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written by
Hailey Wist

Lowcountry Dives

photographs by
Hailey Wist

Volume: 34

With its weather-beaten facade and concrete floors worn smooth by the soles of thousands of flip-flops, this watering hole is the superlative of a coastal dive. Big garage-style doors stay open, and the hush of the marsh and low hum of boat engines on the Ashley River accompany the rhythm and blues on the radio.

Bowens Island

OPEN: 5 PM | Closed Sunday & Monday

Half a mile down a sandy dead-end road, there’s a half-century-old oyster shack that seafood aficionados and thirsty pilgrims journey to every evening at five o’clock. The byword at this legendary hangout, coined by the family matriarch May Bowen, is that “people either like it, or they don’t.” Tuesday through Saturday, a line of eager visitors with sunburnt shoulders and leathery-skinned locals snake up the ramp to the entrance, where a big chalkboard displays the daily menu. Head inside for a rotating selection of seasonal beers from Charleston-area breweries, like the Westbrook Lemon Cucumber Gose, before claiming a place at the end of the queue. With a bucket of steamed oysters on the wraparound deck overlooking the passing sailboats and surfacing dolphins, you might prove Grandma May wrong: Bowens Island is impossible not to like.

 

The Royal American

OPEN: 11 AM | Open Every day

At the bottleneck of the peninsula, nestled up to the railroad tracks, this rusty dive has its own gravitational pull. Once a building that housed an iron forge, now a second home to everyone from bankers to bikers, music scene die-hards to creative freelancers, the wrought-iron railings and tin roof of the open-air patio offer an all-weather haven where the post-work crowd mingles and the cheap beer flows. Owner/manager John Kenney keeps the tiny bar-adjacent stage packed with a well-curated schedule of traveling and local bands, and it’s not uncommon to stumble into a sold-out show on a Tuesday night. Order the Chicken Cutlet sandwich, sneakily one of the best around in a city known for fried chicken, and wash it down with a Signature Rum Punch served in a stadium-sized souvenir cup. 

 

Salty Mike’s

OPEN: 3 PM | 11 AM on Sundays

With its weather-beaten facade and concrete floors worn smooth by the soles of thousands of flip-flops, this watering hole is the superlative of a coastal dive. Big garage-style doors stay open, and the hush of the marsh and low hum of boat engines on the Ashley River accompany the rhythm and blues on the radio, the crack of the billiards table, and the clinking of glass bottles on the wooden bar top. The City Marina is next door, which makes the laid-back atmosphere of Salty Mike’s a fitting end to a long day on the water. Sit on the patio that overlooks spartina grass and palmetto trees and order the lemony, rich housemade crab dip with Captain’s Wafers and an easy-drinking lager. Or cozy up to the bar for a gin & tonic and listen to the old-timers swap stories about the one that got away.

 

The Griffon

Open: 11 am  | Open Every Day

The Griffon is the sort of place where you lose track of time. Just far enough off of the bustling corridor of East Bay Street and just around the corner from the iconic Pineapple Fountain—a symbol of hospitality and welcome—this cozy pub beckons to passersby. Inside, dollar bills autographed with the names of patrons canvas every square inch of available real estate, rustling in the breeze whenever the heavy wood doors swing open. The selection of beers on tap covers all the bases, from refreshingly tart ciders to full-bodied stouts, and features a who’s who of favorites from some of the city’s celebrated local breweries, like COAST’s bitter-green HopArt pale ale and a floral wheat ale from Edmund’s Oast. Paired with the hearty, well-executed pub fare, it’s no wonder this dive is an old-town legend.

 

Palace Hotel

OPEN: 11 AM | 4 pm on Sundays

This eclectic hangout on Charleston’s Eastside is self-admittedly “neither a palace, nor a hotel.” From the street, the unassuming entrance of the apartment-style building belies the enchantment of its festive, neon-tinged interior, with nautical-striped walls and campy decor. There are arcade games to discover in a half-hidden back room, and metallic pink flamingo yard art embellishes the covered back patio. The lengthy cocktail list is playful and inventive, and the food menu is full of swanky takes on classic bar favorites, like an Angus beef hot dog with an herbaceous cilantro and mint relish. Stop in for the Monday night brunch, live bluegrass music, and a spicy Bloody Mary. The thought of a luxury dive bar may seem like a paradox, but it makes perfect sense at the Palace Hotel.

 

The Wreck of the Richard & Charlene

OPEN: 5 PM | Closed on Sundays

The combination of screened-in maritime kitsch, paper plates loaded with some of the freshest seafood in town, and the smell of saltwater and pluff mud floating in from Shem Creek make “the Wreck” a Lowcountry institution. The nondescript building, tucked in between two creekside seafood purveyors, is easy to miss, which is part of its rugged charm. There’s a four-generations-old secret recipe for deviled crab, safeguarded by the Shaffer family who still prepare the dish for the restaurant. And the combination of just-fried shrimp and hominy cakes, accompanied by a Salted Lime Lager from local Palmetto Brewing Co., is too simple and too effective to change. Come early for dinner and take a drink out to the sun-faded dock to see the returning shrimp boats and the fleet of hungry pelicans trailing in their wakes.

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