When Ben and Kate Towill—the couple that owns the design and hospitality firm Basic Projects, Charleston’s Basic Kitchen, and Mount Pleasant’s Post House Inn—had the opportunity to reopen the doors of Sullivan’s Seafood Restaurant, they jumped at the chance. The original restaurant, founded in 1988 by Sammy and Donna Rhodes, opened right before Hurricane Hugo hit the South Carolina coast. After the Rhodes rebuilt the nearly destroyed building, it became a family-run institution on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, beloved by both locals and visitors for more than three decades.
When the Rhodes planned to retire and close the doors to Sullivan’s in 2021, Basic Projects offered to revive the space on Middle Street and honor its history, renaming the spot Sullivan’s Fish Camp. For nearly two years, the team has been revamping the space for its new chapter starting May 17, 2022—while keeping preservation in mind. The team kept the “sailor’s den” feel, restoring the original wood bar and paneling. They added dark-stained lacquered wood booths, tables, and chairs. During renovations, they replaced the water-damaged floor, but the new yellow-and-white checkered linoleum floors keep a vintage look. “The wood and floor are treated for coastal weather, and they only get better with age,” Kate says.
“From the menu to the old pictures, we wanted to keep the same energy that everyone had loved about Sullivan’s Seafood Restaurant,” says Kate, who spearheaded the restaurant’s renovation and spent months collecting both contemporary custom-made artwork and antique decor. Above the entrance, a vintage photo of the first restaurant hangs by an original menu with sprawling staff signatures. The front check-in desk remains in the same cozy nook with a walk-up window, and soft serve ice cream machines. Illustrations of scalloped seashells, which had first appeared on the border of the 1988 menu, frame the new custom blue-and-white dishware. A giant blue longbill, with a brass nameplate reading Bob Marlin, is accompanied by an imaginative story of its capture by Captain Sullivan after Hurricane Hugo. “We like to imagine characters that would have visited the old restaurant,” Kate says. “We aren’t afraid to have some fun.”
The drinks play up the humor too, including tropical sippers with names like the Banana Hammock and Pool Boy. Dishes include a swordfish BLT, fresh-caught crudo, shrimp fried with truffle and parmesan, and, Kate’s favorite, a hot brown butter lobster roll.
The restaurant’s interior also brings in work from painters, photographers, printmakers, and glassmakers, fusing together retro nostalgia with contemporary art from the Lowcountry. “It was important to have a strong sense of place,” Ben says. “We wanted the decor to ooze Sullivan’s Island without being gimmicky. Having local artists added those specific, authentic details.” North Charleston’s Charlestowne Stained Glass Studio created custom stained glass lamps emblazoned with Sullivan’s Fish Camp. The paneled bathroom sports a gallery wall of Southeastern saltwater fish painted by the North Carolina marine biologist and illustrator Duane Raver. There’s even more outside: Above the patio, you can spot the work of Mickey Williams, a famed painter and Sullivan’s Island local, who created two large-scale landscapes for each side of a pub sign.
While Sullivan’s Fish Camp pays homage to the original seafood restaurant, it also looks forward to the future, bringing modernity to the space with a refreshing spin on the idea of a traditional fish camp. “Everything can’t be what’s expected,” Ben says. “Instead of looking back and trying to copy the past, we’re reimagining what a fish camp can be in 2022.”