’s Island Restaurant Fire

Ashes and Oyster Shells: The Bowen's Island Restaurant Fire

Book Excerpts and Food Articles by Doug DuCap

On a cool October evening several years ago, a very peculiar and very particularly Charleston institution took fire.

Bright flames illumined the marshes along Sol Legare Creek with the brief flare of vanishing history; the smoke that rose from the Bowen’s Island Restaurant fire took with it sixty years of accumulations, accretions, and thoroughly personalized accoutrement.

Visually, it was the kind of place you either loved or loathed; no one was indifferent to the bizarre amalgam of mismatched furniture, superfluous objects (e.g., stacks of dysfunctional TVs and radios), and decade upon decade of graffiti that grew like a fungus on literally every surface. The walls, ceilings, doors, and every ramshackle stick of furniture were covered with it, as were the windows, the lightbulbs, and the ancient wheezy jukebox.

(To see what the restaurant looked like before the fire, see Cramer Gallimore’s excellent photos here.)

The Ruins of Bowen's Island Restaurant, Charleston, South CarolinaDespite the polarizing effect of the alarmingly chaotic decor, there was no disputing the fact that Bowen’s Island served some of the freshest and finest seafood in the Carolina Lowcountry. The bountiful rivers, marshes, and creeks that surround the island are home to the fish, shrimp, crabs, and oysters that made up the menu. The firm, flavorful boiled shrimp and the crisp fried fish were hailed as marvels of simplicity, but it was the incomparable roasted oysters for which Bowen’s Island was most well known.

Eating in the Oyster Room was a full-body experience: you sat on rickety, graffiti-covered chairs at newspaper-covered tables, oyster knife (or butter knife, or screwdriver) in hand, de rigeur saltines and hot sauce at the ready, and waited. The oysters, so recently stirred from their pluff mud beds, were covered with wet burlap sacks and “roasted” on a wide sheet of hot metal in an open hearth at one end of the room.

Soon, the oyster man would literally dump a huge coal shovel load of steaming hot oysters onto your table. And that was it: dinner was served. Then began the prying open of shells and the slurping of hot briny oysters. Empty shells were tossed in a bucket (to be “recycled” into exactly the sort of underwater habitat that new oysters love to grow on), and before you were done with your first shovelful another would be dumped on your table, an action that would be repeated until you cried uncle.

So wondrous was the seafood at Bowen’s Island that the restaurant, in spite of its casual manners and exceeding quirkiness, received a 2006 James Beard Foundation Award as one of eight “American Classic Restaurants” that “boasts timeless appeal and quality food that reflects the history and character of its community.” Robert Barber, grandson of founder Sarah May Bowen, became something of a hero to many Lowcountry watermen when he received the award wearing a tuxedo and the locally-favored white rubber shrimping boots.

The restaurant is back in operation, though in a somewhat different form. Covered, semi-outdoor spaces (with plastic chairs and tables) on the creek have replaced the warren of rooms that served as the original restaurant. Many people now come to Bowen’s Island for the fundraising events (mostly outdoor oyster roasts) that are held here, and there’s a long dock where boats can tie up and where boatless fishermen can sit in the sunshine and “drown some bait” for a small fee.

But if no one is watching (and vigilance is not exactly ‘job one’ here), you might be able to slip around back and explore the truly remarkable ruins, where thousands have left their mark and where the unique character of a legendary gathering place, accrued over the course of six decades, survives (as Shelley phrased it) “stamped upon these lifeless things” and is not easily erased.

Not even by fire.

The Aftermath of the Bowen's Island Restaurant Fire
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(Photo Credit: Playing With Fire by Cobalt123.)

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