Inside Look: Sullivan's Fish Camp, South Carolina - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Not many longtime neighborhood haunts are fortunate enough to come back as shiny, updated versions of themselves with their hearts still intact. But Sullivan’s Seafood Restaurant, a 32-year-old family-owned eatery on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, lucked out when it landed in the hands of Kate and Ben Towill of Charleston design and hospitality group Basic Projects after the original owners retired. “We always admired its community-minded outlook and incredible staff,” Kate says. “Sullivan’s Seafood made everyone—from locals to visitors—feel like regulars, which is definitely something we strive for.” The Towills took over the space in 2020. But the pandemic, supply chain issues, and construction delays postponed the opening of Sullivan’s Fish Camp until May of this year. Fortunately, all those extra months gave them the opportunity to fine-tune the design and find the perfect finishing touches. 

Getting in Shipshape

Kate, who worked as lead designer, renovated and rethemed the family-style seafood restaurant to resemble a 1970s sailboat. Since Sullivan’s Fish Camp is near the beach, she wanted the space to feel nautical without going overboard. “Also, we like to have a little fun,” she said. “We wanted people to feel instantly relaxed, happy, and a little nostalgic when they walked in!”

Daylight now fills the formerly dark restaurant thanks to newly installed windows along the booth wall. Nautical maps of Charleston Harbor decorate the lampshades. Charleston’s RHM Woodworking built a retro-inspired pine wood bar, repeating the wood paneling in the bathrooms to give the impression they are below deck in a sailboat. And since flooding is a regular occurrence on the island, a more durable and period-appropriate checkerboard linoleum floor replaced the original wood floors.

All Hands on Deck

Tchotchkes and artwork fill the space and cover the walls, all intentionally chosen to highlight Sullivan’s lived-in history. Each piece further reinforces the sailing theme and celebrates the region’s maritime roots while promoting a sense of community.

Local artisans were tapped to create custom pieces. Artist Mickey Williams painted the restaurant’s old English pub sign, and Charlestowne Stained Glass Studio crafted the stained-glass billiard lamps. Duane Raver Jr., a legendary illustrator of the original South Carolina Department of Natural Resources fishing charts, even loaned his illustrations to be copied for the placemats. (He passed away a few months before the restaurant’s opening at the age of 94.) “Charleston is full of creative people from super talented makers to incredible artists,” Kate said. “So we really leaned on the local community to help us create custom pieces in the space.”

Even the previous owners, the Rhodes family, who gave the renovation their full support, contributed to the restaurant’s decoration. They brought in the old frames for new artwork that now cover the wall and presented an original Sullivan’s Seafood Restaurant menu signed by all their employees.

Chow Time

As its name suggests, fish camp dishes of fried fish, peel-and-eat shrimp, and oysters dominate the menu alongside high-end bites such as truffle parmesan fried shrimp and duck fat fried chicken. For the bar program, Sullivan’s Fish Camp’s beverage director Jordan Moton wanted to complement the restaurant’s nostalgic vibe. Drawing inspiration from the popularity of tropical blended drinks in the ’70s, Moton created a simple drink menu broken up into categories of “Rum,” “Not Rum,” and “Frozen.” Frozen offerings include a Piña Colada, a Paloma, and large-format “Big Gulp” made with rum, pineapple, passion fruit, and falernum and served in a glass-blown fish bottle.

Anchors Aweigh

Those who’ve fallen in love with Sullivan’s Fish Camp will have the option to nab souvenirs at the restaurant’s Merch Shack. With a cedar shingle roof, the shack also doubles as the host stand and takeout/soft-serve ice cream pick-up window. “It features all of our custom merch, which we felt was a must-have for a beach restaurant, especially with the name Sullivan’s,” said Kate.

But even if one forgoes the souvenir propeller hats and bottle openers, the new owners want everyone to leave with fond memories. “I hope that when people come into Sullivan’s, they feel like they’ve stepped back in time to a funky little fish camp that’s been around for decades,” said Kate. “The greatest compliments we’ve received so far are from locals who loved the original restaurant and say that it has the same groovy feeling.”

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