For more than a decade, the Boathouse has been one of the more popular seafood restaurants in Charleston. The East Bay Street location closed its doors last year, and its replacement site at Ellis Creek on James Island shut down indefinitely following a fire that occurred just weeks after opening. That leaves the original Boathouse at Breach Inlet on the Isle of Palms as the lone outpost of the Boathouse group.
The Breach Inlet restaurant has a bit of an old-school aesthetic to it. The interior feels much like the inside of a ship cabin, with a lot of pine and mahogany woodwork and sailcloth hanging from the ceiling. The nautical theme is continued with details like oars — the real deal, taken from actual boats — and a dinghy hanging upside down from the wood-beamed ceiling.
Waterside dining is surprisingly rare in Charleston, and you can't beat the Boathouse's location overlooking the salt marsh and the Intracoastal Waterway. You get a pretty good view of the water if you're seated near the many wide windows, and for a truly sublime vista, head upstairs at sunset to the rooftop Crow Bar, a popular spot for pre-dinner cocktails that features live acoustic music and a raw bar.
Seafood, steaks, and pasta are the order of the day, and there's a generous variety to choose from. Many of the items are exactly the sort of fried seafood platters and surf-and-turf options that you'd expect from a beach restaurant, like the triple platter of fried oysters, scallops, and shrimp ($20) and the six-ounce sirloin and lobster tail ($30). Other items, though, go a little more above and beyond.
The Boathouse is one of the pioneer members of the Sustainable Seafood Initiative, and fresh local fish is prominently featured on the menu — and, to their great credit, non-local fish like yellowfin tuna from Hawaii and tilapia from Colombia are clearly identified with their place of origin. On the fish board, the fresh selection changes daily (it included local pink snapper, grouper, flounder, and swordfish on my last visit, all at $27 with two sides), and you can have it grilled, blackened, fried, or roasted as you choose. A wide variety of other seafood dishes appear alongside, including sea scallops with risotto, prosciutto, and asparagus ($27) and parmesan-crusted tilapia in brown butter ($24).
With the more traditional entrées, the Boathouse does a good, if not remarkable, job. On the aforementioned sirloin and lobster plate, the sirloin is tasty with a bit of backyard-grill char to it. The lobster has an unctuous richness from the butter it's poached in, but the lobster flavor itself is rather muted and not particularly sweet.
The Boathouse Crab Cakes ($22) are served with a green Tabasco sauce, fried onions, and — like most of the entrées — the choice of two sides. The crab cakes have a blend of enhancements binding the lump meat, and while fried a nice golden brown, they still end up a little gooey and plain.
The fresh fish specials are more notable. On a recent visit they featured a buttermilk-fried whole black sea bass ($29). There's something daring about serving a whole fish, complete with the head, at a vacationer-focused restaurant, and you have to give the Boathouse props for not shying away (though the waiter did take pains to warn us about the head when we ordered it). The buttermilk batter is akin to what's traditionally used for fried chicken, not the lighter cornmeal variety usually used with fish. It's a little heavy and crunchy for my taste, but inside the meat is succulent and tender, and it slips rights off the bones in big, delicious chunks.
Of all the dishes on the menu at the Boathouse, though, perhaps the most impressive are the side items. The grits, for example, are the stone-ground yellow variety, and they're cooked up thick and creamy. The mashed potatoes are silky with plenty of butter. The collard greens are branded the "best ever," and that bit of hyperbole is not too far from the truth, for the collards are truly excellent — tangy and slightly smoky and so good that you'll finish them off first and then turn to the rest of your plate. The only clunker in the carload was the red rice, which while nicely spicy and loaded with little quarter moons of sausage, seemed dry and dull.
One last feature at the Boathouse that stands out is the children's menu, for the simple reason that, with a lobster for $19.95 and a sirloin steak for $19.95, it's the highest-priced kids' menu I've ever seen. I'm not sure whether those $20 items are there to actually be ordered or just serve to make the other entries — chicken fingers and pasta at seven bucks a pop — seem more reasonably priced, but they're sure to set off a fractious debate with children who've never had lobster but are just absolutely sure they will love it.
The Boathouse does a roaring business. Inside, the room is tight with tables, and it gets loud quickly as diners start packing in. The wait staff is friendly and professional enough — though, as is often the case at high-volume restaurants, they seem over-booked and rather harried, which can lead to something of a disjointed and chaotic dining experience.
The Boathouse is definitely a tourist restaurant and a really good tourist restaurant at that. The term is descriptive, not pejorative, which is to say that it serves a broad menu of surf-and-turf fare that will appeal to the culinary tastes of a cross-section of beach vacationers. Amid the lobster tails and fried scallops, there are plenty of fresh, local seafood options with basic and inventive preparations, too. You pay a premium price for the waterside location, both in dollars on the check and also in the time amid the crowds spent waiting. But, if you're a visitor staying out on Isle of Palms or a local resident with friends in town whom you want to treat to good local seafood with fantastic waterfront views, the Boathouse is just the ticket.