There are some places where it doesn’t take a compass to know which way the culture goes. People in Miami have to go north to reach the South, and people in Seattle have to go east to find the Wild West.
A similarly counter-intuitive dynamic is at work when it comes to Roxbury Mercantile, which is located 31 miles from downtown Charleston, but feels closer to the heart of the city than restaurants where the chef could lob a slice of crudo and watch it land on King Street. At least, it’s on intimate terms with the Charleston in force before tourists became restaurateurs’ most valuable guests. Roxbury is the kind of place to which locals return again and again for a fried oyster platter with red rice and greens, and the owners don’t mind if they do.
In this case, the owners are Jackie and William Barnwell, although everyone knows him as “Beau.” Last summer, the couple purchased the 6-year-old Capt. Jimmy Bell’s Right Off the Boat Seafood Joint on Highway 174, and made a lickety-split changeover, installing a full bar in place of an eating counter and redoing the color scheme.
While the restaurant is still a few days shy of its 6-month anniversary, the Barnwells have a decades-long history of doing business on the tucked-away site, flourished with live oaks and cordgrasses. In the 1920s, the family opened a country store there. It was still keeping regular hours when it burned down in 1983; the land stayed vacant until Bell put up a restaurant.
But it appears neither fire nor time could completely wipe out the soul of the country store. Nobody is coming to Roxbury Mercantile to swap seeds or buy twine, but the same conversations that once took shape around those transactions are now happening over pulled pork and Cajun fish tacos.
On a brisk weekend night, talk ricochets from foggily recalled high school pranks to the crazy things that the politicians in Washington are doing now. Even without a potbellied stove sending up the curls of smoke that might once have indicated a general store was open, the room is warmed by good cheer and genuinely kind service.
“A lot of folks say we’re in the middle of nowhere, but actually we’re in the middle of everywhere,” says Jackie Barnwell, a Hilton Head area native who spent 13 years in the food-and-beverage business before trying her luck at restaurant ownership.
As Barnwell points out, Hollywood and Meggett are in one direction, and Edisto is in the other. Residents of all three aren’t exactly maxed out on casually elegant places to get together.
“My husband and I were like, we want somewhere we can go and have a nice night out,” Barnwell says.
They envisioned a setting that would nod to the past rather than mimic it. And while Barnwell intimates the room isn’t perfected yet, it’s impossible for a guest to see what’s missing. From the wooden floor planks, selected for their “old Charleston feel” to the tasteful array of framed mirrors, vintage documents and country store artifacts, the sun-splashed room would delight a magazine editor scheduling a photo shoot of new-wave aprons.
Its centerpiece is a polished, rough-edged bar, commissioned from Justin Herrington of Born Again Heartwoods (“right here in Meggett,” Barnwell adds). Before it supported pints of craft beer and cocktails mixed with local liquor, the cypress log was lodged at the bottom of the Edisto River.
It has become fashionable to “elevate” Southern food, as the chefs say, which generally means slipping luxurious ingredients atop of deviled eggs and shaping grits into cakes. The Barnwells instead chose to elevate the room, and left the food alone.
In other words, if you make the trip to Roxbury Mercantile based solely on the expectation of culinary epiphanies, it would be best to first ask yourself how well you deal with disappointment. The menu doesn’t have a single show-off dish, and I’d argue the restaurant’s the better for it. Although variously presented as sandwiches, salads and platters, entree choices basically come down to boiled shrimp, fried fish, grilled chicken and smoked pork. There’s also a burger, although the one I tried was too big for its cooking time and sadly short on seasoning,
Otherwise, the kitchen performs admirably. Tender crab cakes, crisped on the outside, are ideal sandwich filler. The pulled pork and ribs are well served by vivacious sauces, and I couldn’t muster a complaint about any of the sides that accompanied them.
Yet the standout item is the shrimp, purchased from Captain Ashley Fontaine of Edisto Seafood. The Barnwells stick to the definition of Southern cooking that includes fresh, local ingredients, and their commitment pays off from the first course onward.
While they don’t make any claims about turning away the Sysco truck, Barnwell says they “go into town every Monday and get stuff from GrowFood.” The expert order at Roxbury, which I heard a number of customers place confidently, is an order of peel-and-eat shrimp and a wedge salad, featuring fantastically fresh lettuce and a Clemson blue cheese dressing that’s up front about its funk. Paired with sweet, sturdy shrimp, the salad makes for a fine meal.
Shrimp are also served on Mitla tortillas, which are finished at Roxbury, so the seafood meets with aromatic corn in a way that’s more vital and satisfying than the standard shrimp-and-grits combination. (The hot-sauced mayonnaise scribbled over the shrimp is great, but ask the kitchen to go easy on the shredded cheddar).
Another Southern cooking tradition that the Barnwells honor is the practice of adhering to family recipes, including Jackie Barnwell’s uncle’s recipe for she-crab soup. It wasn’t available either time I ate at Roxbury Mercantile, but Barwell says “a lot of people do compliment it.” If he was half as good at soup-making as Beau Barnwell’s grandmother was at making dessert, I’m not surprised. The banana pudding, crowded with banana slices and topped with toasted meringue, is outstanding.
So go on out to the country and eat some shrimp. If you live in, say, Mount Pleasant, it’s nowhere close to nearby, but sometimes experiences worth having take a little travel. Roxbury, for example, is delaying its brunch launch, because Beau Barnwell is currently out of the country: The retired U.S. Air Force Operations and Training Manager is taking meteorological measurements. At the South Pole.
Brunch is scheduled to start in March.