Let’s begin at the end.
It’s not good form to speak of finales in places like Folly Beach, which is built on the fiction that fun goes on forever. After all, there’s an entire subset of surfing culture devoted to the theory of endless summer.
Still, regardless of when you arrive, there will come a time when you will have to leave Lowlife Bar, Folly’s newest cocktail cabana.
Lowlife is as spacious as a standard restaurant, but so long as it’s serving, walls only surround a portion of the concrete-floored room, making the ocean feel nearer than five blocks away. In other words, you’re apt to want to linger over an icy Pluff Mudslide, with rum and cold-brewed coffee smoothed over by a tranquil blend of milk, pureed bananas and coconut.
Eventually, though, you’ll signal that you must return to the more real place from which you came (assuming the bartender doesn’t catch your intention first: Lowlife’s bartenders are equally good at mixing advanced-level drinks and paying attention to their guests). At that point, if you haven’t just ducked in for a can of Hamm’s, your check request will be met with a short pour of Ramazzotti amaro.
There’s a shred of gumption in the ritual. Most beach bars are content to let their patrons stumble away without reflecting on how much they just paid for bad rose, or how their bellies are battling to find common ground with greasy chicken fingers.
But Lowlife rightly takes pride in the experience it’s created, which is as worthy of a digestif flourish as a multi-course Italian meal. Sure, you probably just supped on waffle fries and cheese dip. That doesn’t mean you’re ineligible for afterglow. And Lowlife is here to help you bask in it.
When people talk about the food at Lowlife, they tend to settle on some variation of “better than necessary,” which is also the rap on co-owner T.J. Lynch’s New York City bar, Mother’s Ruin. According to New York Magazine, “the food and drinks are much better than you’d expect from such an unpretentious watering hole.”
Lynch and Matt McGarry don’t seem to mind filling the same niche on Folly; when Lynch a few months ago outlined Lowlife’s premise for The Post and Courier, he described it as “kind of a neighborhood cocktail spot with surprisingly good food.”
Yet it seems like weak praise, as well as an insult to beachgoers’ palates, to focus on the depths Lowlife could have plumbed without offending anyone. My sense is a Lowlife sandwich would be a good sandwich in just about any context.
Lowlife’s sandwiches are helped along by fresh Normandy Farms Bakery bread, toasted with the kind of care that a Girl Scout on s’mores duty puts into her marshmallows. Toasting bread, like boiling water, is the kind of kitchen skill that doesn’t get much notice until it’s done flawlessly (Honestly, I’m not certain what boiling water to perfection looks like, except I assume it occurs in a watched pot).
Lowlife, though, is adept at little touches, like figuring out those aforementioned waffle fries take well to Old Bay when served alfresco.
Among the sandwiches on Lowlife’s relatively trim menu, which includes both breakfast and lunch items until late in the day, is a superior shrimp roll. Crunchy jots of iceberg lettuce blanket the poached shrimp, which get a lift instead of a load from a clean-tasting remoulade.
On the earthier end of the spectrum is a sonorous vegetable version of pulled pork, made with mushrooms instead of hog meat and tanged with aged cheddar. It’s smokier and sloppier than most people would consider prudent, but it’s a fine match for a sweet drink.
Speaking of messy, Lowlife’s cheeseburger is impossible to eat with any semblance of manners. That’s partly because of its punchy ketchup-and-Duke’s mayonnaise-based “secret sauce” and partly because of its slippery topknot of grilled onions, but it’s mostly a function of there being two sizeable patties between the sesame seed bun. The meat’s got a great char, but the tower effect makes it hard to appreciate all of the burger’s elements at once. I liked the cheeseburger better after I slid out one of the patties. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t a very tidy extraction.
Other than the burger, the only dish at Lowlife I would classify as remotely disappointing was the wedge salad, if only because it was apparently constructed by someone who hates wedge salads. The brilliance of a wedge salad lies in its simplicity and transparency: Tradition calls for a cold mountain of lettuce, engulfed by cooling blue cheese dressing and finished with bits of bacon and cherry tomatoes. Wedges are popular with accountants and others in the business of keeping tabs on things. At Lowlife, the wedge looks like a tsunami hit it: It sits shallow in its basket, covered with crushed potato chips. In fact, the chips make sense from a flavor perspective, but don’t inspire much confidence in someone wondering what else might lie beneath them (avocado, it turns out).
Far more reverential is Lowlife’s treatment of tater tots, which I discovered in my breakfast burrito not long after hearing a customer seated a few barstools down tell a friend that his wife wouldn’t forgive him if he came home again without an order of Lowlife tater tots.
Full disclosure: I’m one of those jerks who thinks tater tot affection is a bunch of bogus nostalgia. But now that I’ve tried Lowlife’s, I’d ask for a takeout order, too: The tots taste more of potatoes than oil, and are a lovely complement to skillfully scrambled eggs and spicy chorizo.
Back to the beginning. Lowlife serves an excellent dip that borrows beer from the Kentucky way of seasoning cheese spread and green chilis from the Southwestern approach to queso. Served with sturdy chips and a wakening wedge of lime, the dip is a fine place to start at Lowlife.
So is the tuna poke, which is flavorful enough to carry off all of the soy sauce and sesame seeds showered on the fish.
And for a first drink, it’s hard to top the frozen pina colada, named for actor Erik Estrada: Amoxicillin-pink, it arrives with an Estrada cocktail napkin beneath it and a scarlet float of Angostura bitters atop it. Before the rums, coconut milk, fruits juices and spices settle in the glass, it’s more savory than sweet. Yet as the cocktail melts, it changes.
At Lowlife, there’s no call to rush off.