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How the Royal Tern restaurant and raw bar won over one wary Johns Islander

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I've lived on Johns Island for almost two years. Most of my neighbors have lived on James or Johns for years, some even their whole lives. In the grand scheme of things, I'm a newb.

That being said, as a small town coastal native, I feel like I've lived on the island for many moons, and most weekends this proud homebody is perfectly happy never leaving my five mile radius — I've got Low Tide, Seanachai, Wild Olive, Southern General, and Fat Hen just to name a few. So when I saw the Royal Tern being built inside my mini empire, I was admittedly a bit skeptical.
Location Details The Royal Tern
3005 Maybank Hwy.
Johns Island
Charleston, SC
Mon.-Sat. 4-10 p.m.

Whether the place turned out to be an amazing addition or a half-assed 'modern American' vanilla bean, it meant more traffic, more sudden brake lights on very dark shoulder-less roads, and more noise on what's left of the quiet island (I wake up to roosters, y'all). Every morning I looked at the new (beautiful) building as I craned my neck to turn left on Maybank Highway to start my morning commute and thought, 'well, shit.'

The Royal Tern (3005 Maybank Highway) opened in late December — there was no big announcement or PR deluge. To be quite honest, I had a helluva time getting in touch with anyone there.

But you gotta respect the quiet slide into service, downplaying what was already the talk of the island. I drove by night after night, admiring the lantern hung from the rafters, always flickering. Last week, on Thursday night, I finally made my move.

If the menu includes a Hemingway quote from A Moveable Feast about oysters and white order oysters and white wine - MARY SCOTT HARDAWAY
  • Mary Scott Hardaway
  • If the menu includes a Hemingway quote from A Moveable Feast about oysters and white order oysters and white wine
First off, the space is gorgeous. The bar area is first-come, first-served, and was already starting to buzz by 5 p.m. I grabbed a seat and was greeted by I think three different people, which made my solo venture into this new snazzy spot feel natural and welcome. Maybe this restaurant could fit into my empire too, marble countertops and all.

I ordered the Wolfe Martini because I'm nothing if not a creature of habit, and asked the bartender for guidance on the oysters — when the oyster shucker is doing the damn thing in front of you, you have to get oysters.

They come raw on the halfshell and in four hot choices — wood grilled with garlic butter, parmesan, and lemon; Kilpatrick with bacon, Worcestershire, and charred leeks; Royal Tern-style with tomato, bacon, cream, and spinach; and fried with creole butter and pecorino.

I went with a single raw oyster because I'm balling very hard on a budget (and the "market" menu notation scares the living daylights out of me), and of course the Toogoodoo bivalve (harvested right up the road) only set me back a couple of bucks. Next time, a half-dozen will be in order.

Wood-grilled oysters and my fingers - MARY SCOTT HARDAWAY
  • Mary Scott Hardaway
  • Wood-grilled oysters and my fingers
Shortly after ordering my martini I spied a Hemingway quote tucked near the oyster section of the menu: "As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans."

A diehard Hemingway fanatic, the quote (A Moveable Feast, btw) made me abandon any notions of asceticism. "I'll take the wood grilled oysters and a glass of Gruner Veltliner, thanks!" The $12 plate was gone in a minute, but would certainly buy again.

As the restaurant filled up, both the bar and dining room, I got a sense of the clientele. Yes, lots of Range Rovin' JI'ers, the ones who measure their property in on acres, with gates guarding their mini manses. And yes, I overheard more conversations about real estate than I've ever been party to, if that tells you anything. But there was also me, alone at the bar with a book, and lots of other people like me, the kind who don't necessarily have money to spend at a raw bar on a random weekday, but love the hell out of good food and good service.

It's not a leggings-and-flannel Low Tide crowd (my preferred sartorial leaning), and it's not a family-style joint like Fat Hen, where we always take our parents. It's something in between, a shiny pearl, bright and new.

As the sweet bartender quickly poured me one final glass of the crisp white, I began to make plans to come here again. Very, very soon.

Teaser image via The Royal Tern Facebook.


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