Food & Drink

75 Years of Seafood Dreams at Bowens Island

Bivalve, they’ve got it! The oyster and fried fish institution near Folly Beach, South Carolina, shares decades of memories and plans for one big anniversary bash

Photo: Courtesy of Bowens Island

Bowens Island in its earlier days.

Near Charleston, South Carolina, a city with a booming new restaurant scene, Bowens Island has stood like a beacon of slow-idling time for seventy-five years. Since opening in 1946, the gritty fish camp fantasia on the way to Folly Beach has seen half a dozen major hurricanes, a devastating fire, a global pandemic, and herds of diners who make the pilgrimage to the thirteen-acre hammock island for the promise of piles of steaming oysters and cold beers in a space that can only be described as shanty chic.

If hunger is the best sauce, then sweating and salivating over the smell of fried hushpuppies and flounder while waiting in line to enter the scruffy space is a local rite of passage. Travelers lucky enough to go find the space just as legendary. It’s a story to tell when they return home to Milwaukee or Missoula or Kansas City. A story about a place where, “hand to God,” you can almost hear them say, the fish comes in fresh from the waters off the dock, wood porches overlook mountains of discarded oyster shells, and the laid-back vibe is as uncanny as the brilliant sunsets casting scarlet rays against the seemingly endless swaths of golden marsh grass.

Hope Barber is the restaurant’s managing operator, and the fourth generation of family to run Bowens. She decided with her father, Robert Barber, the owner/operator, that such a big anniversary deserved a party. To mark seventy-five years of business, on July 26, Bowens will host a ticketed throwdown with plenty of seafood and guest purveyors including Chinese American cuisine from Jackrabbit Filly, ice cream from Life Raft Treats, and Swig & Swine barbecue, along with live music from Dallas Baker & Friends. We chatted with Hope to hear about her memories, natural disaster near-misses, and the indomitable spirit of the restaurant’s founder, her great-grandmother May Bowen.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Bowens Island Restaurant (@bowensislandrestaurant)

It all started in 1946, right?

Yes. After the war, my great-grandmother May, who grew up in the Adams Run/Ravenel area, got divorced, then married Jimmy, who we called Papa, and they purchased the island in 1946. When they bought it, there was no road out here and no causeway. You had to wait until high tide to take a boat out there.

Was their plan to run a restaurant? 

Well, they had a lot of fishermen out here and May had experience in restaurants. The fishermen would ask May to cook what they caught, and I guess she kind of got tired of doing that for free. The restaurant was really like an extension of their home. They would get up each morning—365 days a year—and go there. They spent all day there. And then they went home at night, went to sleep. It was a very interesting existence. 

This certainly doesn’t sound like the high-traffic restaurant we know today.

Folly didn’t have as many tourists back then. I remember going to visit when I would come to the beach as a child, and they didn’t have much business in the daytime. Her real busy season used to be during oyster season when she did steamed oysters. It tended to slow down a little bit in the summer just because it was so doggone hot. They served shrimp platters and fried fish platters with just hushpuppies and some pickled vegetables, like cauliflower, on the side. That was it.

photo: courtesy of Bowens Island
May Bowen in the old restaurant.

For those who have only seen the modern building that was built in 2010, what did the original look like? 

They had all these TVs, of course. One was for the sound and one was for the picture, and sometimes the sound died with the picture. The floor of the restaurant was all cement and it had like a couple of little holes in it, I guess for drainage, but fiddler crabs would just run through the restaurant then escape down those holes. [May] also had a table where she sold Almond Joys, Mounds, three varieties of Super Bubble bubble gum, and packs of Nabs. I always found it a very fascinating place.

What about beer? Today you offer craft options from local breweries, but that probably wasn’t the case back in the day.

She always sold cheap beer like Pabst. The funny thing is, my dad moved back in ‘83 to help her run the business, but he was also a lawyer, and he said, “Girl, you have got to start checking IDs. You’re gonna get in trouble and you’re gonna lose your license!” I’ve had more people tell me, “I used to go in there when I was 16 and buy beer.”

Any big-name visitors over the years?

I guess it was in the nineties the Red Hot Chili Peppers came. My dad didn’t know who they were. “He was like, these pepper chili people came in.” I was like, “Really?! Did you shake their hands? Did you get a picture?” He was totally like “Whatever.” 

Before that, the famous tennis player Björn Borg came in, in the seventies. He asked my great-grandmother for a plate. He signed the plate and he handed it to her, and she was like, “What do I want with this?” My dad’s brother was a big tennis player, so I think eventually she gave it to him. 

photo: CJ Lotz
Bivalve love notes on the wall in the oyster room.

Over the years, Bowens has seen its share of destruction. Tell me about Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

I remember when Hugo came, May told my dad, “I’m not leaving.” He looked at her and said, “What?!” She probably weighed about ninety pounds. He said, “If you don’t get in this car right now, dammit, I’m going to put you in there.” And he did. He put her in the car and they took off to Columbia. Well, the next morning she was up at seven o’clock saying, “When you gonna take me back?”

We were closed for two weeks. Hugo destroyed one of our docks. But we had a little catering kitchen and served food out on the dock house. 

Then in 2006, didn’t a fire nearly close Bowens for good?

I can pinpoint 2006 as a pivotal year for us. That spring my dad accepted the James Beard American Classics award for Bowens [Robert accepted the award wearing a tuxedo and shrimp boots] and then the fire was that October. We had some very old wiring and I can only imagine the grease that was probably in everything. We didn’t move into the new building until 2010.

photo: Peter Frank Edwards
From 2006 to 2010, after a fire destroyed the restaurant’s original building, Bowens Island took orders out of the Charleston Outdoor Adventures office as customers dined in the dock house.

How was this past year for Bowens?

At first we tried to do take-out. But ya know, fried seafood is just not your ideal take-out. We weren’t really designed for that. But we had some long-coming renovations so we closed for a month and redid the kitchen and the bar. 

When we reopened, I lost a lot of sleep thinking about how many surfaces people touch, and how to make people stand in line spaced out. We’ve been fortunate though with our location. It’s already mostly outside, so that helped. 

I’d say since February, it’s felt like summer. We’re back to doing two hundred tables a night. 

photo: Peter Frank Edwards

With everything the restaurant has been through, your family could have thrown in the towel years ago and no one would have blamed you. Why do you keep it going and why do you think people love it so much?

It’s all about community. You have all of this food that gets poured out in front of you. You’re able to relax and talk to the people around you. People make friends as they wait in line. I hear them saying goodbye to each other when they’re leaving. It’s a legacy I’m very honored to carry on—offering people a place to come together in a beautiful setting. 

That reminds me of something your Dad said on the Southern Fork podcast. He said, “The food is almost always good, but if it’s not you got the prettiest sunset in the world.”

He’s right. 

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Bowens Island Restaurant (@bowensislandrestaurant)

Bowens’ seventy-fifth anniversary party is July 26. Find more information here.