For more than a half century, Shem Creek has been the center of Charleston’s seafood industry. Beginning in the 1940s, the first shrimp trawlers — complete with hand-hauled nets and primitive gasoline engines that were prone to explosion — began working the local waters and docking along the creek. The industry steadily expanded over the succeeding decades, and a series of supporting businesses like shrimp processors and fuel and ice dealers sprang up along the creek. By the 1960s, thousands of tons of shrimp were being packed into wooden boxes and shipped via truck to destinations as far away as New York and Texas. New fisheries, including those for vermilion snapper, grouper, and swordfish followed in the 1970s, making new deep-sea species available to Charlestonians. About the same time, the now-departed Lorelei Seafood Restaurant became the first establishment to cook the seafood brought to the docks and serve it to hungry tourists and locals alike. A thriving restaurant center was born.
The shrimp industry is struggling these days, caught between ever-rising fuel costs and price-depressing competition from overseas shrimp-farming operations. But, a few trawlers still work out of Shem Creek, and you can still get the freshest shrimp and fish in town from Magwood’s, Raul’s, and Mt. Pleasant Seafood. The restaurant scene is as busy as it ever has been. The quality of dining on Shem Creek has always been a little hit or miss, with some places serving superior fresh local seafood and others cranking out high-volume tourist fare. For waterfront views, though, the big decks at the various creekside restaurants can’t be beat.
Red’s Ice House takes its name from Moultrie Fisheries, where “Red” Simmons used to make 100 tons of ice a day to supply the essential coolant used on the shrimp trawlers to keep their catch fresh. The icehouse is long gone, and the new Red’s is a waterfront bar with a huge multi-level deck and hopping happy hour and nighttime crowds. Many of the patrons will arrive by boat and tie up at the Shem Creek dock. Red’s is a bar first and foremost, but you can get buckets of steamed Bull’s Bay oysters and buckets of bottled beer, too, plus a full assortment of sandwiches and bar fare.
Vickery’s Bar & Grill dishes up seafood, pasta, and sandwiches with some Caribbean accents, including solid Cuban sandwiches and tasty hand-cut fries. A little farther up the creek on the north side of Coleman Boulevard, the Shem Creek Bar and Grill has been turning out oysters on the half shell, Lowcountry boil, and fried seafood for over 25 years.
The most unique Shem Creek dining experience, however, is to be found at the Wreck of the Richard and Charlene, named for a trawler wrecked by Hurricane Hugo near the spot where the restaurant stands today. That spot is a little hard to find, since it’s tucked away down in the Old Village neighborhood almost at the mouth of the creek. (You can download detailed directions from their website, which may save you an unintended tour of the Old Village). The Wreck is a low-key, bare-bones place that sits on a big dock looking out over Shem Creek. It specializes in big, freshly made portions of local seafood, and the menu is simple: various combinations of grilled or fried fish, shrimp, and scallops along with fried oysters, deviled crab, and stone crab claws, too. They’re open for dinner only, and remember to take cash, since they don’t accept credit cards.
To get to Mt. Pleasant’s vibrant Shem Creek, take the big Ravenel bridge across the Cooper River toward Mt. Pleasant (access via Meeting Street). Follow signs to the Coleman Boulevard exit. Drive about a mile and you’ll see it on the right.