I got all excited when I saw that a Guy Harvey Restaurant had opened in Mt. Pleasant's Town Centre. I had long read about America's first restaurant chain, the one that transformed the way railroad passengers ate. I had no idea the company was still in business, much less opening new locations, and I was thrilled by the opportunity to have the famous Plantation Beef Stew served to me by an upstanding young Harvey girl.
"They don't have Harvey girls," my wife explained to me in that exasperated tone she seems to use more and more these days. This new restaurant, she said, was Guy Harvey Island Grill. The Harvey in question was not pioneering restaurateur Fred, but Guy, a marine biologist turned artist/conservationist who's best known for his colorful paintings of sport fish. But I went anyway.
It's a little odd to enter a restaurant through double glass doors that slide open automatically at your approach. These are remnants from the location's former tenant, the Earth Fare supermarket. It's a huge but appropriate space, for Guy Harvey's Island Grill is as much a retail establishment as a restaurant. You enter into a big merchandise area full of racks of brightly colored shirts and hats, all emblazoned with Guy Harvey fish illustrations. A big area off to the left serves as a gallery hung with framed Guy Harvey prints, all of which are for sale. The two huge dining areas are decorated with plenty of (for sale) prints, too, along with big plastic replicas of swordfish and marlin, and there's a big open patio with a full bar in the back.
It all has a very new, clean, mall-like feel. I do like the tables, which have Guy Harvey marlin illustrations imprinted onto their light-wood surfaces. They put you in the mood for seafood, and seafood is in abundance.
Only one item on the "Flying Tarpon Raw Bar" is actually raw: oysters on the half-shell ($8.99 a half dozen, $16.99 a dozen). The rest are steamed, ranging from a half-pound of peel-and-eat steamed shrimp ($7.99) all the way to the "Bounty of the Seven Seas" ($34.99), a massive platter of oysters, snow crab legs, cocktail shrimp, and lump crab.
Harvey grew up in Jamaica and is a resident of the Bahamas today, and much of the Island Grill menu has a definite Caribbean theme. The Jamaican jerk wings ($9.99) are quite enjoyable. The jerk spices are both sweet and savory, and the wings are cooked on the grill, giving them a good crispy char. I'm not sure what makes the "Island-Style" fish dip ($9.99) island-style, but it's made from smoked wahoo and has a hearty, creamy, and slightly smoky flavor. Dressed with tangy capers and a squirt of lemon, it makes for a satisfying appetizer, though I could do with a milder cracker, since the long flatbread strips that come on the side are encrusted with toasted sesame seeds whose flavors are too strong for the more subtle fish dip.
Guy Harvey is not just an artist but a conservationist. His restaurant promises not to serve any overexploited species of fish, and the menu notes, "A percentage of all proceeds goes to help fund Guy Harvey's Ocean Foundation & Think Blue Foundation." I'm hoping it's a substantial percentage, for the entrée prices are whoppingly high, especially considering what you get for the money.
The sandwiches run from nine bucks for a burger to 13 for a crab cake sandwich or Key West tuna burger with wasabi tartar sauce and pickled ginger. The fisherman's platters offer fish fingers ($13), clam strips ($13), oysters ($15), and shrimp ($16) — all fried — and you can throw all four together on a big combo platter ($30). These are served in broad white plastic bowls in the shape of massive scallop shells, and unfortunately, as fried seafood goes, it's rather lackluster. The oysters are small and the breading thick and soggy with grease. The clam strips are heavily-battered and greasy too, missing out on that crisp lightness that can make fried seafood so delightful. The french fries seem like your standard pre-breaded and seasoned variety, but there is an odd flavor to the spice mix that took me several minutes to identify. At first I thought it was some sort of Caribbean jerk seasoning, but after a few more samples it seemed more and more familiar, until it hit me: they had exactly the same flavor notes as KC Masterpiece barbecue potato chips.
If you're more into grilled or pan-seared seafood, the "Mermaid's Garden" has a selection that is every bit the equal of the stuff you'll get at our high-end downtown restaurants. In price, that is. There's snapper with tomatoes, olives, artichokes, and capers ($23) and sesame-crusted tuna with a soy vinaigrette, pickled ginger, and wasabi ($24). The redfish portofino ($25) comes topped with jumbo lump crabmeat and an orange lobster sauce. It sounds pretty impressive on the menu, and the redfish is cooked properly tender and topped with a pleasingly fiery blackening spice. But the lumps of crab meat are dry and inconsequential, and the orange lobster sauce is just a mild little pool that disappears against the blackening seasoning, which perhaps should be called yellowing spice since it turns the grilled redfish orange. Most troubling is the bland tomato sauce-tinged "island rice" and limp steamed vegetables. This is the stuff of the steam table at banquet halls, not the proper accompaniment for a $25 seafood entrée. The exact same sides are served with all six of the Mermaid Garden's entrées, whether that particular fish has Caribbean, Mediterranean, or Asian flavors.
Overall, the Guy Harvey Island Grill seems less like a restaurant than a tourist destination, and one that's carefully calibrated to separate patrons from their money both with the meal checks and with clothing and art sales, too. If you're a big Guy Harvey fan, or someone with the inclination to come all the way to historic Charleston and pretend that you're visiting a Caribbean island, it might be your cup of tea. If the sheer number of seats in the place is any indication — and the small chain has already piloted the concept at four locations in beach towns in Florida and Alabama — they're certainly expecting a crowd.