Southern-Style Seafood

BY WENDY SWAT SNYDER | PHOTOGRAPHY BY HOLGER OBENAUS

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When you’re yearning for an iconic seafood platter served up Southern style in a setting equally iconic, R.B.’s is the place to go. The rambling restaurant is perched on prime waterfront property overlooking historic Shem Creek, where working shrimp boats, playing dolphins and Lowcountry sunsets come and go with the daily tides. R.B.’s Seafood Restaurant—and Ronnie Boals, the man behind the name—is a Mount Pleasant institution popular with locals and tourists alike.

From R.B.’s sun-washed red rooftops to the wood paneled interiors, the spacious eatery is bedecked in everything nautical. A bigger-than-life lobster and a sailfish, suspended in flight above the entryway, leave no doubt that you’ve arrived at the correct destination. The generous menu, with several of Boals’ family recipes, showcases the bounty of the surf, plus plenty from the turf, too.

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Boals got his start in the restaurant business back in the early ’60s, working for his uncle’s Piggie Park, a drive-in down the road a bit on Coleman Boulevard. You could say that food and bev’ was in the family genes. His mother is a Bessinger, a name associated throughout the region with top Carolina barbeque spots.

“I was the clean-up boy,” recalls Boals. “I worked my way up to fry cook, then moved to the grill doing short orders.” He eventually leased the Piggie Park from his uncle and added management experience to his list of skills. Boals was also experimenting with recipes and developed the crab dip that’s been featured prominently on the menus of all six of his restaurants, past and present.

“People loved it—crab, sour cream, heavy duty mayo, Worcestershire sauce and horseradish—I used to send out a complimentary crab dip and a cup of fish stew with every order at the Trawler,” says Boals, referring to his first restaurant, which opened on Shem Creek when he was only 23, “with more guts than common sense.” It was 1967, he remembers, when gasoline cost 70 cents a gallon and shrimp could be bought for 85 cents a pound.

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“It didn’t take a lot of money back then—just hard work and dedication. Everything in my restaurants I had done myself—dishwashing, cooking, decorating—everything you see I built or contracted out. All I had on my mind was work, seven days a week, 14–15 hours a day, every day of my life.”

Born and raised in Charleston, Boals remembers moving to Mount Pleasant when there was only one bridge spanning the Cooper River. “The Grace Bridge opened in 1929. It was two lanes, if you can believe it,” he says with a laugh. At that time, the area known as “East of the Cooper,” which included the surrounding areas of Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms, was home to only 7,000 permanent residents.

The Trawler was Mount Pleasant’s first restaurant. It ushered in a succession of casual dining restaurants on Shem Creek that lured patrons with hearty plates, Southern charm and panoramic water views. “In my heyday, it was the largest seafood restaurant in the Southeast. We’d open the doors and an hour later we’d have a hundred people at the door.”

The original R.B.’s was born in a small tin building nearby on Shem Creek. “It had 35 seats and was located in an old shrimp-heading shed,” says Boals. “Talk about a relaxed setting!”

In the spring of 2002, R.B.’s successful run was cut short by a fire that completely destroyed the building. Boals took it in stride and vastly expanded R.B.’s a year later—10,000 square feet of restaurant with an additional 2,000-square-foot upper deck. He says he never lost sight of his mission to serve great food at family-friendly prices. “I work hard to create a place where you come when you’re hungry, not just for your birthday,” Boals says and adds that his wife, Debbie, has contributed greatly to the success of the restaurant by working part time on customer relations in the “front of house.”

The menu leads with a 40-year family tradition: “R.B.’s World Famous Crab Dip.” Many more crab-filled dishes follow, including snow crab, crab cakes and blue crab cocktail. Other starters include crispy fried oysters with hush puppies, coconut shrimp, crunchy chicken tenders, zesty wings and onion rings—something for everyone. Sashimi lovers go for the sesame tuna served with a teriyaki soy glaze.

The salad and soup offerings feature another Boals family favorite, a hearty Lowcountry fish stew. Other heartwarming bowls include she-crab soup, oyster stew and New England clam chowder. R.B.’s farmer’s market salad is a blend of savory and sweet: mixed greens tossed with strawberry vinaigrette, toasted pecans, Mandarin oranges, strawberries, pineapple and blue cheese. It becomes a satisfying meal with the addition of chicken, fresh fish, shrimp, scallops or oysters that may be grilled, blackened or fried.

Boals says his most popular entrée is the original seafood platter, a mouthwatering combination of shrimp, flounder, scallops and oysters that may be broiled or deep fried. A savory steam pot brimming with slow-cooked shrimp, oysters, clams, snow crab legs, lobster tail and sausage is another favorite. In fact, there is something for every palate here—filet mignon, grilled pork chop and chicken du jour. Several pasta dishes and Charleston’s ubiquitous shrimp ‘n’ grits round out the menu. In the mood for something hands-on? Sandwiches include mahi-mahi, grilled chicken and a classic burger.

In recognition of his longstanding leadership in the local restaurant business, Boals was presented with the Greater Charleston Restaurant Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013. The Culinary Institute of Charleston at Trident Technical College created a scholarship in his name, and he holds the key to Mount Pleasant as the longest, single retail operator in town.

Boals reflects on his long career: “I’ve trained a lot of managers now working throughout this state. Wade Boals, my oldest son, now owns several restaurants himself. He grew up in the business and started in the kitchen just like I did. If you really want to learn this business the right way, that’s the only way to do it.”

Wendy Swat Snyder is a freelance writer and public relations consultant based in Charleston. E-mail Wendy at wendyswatsnyder@gmail.com.