Bowens Island Restaurant

Bowen's Island Restaurant

To the uninitiated, the oyster joint on Bowens Island was a curiosity of sorts—an aging pile of cinderblocks and boards held up by layers of graffiti, with bivalves being cooked inside on some sacrificial altar. To legions of loyal customers, the place could hardly be called a restaurant. It was a state of mind.

In 2006, the year that Bowens Island Restaurant celebrated its sixtieth anniversary, Robert Barber accepted a James Beard Award, honoring the place as an American Classic. Five months later, the restaurant that his late grandmother, May Bowen, started burned to the ground. What remained were the stories.

Sixty years of stories have been collected as part of the SFA’s Bowens Island Oral History Project. What follows is a portrait of a place, painted by generations of family, loyal employees, and devoted customers. Read their stories and step into the Bowens Island state of mind.

Bowens Island Restaurant reopened for business a few months after these interviews were conducted. Today, fresh oysters are being brought in from the marshes, new walls are ready to receive their marks, and new memories are being made.

Visit Bowen’s Island Restaurant’s Website


Amy Evans Streeter

Interviews

Bowen's Island Restaurant - Cile and Bob Barber

Bob and Cile Barber

Bob Barber was born in Charleston in 1925. His parents divorced before he was two years old. His mother, May, married her second husband, Jimmy Bowen, in Savannah in 1938. Eventually, the family moved back to Charleston. When Bob finished school, he traveled the country with the Navy, eventually heading overseas. In 1947 he married his wife Cile, and they both went to work at his parents’ restaurant on Folly Beach, Bob’s Restaurant, which his parents had named in Bob’s honor. In 1949, Bob and Cile’s first child, Robert Barber, was born.

Bowens Island Restaurant

In 2006, the year that Bowens Island Restaurant celebrated its sixtieth anniversary, Robert Barber accepted a James Beard Award, honoring the place as an American Classic. Five months later, the restaurant that his late grandmother, May Bowen, started burned to the ground. What remained were the stories.

Bowen's Island Restaurant - Duke Eversmeyer

Duke Eversmeyer

A native of New Orleans, Duke Eversmeyer has been a customer of Bowens Island restaurant for more than thirty years. He relocated to Charleston in 1971, when he was stationed at a submarine base there, during the Vietnam War. Charleston immediately felt like home. Not only did Duke find similarities to New Orleans, he also had family in Charleston. The first time his family took him to Bowens Island Restaurant, he was suspicious. But after interacting with Jimmy Bowen and tasting those roasted marsh oysters, he was hooked. Today, Duke calls Metairie, Louisiana, home, but he still makes a point of heading to Bowens Island every time he visits his family in Charleston.

Bowen's Island Restaurant - Fred Wichmann - Longtime customer and friend

Fred Wichmann

Fred has the rivers, marshes, and tides in his blood. An avid sailor, he can be found out on the water often. And it was a boat that connected him to Bowens Island. There used to be a small railway on the island, which people would use to haul their boats onto land; sometime in the 1980s, Fred used it to bring up his 45-foot Herreshoff Ketch. He spent three months on Bowens Island, making repairs to the boat’s hull and getting to know the islanders, including Jimmy and May Bowen and their restaurant. He became good friends with May’s grandson, Robert Barber. Today, the boat railway is a rusting pile of metal, but Fred’s fondness for Bowens Island hasn’t changed a bit.

Bowen's Island Restaurant - Jack London - de facto Manager

Jack London

A native of Georgia, Jack London ended up in Charleston when his father retired from the Army sometime in the 1960s. Jack had always heard of Bowen’s Island but never visited until he finished his own stint with the Army in 1977. Soon after his return, Jack and his brother began fishing for snapper and would tie their boat up there. Later, Jack worked on a shrimp boat that was docked at Bowen’s Island. Eventually he married a woman who worked in the restaurant and lived on the island with her. While they ultimately divorced, Jack remained married to the island and served as the de facto manager of Bowens Island Restaurant.

Bowen's Island Restaurant - Paula Byers - Longtime Customer

Paula Byers

Paula settled near Charleston to be close to the ocean. Her political support of Robert Barber was her first connection to Bowen’s Island Restaurant. After they became friends, Paula started visiting Robert’s family’s restaurant often. But she didn’t go for the food; she went for the experience. Over the years her experiences at Bowen’s Island have included helping to repair the deck, late-night swims in the marsh, and hosting the rehearsal dinner for her daughter’s wedding in the dock house; Robert Barber, an ordained minister, performed the ceremony.

Bowen's Island Restaurant - Robert Barber and Family

Robert Barber

Robert Barber has always been connected to the restaurant business. When he was born in 1949, his grandparents were already operating Bowens Island Restaurant. As a teenager, he worked at other restaurants to earn extra money. After obtaining a law degree, however, Robert had bigger plans: He ran for public office and served in the state legislature. Still, he would make frequent visits to his see grandparents and experience Bowens Island.

bowens_island_restaurant_victor_goat_lafayette_fisherman

Victor “Goat” Lafayette

Victor Lafayette grew up on Sol Legare Road, just across the inlet from Bowens Island. His childhood friends gave him the nickname “Goat.” Growing up on the water, he took to fishing, crabbing, and oystering naturally. At the age of nine, he began selling his catch to May Bowen, owner of Bowens Island Restaurant. Over the years, Goat has held jobs shrimping and running a club on Mosquito Beach. When the shrimping industry began taking a downturn, though, Goat returned to Bowens Island.