Tuesday, October 24, 2006



Owing to unusual and unhappy circumstances the Mustang does not appear in today's posting. A sentimental treasure of some sixty years caught fire on Sunday night severely damaging Bowens Island Restaurant. In little more than a generation so much of the charm Charleston and its outlying area has vanished into glitzy new developments, hideous high rise condos upon our beaches and, of course, Walmarts all around. Bowens Island was just about the last trace of genuine living history in terms of rustic coastal pleasures that we had left.

We went over to visit with Robert Barber, owner the of restaurant and grandson of the founders. He was cordial, but clearly vacant from the deep personal loss. It's not unlike the loss of the family farm or the destruction of one's lifelong home or any structure in which loved ones had devoted the majority of their time and energy. We wanted only to photograph the mural in which Mr. and Mrs. Bowen and John Sanka are depicted in an almost ghostly effect, a request which Barber graciously granted. We did not wish to sift through or photograph the extensive damage inside. Most burned buildings look pretty much alike when it's over and Bowen's was unlike anything left in our world today.

Barber seems a good steward of his land and an honorable neighbor. It is almost certain that whatever he does from here will be consistent with what friends and customers have come to value about Bowen's Island.

Anyone who has been there probably knows the history of the place from all the relics and graffiti on the walls. It revealed itself to all visitors. There was no veneer about the place or its owners. If you've never been, neither a comprehensive written description nor a series of professional photographs could inform one of how it felt to be there. To call it "rustic" would be as strong as using a .22 pistol to capture Normandy. No two chairs matched.

Mr. Bowen shoveled the oysters on to the hot steel sheet upon which they were steamed. He often paused and spoke to customers about anything which happened to cross his mind. He looked at you through his thick and sometime steamy eyeglass lenses which made him appear to be speaking from a remote point deep into the past. He might speak of World War I or he might comment on the mini-skirt. He usually worked the oyster-eaters-only room in which they were both steamed and consumed in close quarters. Only beer and oysters may be had in this room. Should any dolt enter that room for other purposes, Mrs. Bowen was on them like the Shore Patrol.

Mrs. Bowen ran the place as might Captain Bligh. She would suffer no fools or infraction of her rules. She disliked spoiled, silly girls who knew not and wondered aloud what they might wish eat, but was kind to respectful young men who placed orders in a clear steady voice while looking her in the eye. If you couldn't make eye contact or quick decisions, she'd dispatch you from the counter and call the next in line to order. Even as she advanced in age her eyes remained very clear and animated. When one presented in foolish ways, those eyes would burn through them like laser beams. If you were lucky enough to charm Mrs. Bowen, those eyes would smile at you like Shirley Temple's.

There was no walking on egg shells to avoid bruising delicate sensibilities. There was no obsequious server informing one of the excellence of their menu choices. There was good honest seafood rendered at very reasonable prices by people who sought only to do right by their customers and to live and work on their own terms.


Anonymous Pam said...

I'm guessing that they'll rebuild just as they should - simply, with lots of blank walls. We'll all just have to remember to take our sharpies with us - we can all help with the graffiti while we're taking a break from eating our fried shrimp.

7:18 AM  
Blogger Windviel said...

Yes, Pam, there is good reason to hope for a rebuilding and reopening of Bowen's in much the spirit that it had traditionally operated. It is even more certain that devoted friends and customers would not allow new blank walls to remain that way for long.

Thanks for reading us.

10:47 AM  
Anonymous Wilson Casey said...

Such sad news, as I just ate there Tuesday night October 12th. Jack, the order taker, cook, gave me "hell" for calling him "Sir". I hope no one got hurt.

One of my memories-- 30+ years ago as a young college student, myself and a friend went there to eat. With a heads-up tip beforehand, we learned no french fries. The Bowens didn't serve french fries with the food (dunno if they out for that week or what). But anyway, that meant if you ordered fried shrimp, that what's you got, no extras, except a cold beer. We wanted some french fires, so we smuggled in some from Hardee's. Low and behold, Mrs Bowen caught us. She tongue-lashed us to tears. Mr Bowen was a few yards over from us, manning that broom with his short slow strokes. He nodded in approval never missing a stroke (with a cute little grin) We apologized. In fact, we never stoped apologizing. Mrs Bowen did forgive us later, as we became "regulars".

On telling my 19 year-old daughter about the Fire news, she went into tears as she loved the place, too.

Somehow I know the tradition will continue at Bowen's Island, but it can never be quite the same except in the memories of us all.

Regards, and all the best.

Wilson Casey
"Trivia" Guinness World Record Holder
Spartanburg, SC

7:57 AM  
Blogger Windviel said...

Thanks for the memories, Mr. Casey. Your are consistent with ours and countless patrons of Bowen's over these many years.

Yes, we believe that the tradition will continue. We can't have it all back, but the spirit of the place may well endure. I believe that we can count on Mr. Barber to do his best to preserve as much as possible. We're certain that there won't be a Mariners Cay II or any other such dreadful structure going up on that land.

10:36 AM  
Anonymous Ellen said...

All summer long I'd planned to make a winter trip to Folly especially to eat at Bowens again. Looks like I waited too long.

From my little blogging tribute to Bowens Island:
Twice I've experienced the oyster dining perfection known as Bowens Island Restaurant. True Lowcountry fare doled out by the shovelsful onto newspapers gracing a wooden table in a cinderblock room otherwise graced only by grafitti left from former patrons of years gone by.

The oysters were fresh. You knew it not only from the taste, but also from the occasional smear of gritty pluff mud clinging to the shell. Never mind; the icy beers washed that down quite fine.

The routine: Slide your knife into a slit between the shells. Twist and pull. Slurp that baby down and grab another. Don't be filling up on the saltines beside your space at the table. You'll be wasting good stomach space that deserves more mollusks. Make a joke with the old man who arrives with a new pile of oysters hot off the fire. Eat more. More.

God Speed, Mr. Barber.


PS - windveil do you know if it's true that they may try to have an oyster roast on the site this weekend?

(((ecartee@sc.rr.com not for publishing please)))

12:43 PM  
Anonymous Eyebee said...

I have been there this evening, to the rebuilt restaurant for the very first time.

Alas, I never got to visit the original one, I simply put it off too long.

The staff were friendly and efficient, and the oysters were fresh.

12:12 AM  
Blogger Windviel said...

Oysters ! Great, fresh, local oysters. Nothing better and the very reason Bowens exists.

The look, shape, feel and smell of Bowens Island has changed greatly, but fortunately the oyster remains the same forever.

12:47 AM  

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