Royal terns may fly, but Charleston area diners tend to drive, so when John and Ben Williams opened a restaurant named for the seabird, they wanted potential customers to know their cars wouldn’t be a problem.
The brothers talked up an ample parking lot when they announced plans for the Maybank Highway seafood restaurant, and put in another parking plug when restless Johns Islanders begged for opening date insight. They handled the talking point the way some folks treat hand sanitizer in flu season, reaching for it reflexively and constantly. “A lot of people are excited about the perk of parking,” John Williams late last year told The Post and Courier, explaining why the staffing process went smoothly.
Clearly, the message got across. The Royal Tern’s wraparound lot is so reliably jammed that it appears customers feel emboldened to suggest every member of their parties travel separately. Now the landing page of the restaurant’s website implores visitors to consider carpooling.
In that regard, at least, all of the parking chatter may have backfired just a bit. But the real shame in emphasizing driving is it obscures The Royal Tern’s out-of-the-box status as a fine place for drinking.
That doesn’t mean the bar dominates the energetic dining room, either visually or spiritually, but the venue is at its best when playing the part of backdrop to lighthearted small plate sessions. By virtue of its mood and location, I’d wager the restaurant will do more to restore neglected friendships between downtown dwellers and their Kiawah pals than a season’s worth of cultural events.
It's a shame they can't meet for lunch. The Royal Tern’s schedule is currently confined to dinner, but the outliers on the evening menu — grilled chicken on a bun, fried oysters in a po’boy roll — are ready to anchor a meal of their own, which mostly means the skin-on garlic fries seated alongside them are tender-crisp, salty and hot.
And who would mind making a midday visit to a heavily windowed space distinguished by wooden plank floors below and clusters of matte white lights above? The Williamses’ seriousness about doing right by their new neighbors is apparent not just from The Royal Tern’s impressive dimensions but its soaring ceiling and many stark white surfaces that are sure to need ongoing care.
Since lunch service isn't in the cards, diners will have to settle for a room cheered by conversation instead of sunlight. They’re also the beneficiaries of a chipper attitude that seems to come naturally to the servers and bartenders.
Before taking the leap to restaurant ownership, John Williams was the general manager at Rue de Jean and Ben Williams worked in Ken Vedrinski’s dining rooms. Their front-of-house acumen shows in the systems that don’t. To say that The Royal Tern’s servers don’t forget orders or bobble guests’ questions registers as praise so faint it should be written in invisible ink, but neither achievement is negligible: New restaurants almost always struggle on the service front.
And it’s not just the Williamses who have a firm handle on what running a restaurant requires: chef David Pell, late of Coast Bar & Grill, has smartly listed his clam chowder as seafood chowder, because he knows there are bound to be days when storms stir up harvesting grounds or the delivery truck gets a flat, and suddenly there isn’t a clam in the cooler.
Whatever you call it, the warming chowder is milky and rich and athrob with potato flavor. Mottled with carrots and celery, the soup stars plump clams and similarly sized smoky pork bits: It’s probably semi-blasphemous to serve New England-style chowder in the South, but I wouldn’t be shocked if a Bostonian asked for a second helping.
Doubling up on starters isn’t a bad approach at The Royal Tern, since entrees are the kitchen’s consistent weak suit. It’s unfair to grade a seafood restaurant on its beef, so the oily character of a flap steak isn’t conclusive evidence of a main dish deficiency. (Compounding it with bacon-greased greens that further distract from the steak’s char is questionable, though.)
More troublesome are a whole flounder that sags beneath a toneless lemon-butter sauce, and overly sauced garlic noodles that blot out the sweetness of the grilled shrimp they’re supposed to showcase.
Yet like a student who sails through the essay portion of an exam and then botches the true-or-false section, The Royal Tern’s kitchen has a knack for nailing the material that challenges lesser restaurants. Namely, it can cook fish perfectly but struggles with gimmes such as saucing.
Prior to being plunged into a sludgy cream sauce that the menu describes as ham-and-leek bisque, the swordfish is impeccably blackened. Each of five meaty scallops on a daily special plate was perfect, but there was no accounting for the Tabasco-tinged orzo travesty they were lined up around, or the gobs of bland pesto between them.
Even among the appetizers, elaboration is a risk: Grilled oysters blanketed with an enormous quantity of mild cheese aren’t an improvement over raw oysters, served cleanly shucked and cold. Oysters from here and afar populate the bottom tier of a respectable seafood tower featuring poached mussels and firm steamed shrimp.
Salads are big enough to share, as is a fully garnished platter of potted shrimp and cured salmon that wouldn’t be out of place at a cocktail party. It’s possible too that multiple people could divvy up the barbecue shrimp, but that strategy rides on the first person to taste it deigning to share. The shrimp are submerged in a Worcestershire brown sauce with a sneaky streak of heat that’s almost guaranteed to equally engulf whoever’s eating it: The garlicky sauce has enough soul to merit a third wedge of toast to dredge through it, and enough staining power to make a second napkin non-negotiable.
Shrimp of that sort cry out for beer, and The Royal Tern has an excellent selection of local choices: Other than the tap reserved for Bud Light, every one of its eight drafts hails from the Carolinas, including an Irish Red from Low Tide Brewing, just down the street. Cocktails also reflect both an awareness of the contemporary beverage scene and understanding of what people like to drink: Bar goers are spared the typical peach blossom and vanilla syrup inanity.
At the other end of the meal, there’s a choice of desserts that’s bro at best and a cop-out at worst: You have your pick of pot de creme, bread pudding and creme brulee. (According to John Williams, there's a also a dessert special nightly, although it wasn't mentioned on any of my three visits.)
But if you play The Royal Tern right, you should never reach that moment. Enjoy the drinks, enjoy the apps, enjoy the company. And then maybe call an Uber.