With new restaurant openings hitting Folly Beach as thickly as the bikini clad beauties splayed across the soft sand, one has to wonder if this isn't the start of a full-on cultural renaissance for the sultry beach isle. Sucessful restaurateurs from the mainland clearly see expansion in the Folly market and have positioned themselves to take advantage of it, renovating both structures and menus in an attempt to kick the famously mellow vibe of the place into a higher economic gear.
Rita's is no exception, a one-stop shop for burgers and beer, even offering an outdoor shower setup to prep any customers arriving fresh off the beach. It's cool and clean — having renovated the dank hole of a place that came before — and sports a delightful little patio with all the necessary accoutrements: outdoor fireplace for the coming winter, shade tarps flapping overhead, ice cold troughs of beer readied behind the bar, and a guy with guitar and amp crooning various Jimmy Buffett ballads into the evening dusk. It could be a scene from any tourist bar in greater Florida, a page from an old book. But like a good trashy beach novel, if this is your thing, you and Rita are going to get along just fine.
The menu resembles an old ratty notebook, replete with schoolhouse scribbles on the backside and an illustration of that lovely Rita reclining on the beach. While her repose might hearken back to a vintage travel poster ripped from an airport wall in 1966, Rita's is positively post-millennial, Southern-fried goodness.
A perfect beach day might start with a quick trip to pick up a half pound of boiled shrimp ($9.50), the kind that get shocked in ice water, ensuring a perfect texture in a high volume place and rendering a degree of portability appropriate for taking out to the beach. Of course, most people will settle in with a cold beer or margarita and down a couple of fried pickles ($5) or slurp down the hot crab and artichoke dip ($7.50), which bests any version ever served at the average Southern church potluck. They sling hot fries covered in Old Bay ($4) or piled high with a gooey chili and cheese mixture ($7).
For big eaters, they serve a decent basket of fried seafood ($15), batter fried with a crispy enough crust for a humid June day. It comes piled on a plate or on bread (the Po' Boy runs 10 bucks) — same for the "butcher's steak" which can be had on a plate for $13 or on a sandwich for $10. All of these entrees and sandwiches generally hit the mark, offering decent value for the type of establishment we're talking here; perhaps the Tuna "BLT" ($10) could be a bit less like a fistful of mush, but once you taste one of the burgers, you'll understand Rita's raison d'être.
The burgers occupy almost half the menu (all options also having a grilled chicken breast option) and range from the standard to the sublime. They are griddle fried and then grilled and sport a grease factor not seen since the shuttering of the This is Your Place shack that used to toss out the world's best from the end of Market Street. Each lump of Angus beef soaks the lower bun to a warm greasy mush, and the toppings reach for the sky, making every bite an exercise in slippery bun/burger maneuvering. By the end of a single sandwich, you'll either develop the agility of a daredevil stunt driver or be covered up to the elbows in ketchup and juice.
Most won't mind by this point, not just because Rita's little patio might be the perfect place to serve such a thing, but because part of the ritual of a great burger always involves licking the overflow from your hands before it dribbles into your lap. What really separate Rita's burgers from the pack are the toppings, a smorgasbord of interesting combinations that evoke the down-home nature of Folly while paying respect to that gentrifying movement that seems to be afoot in all the new paint and varnish along Center Street. One can get a good and sloppy Southbound burger ($9), drooling pimiento cheese and apple-smoked bacon, or an even messier handful of chili and cheese ($9.50). There are Reuben burgers served on rye bread with corned beef and kraut ($10), and a black bean falafel job ($10) for the dirty hippies in the house. Top your cheeseburger with jalapeños and it becomes "The Pedro" ($8.50), and onions, Jack cheese, and guacamole transform the thing into a "Cantina Burger" ($9.50). But the best one is undoubtedly "Rita's Barnyard Burger," served on an English muffin and topped with bacon, cheese, and a fried egg that runs out hot and gets soaked up by the muffin.
Rita's will be the perfect flip-flop beach bar when they correct one glaring error — French fries. It's not that their fries are all that bad — they serve big double handfuls alongside everything under the sun and top them with numerous goodies, but like most other spots on the Center Street strip, they're not the big, hand-cut jobs that they could be, double fried and as bad for you as the burgers. They're the little skinny kind, not messy monsters like you get down Folly Road at DB's Cheesesteaks or over on Savannah Highway at Five Guys. But they should be. They should be the best fries we've ever tasted, splayed with sea salt and vinegar, dustings of Old Bay, or perhaps even a squirt of lime. If these guys would spend the time and money to make the fries truly special, then Rita will certainly become a legend.