I never head to the Lost Dog Cafe for breakfast unless it’s a special occasion: a visit from out-of-town family, say; or the week of our anniversary; or a Thursday. I’m not particular about it. (I might go there to celebrate when I finish writing this.) Part of my excitement, I guess, comes from being an expat Midwesterner transplanted to the coast near Folly Beach, South Carolina, just south of Charleston: Breakfast! On the beach! Part is the expectation that once I’m fed and caffeinated, adventure may follow: a boat ride with friends, or a beach walk looking for dolphins. Part of it is sentimental: My wife and I stumbled onto the place one morning nearly fifteen years ago, on a weekend swing through that scruffy barrier island before catching a flight home to California, never imagining that a couple of years later we’d end up living fifteen minutes away, at least on light-traffic days, which in summertime Charleston are about as common as snowmen.
The food, of course, is a big draw too—the reason my ears prick up, as it were, whenever someone mentions Lost Dog, and the reason you can expect to wait for a table. But not because the menu is heavy on innovation or surprises. It isn’t, although the kitchen turns out tasty breakfasts and lunches with the consistency of a Swiss factory. The restaurant doesn’t really trumpet farm-to-fork credentials or jump on bandwagons; no avocado toast or acai bowls here. Lost Dog serves what I’d call surf-bum comfort food—biscuits and gravy, muffins and bagels, Thai wraps and sandwiches on croissants, the sort of unfussy homestyle temptations that have sold millions of Barefoot Contessa cookbooks.
Although the servers are always hustling, no one seems rushed. Bloody Marys and mimosas come in mason jars, and breakfast might arrive on mismatched Fiestaware. There are touches both Southern—shrimp and grits, a BLT with fried green tomatoes and pimento cheese—and Southwestern: huevos rancheros, green chile on the cheddar burger. We tend to splurge on the Folly Benedict, with a crab cake and a shrimp cake beneath the customary poached eggs and hollandaise, at seventeen bucks the most expensive thing on the menu. We don’t leave hungry.
With its L-shaped counter and shaded pet-friendly patio, Lost Dog feels like it’s been around forever. But it actually opened in 2002, born of a series of serendipitous events. Its owner, an Ohio native named Carol Kruer, had relocated with her then husband two years earlier from the ski town of Breckenridge, Colorado, to be closer to family. While living among Folly Beach’s mix of grand waterfront houses and weathered cottages and managing a restaurant in Charleston, she came across a “yard sale” by the owner of a breakfast joint on Center Street, Folly’s six-block-long commercial strip, who was vacating her lease. Kruer and her husband made a bid for the space, although “I didn’t think we had a shot in hell,” she recalled recently, sipping a Coors Light at a sunny picnic table off the patio. Of course, they got it.
They had no real business plan, though—“We were just running by the skin of our pants” is how Kruer puts it—or even a clue what to call their new enterprise. “Everything out here on the beach at that time was the Seashell, the Lighthouse, the Sand Dollar.” Back then, Folly allowed unleashed dogs along the shore, and one day Hocus, Kruer’s aptly named golden retriever–springer spaniel mix, disappeared. Hocus soon resurfaced, but only after inspiring both a name and a clever merchandising theme. With little budget for decorating, Kruer invited employees and guests to bring in pictures of their dogs. Four years later, she bought a drab gray Laundromat around the corner on West Huron Avenue, sold the washers and dryers for scrap, put in a kitchen, and moved all the snapshots. To this day, framed photos of dogs of every size, creed, and color fill the cinder-block walls, complementing the dog-motif surfboard hung from the ceiling.
“I always tell everybody,” Kruer says, “years from now, when they uncover the Lost Dog, they’ll be like, ‘It was a shrine to dogs!’” A local artist drew the logo, a jovial cartoon pooch with a paw raised to its brow. That’s Hocus searching for her misplaced master: the face that launched a thousand T-shirts. Having survived storm surges, power outages, recessions, and COVID shutdowns, the place appears to be a gold mine, but Kruer adamantly turns down any offers to buy or franchise it. “I like knowing my staff,” she explains, “and being here.”
The visit we remember most happened a few years ago, after a wretched October morning that began with a trip to the vet and ended with our having to say goodbye to a beloved pet of our own, after almost fifteen years. (Technically, Huck was a cat, but he acknowledged no distinction between himself and dogs, or humans for that matter.) After we’d laid him to rest by the garden fence and dried our eyes, we realized we were famished, and we knew where we needed to go. As we sat on Lost Dog’s patio waiting for our food, a black Lab at a nearby table kept staring at us, and before long, after we waved off the owners’ apologies, he tiptoed over, forcing his transmission-sized head under our hands so we’d pet him. We had zero doubt that pup sensed something—that he somehow knew something had been torn, and needed mending. On that day, for two slightly lost humans, that Lab was the very soul of empathy.
Does the Lost Dog deserve credit for that moment? You can decide. But the restaurant did welcome the dog onto the patio, and it welcomed us back for lunch, and, as usual, everybody got exactly what they needed.