Bowen's Island Restaurant

Lisa Caplinger reviews Bowen's Island Restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

I don't even know how to begin to explain the oyster eatery that is Bowen's Island Restaurant. I'd heard the stories, read reviews, even drove out there to check it out, but I still wasn't prepared for the dining experience. Excited? Absolutely. Prepared? Nope!

Bowen's is located two miles before Folly Beach in South Carolina and I have yet to meet a local who doesn't have something to say about it. That alone makes you want to visit... better yet, an evening with friends and all of our kids, their son, and friends. So, we did. You won't miss it because on the right side of the road before the turn-off there's a sign for the restaurant. Take the right, go down the paved road seemingly through the marshes. On the right, you will pass a beautiful home. The road turns into a dirt trail and you will pass the sign that says, "City Maintenance Ends Here." You'll pass a not-so-beautiful home. Almost there! Out your front window you can see the water in front of you and a sign that says, "Parking" surrounded by mounds of oyster shells. Go right and park in the dirt field. Yep, the one with the great views.

It wouldn't be a bad idea to stop and take pictures. We arrived at dusk and the scenery really was amazing. Bowen's has been under reconstruction lately. The "newer" part is still rustic and covered with graffiti, but it is also heated with indoor restrooms. We walked out toward the water where the oysters are unloaded after being freshly picked. We could see where people would congregate in the warmer months — sharing oysters, cold drinks, and tales of the Lowcountry. Below is the party room used for dinners, weddings, business get-togethers and so on.

To say it is rustic is to do it a disservice. Camping is rustic. Bowen's rusticity is unique and falls into no category I have ever experienced. After taking the two-minute, self-guided walking tour, it was time to order. We climbed the stairs to the new section to discover it was heated, cozy and full of people waiting for oysters, watching TV, and drinking cold beers.

After being handed a laminated menu, we gave the bartender our order. He jotted it down on a sheet of paper with our name at the top. We got our drinks and headed below. There were a few tall-boy heaters to take off the chill, and in the back of the room was a huge steamer, a fire, and an oyster cooker/server named Dale. (Thanks, Michelle, for remembering his name!) People were eating the oysters as fast as he could make them. This was my first time eating oysters and I had to see the process for myself. Luckily he didn't mind explaining things. Two trays of oysters later, I could shuck 'em, drizzle them with hot sauce, and eat 'em along with a few bites of crab cake, some delicious hush puppies, fries, and coleslaw. The fried shrimp were delicious too.

You can't make a wrong choice at Bowen's Island Restaurant except wearing tight pants! Everything the ten of us ordered was superb and served quickly. I even donated my biggest oyster to my dear friend, Doug. He promptly doused it in hot sauce and ate it.

Bowen's is more than a restaurant. It is a South Carolina icon that has served up oysters fresh from the marshes for 64 years and was honored in 2006 with a James Beard Award as an American classic. I didn't go looking for a top designer-decorated restaurant playing smooth jazz playing with starched linens on each table. I went for the tradition, the history, the landmark, the American classic that is Bowen's. I went to eat oysters and learned to shuck them, and to enjoy a meal with family and friends. I went to travel out of my comfort zone and try something new. I went to go where the locals go and eat where they eat. And, I had a great time!

To quote their website: "To legions of loyal customers, the place could hardly be called a restaurant. The island became a state of mind." Bowen's is a state of mind, as is Charleston, South Carolina. I am so grateful to have shared it with my family and my friends. If you need somewhere new to go, if you are looking to eat where the locals eat, if you are simply looking for a way to enjoy this present day, check out Bowen's Island Restaurant. You won't be disappointed.

For photos of the full experience check out Charleston Treasures.