Photos by Ruta Smith

Shrimpin’ on Shem

 Whether for a vacation or staycation, Shem Creek has it all — cold drinks, fresh food and a waterfront view. It’s undergone several changes throughout its decades-long history as a formal shrimping environment, but remains a place for locals and tourists to gather and enjoy some of Mount Pleasant’s freshest seafood. 

There are plenty of places to eat and drink, but if there’s one thing each restaurant has in common, it’s the mascot of Shem Creek: shrimp. 

Captain Wayne C. Magwood is credited with introducing shrimping to Shem Creek in 1930. A bridge was built over Shem Creek in 1937, granting even more access to the area. Over the next two decades, companies like Moultrie Fisheries’ ice house and Mount Pleasant Seafood Company opened, making the area an important hub for Charleston’s shrimp industry. 

Today, Shem Creek is home to some of the area’s oldest establishments, like Red’s Ice House, The Wreck of the Richard and Charlene, Vickery’s Bar & Grill and Shem Creek Crab House.

These Shem Creek staples withstood the test of time, weather and even a pandemic, but continue to thrive with the resurgence of vacationers and local patrons flocking to the area. 

Red’s Ice House

Enjoy fresh seafood from Red’s Ice House with a view of the water

Though shrimp has been and always will be a mainstay for restaurants on Shem Creek, Red’s Ice House owner Dianne Crowley noticed a new food trend popular with younger generations. 

“A couple of the things that I’ve noticed are a fresher take on things in the last five or seven years,” Crowley said. “Poké being one of them. Obviously, there’s not a lot of poké coming from our waters. But more fresh [items], like ceviche or fresh fish in nachos.”

Being ahead of the trend, though, Red’s has offered Saku Tuna on its menu since day one, a blackened, rare seared tuna served with cucumber salad and sweet and spicy soy mustard. 

Red’s also offers more traditional fish shack menu items like fried or grilled shrimp, fish, scallops and oysters. Crab leg clusters have also been a longtime favorite of Red’s regulars and visitors.

But, fresh seafood and new cuisine trends are showing up at more places than just Red’s. Tavern & Table, also owned by the Crowley’s, is an upscale seafood restaurant on the waterfront next door to Red’s with menu items curated for those who are looking for less fried dishes and more fresh offerings.

In place of fried shrimp, Tavern & Table offers items like oysters on the half shell, peel-and-eat shrimp, charcuterie boards, flatbreads and more — things you won’t find just over the railing at Red’s. 

But if there’s one thing Crowley’s sure of, it’s that shrimp will always remain at the top of Shem Creek’s food pyramid no matter what form.

“I think that Shem Creek will always be known for fried shrimp,” Crowley said. “These waters provide very good shrimp. I think most of us use local shrimp with peel-and-eats because of the authentic taste. It’s about as unfiltered as it gets.” 

Originally, Red’s building and dock was owned by Lewis Hughes “Red” Simmons and his family from the 1950s to 1990s, providing shrimpers with a place to pack and ice for when they set off into the waters. In the late ’90s, when Simmons was ready to retire, he sold the property, and the new owners dubbed the restaurant Red’s Ice House after the late Simmons. 

Now, instead of shrimpers stopping by Red’s for ice, tourists and locals alike head to the lively restaurant’s dock for an ice cold drink on the water and a glimmer of hope that they might spot a dolphin. 

Shem Creek Crab House

Shem Creek Crab House, formerly known as Shem Creek Bar and Grill, was purchased two years ago by current owner John Keener and is considered one of the longest-running establishments on Shem Creek. 

Though classified as a “crab house” by name, the restaurant offers plenty of seafood options.

Families or groups of friends can split the Crab House’s steam pots of Alaskan crab, dungeness crab and, of course, shrimp. All the hot pots, and the Lowcountry boil, are cooked with corn and potatoes, and covered in garlic butter and Old Bay seasoning. 

If you’re looking for a triple threat of seafood, the Crab House offers its Crab House Crab Pot, with both types of crab and shrimp all in one boil. 

But if you’re there alone, with a date or looking for something less filling, Crab House has other options, too. Indulge in appetizers like crab dip or peel-and-eat shrimp, or try an entree specialty like a grilled seafood trio of redfish, scallops and shrimp served with Charleston red rice and seasonal vegetables. 

The Crab House also offers a “You Hook It, We Cook It” option. Patrons can bring in cleaned, fresh catches and the restaurant will cook and prepare it. No need to take it home or to the Airbnb and dirty up the kitchen.

And for the fried seafood lovers, there are plenty of options to try. 

“There’s a lot of people on vacation that come down and say, ‘Hey, we’re on vacation. We don’t care. We’re going to eat what we like to eat: eat fried food, eat ice cream and drink piña coladas,’ ” Keener said. 

“We’re sort of all this way, you know? You get away on vacation and you just sort of let go a little bit more.”

The same can be said of locals who go to Shem Creek, too. (Order the fried shrimp; don’t worry, we don’t tell.)

Vickery’s Bar & Grill 

Vickery’s wasn’t always a part of Shem Creek, but it definitely found its place, especially as the crowds continue to grow. Originally located at 15 Beaufain St. in 1992, Vickery’s opened the doors to its second (and current) location at 1313 Shrimp Boat Lane in 1999. 

Vickery’s initial menu originated from its flagship location in Atlanta, offering a Caribbean and Cuban-inspired menu, but when owner Jim Stalker and his business partner at the time Sam Weyman wanted to open a location in Charleston, adding more shrimp to the menu was a no-brainer. 

The food has since strayed away from the taste of the islands to a taste of the Atlantic coast, offering more seafood-centric options like its oyster bisque or Lowcountry saute with tail-on shrimp, crab and crawfish tails cooked in bourbon butter. Its Caribbean and Cuban flair is still reminiscent on the menu, though, with grilled jerk chicken salad and classic Cuban sandwich. And of course, if you’re not into seafood but happen to find yourself in Shem Creek, Vickery’s is the place to “get a stiff drink and a good burger,” Stalker said. 

Though the Vickery’s downtown closed in 2010, Vickery’s on Shem Creek has remained open for more than 20 years and continued to keep its “open for all” attitude. When the first Vickery’s opened downtown, it became the place for everyone, where you might see “a $500 Brooks Brothers suit talking stocks to this kid that had purple hair,” said Stalker.

“That’s what we wanted to bring to Charleston — a great time,” he added. “And we did.”

When they opened a Vickery’s on Shem Creek, Stalker knew the one thing to keep business good and the surrounding neighbors happy: blend in. 

“If you’re gonna have a restaurant or business or something, at least try and blend in,” he said. “You don’t want to be the guy that stands out.”

If you’re looking to be more on than water than overlooking it (Vickery’s sits atop on the second floor of a building), underneath the eatery is Muddy’s Dockside Bar. 

Muddy’s sits right on the water and offers a slice of Key West along the edge of Shem Creek. 

The Wreck of the Richard and Charlene

Dedicated fans of The Wreck don’t mind waiting in line to eat at the 30-year-old shrimp shack, serving up fresh-caught seafood by the platters. One thing to note: the food will be delicious, but it will be messy.

“We’re very rustic,” said owner Ann Warner. “We serve on paper plates. That’s appealing to some, but not all. It’s always been more of a place that you just really have to seek out.”

The establishment has been in its current location since opening in 1992 at the end of the creek, but hasn’t seen much change in the area the same way buildings up the creek have experienced. Along the edge of the water near The Wreck, shrimp trawlers and charter boats dock for the night. Another dock overlooking the water was recently built for the public, Warner said, but other than that, the area is pretty much the same as the day it opened. 

“Well, one thing is where we are, it hasn’t changed that much,” Warner said. “Because we are down at the end, you know, amongst the shrimpers. It’s been here about 30 years, and it really has not changed much at all.”

Commercial fishing is less common up near the bridge where places like Red’s and Vickery’s sit. Many of the old buildings used by shrimpers and fishermen have since been converted into restaurants and hotels, but near The Wreck, shrimper-owned buildings still operate. Right next door, Wando Shrimp supplies its shrimp to The Wreck. 

The decades-old restaurant is surrounded by what Shem Creek used to be, and still is — a shrimping community. 

“I feel like this is an institution and it’s part of the history at this point, having been here 30 years,” Warner said. “It’s nice for people that have grown up here or been coming here forever to see what this part of Shem Creek has always looked like, for the most part.”

First opened by Fred Scott in 1991, The Wreck is now owned and operated by Warner and her sister Allison Cagle and brother-in-law Hank Cagle, who took over the space in 2016.

Since purchasing the restaurant, Warner has only wanted to maintain what Scott established — a simple shrimp shack for the locals of Shem Creek.

But its appearance on Netflix’s popular show Outer Banks, the restaurant gained a wider audience. The show’s success during the Covid-19 pandemic helped bring people from all over the country once travel started picking back up, according to Warner. Some of the regulars were still reluctant to come out she said, but tourists were eager to see the restaurant they had seen on their TVs. 

“And that’s also why there is no advertising, so the people that find us are happy to find us,” Warner said.

More than just shrimp

These establishments have become pillars in this area of Mount Pleasant, and for good reason. Not only do they cater to the tourists wanting to grab an ice cold drink on the water, but they care for the residents who live and work nearby. 

“To me it feels wonderful to be a part of the local industry,” Warner said. “I love food and restaurants, and the idea of farm-to-table is always the best. And we have the best source right here.”

But Shem Creek has grown into something bigger than just a shrimping community; it’s become a gathering place for people to connect, eat and drink while hanging out by the water. 

“It’s a tiny, tiny little creek now compared to what it used to be,” Stalker said. “Of course, the water hadn’t changed. It’s just the people who use it and what it’s being used for. There must be 1,000 kayaks and paddle boards on the creek from time to time.”

“It’s changed from a fishing village into a drinking village,” said Keener. “There’s still some of the industry, but it’s just not as vibrant as it used to be … I don’t look at it as a negative at all, either.

“I think it’s just going to get better.”

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