Is Hyman’s the Charleston restaurant version of Nickelback? Inherently uncool despite being so popular that they have packed houses, loyal fans, and rave online reviews? A tourist trap destined never to be appreciated by the “foodies” of Charleston, those hard-to-please critics who love to hate on the downtown seafood restaurant because “it’s for tourists,” “the lines are manufactured,” “they ripped off their employees,” and the “food just isn’t good”?
As a worker in the tourism and hospitality industry, Bear Barrow has spent many years challenging those assumptions when he encounters them. Oh yeah, he’ll ask, have you eaten there? Nine times out of 10, the answer is no. It’s simply cool to hate on Hyman’s Seafood Restaurant.
As editor of the City Paper from 1997 until 2014, I was responsible for creating the Best of Charleston’s Best Tourist Trap category, which Hyman’s has won more times than they’d like to count, and have probably written more than a few snarky things about them over the years.
“Can’t we change it to best tourist attraction or destination,” asks Eli Hyman on a recent afternoon in the third floor dining room of his restaurant. He’s agreed to meet with us to discuss Hyman’s role in Charleston’s dining scene. Skeptical of our motives at first, Hyman couldn’t help but oblige our genuine interest in learning the history of Hyman’s and profiling a restaurant that gets no respect — and trying to figure out why that is. He is clearly hopeful that he can convince the haters to love Hyman’s by participating in this exercise.
His sensitivity to the haters’ hate, indeed his sadness about it, becomes clear within minutes of sitting down.
“People either love-love-love us or they hate us, and it’s hard for me not to take it personally,” he says. “So many people are leaving here happy, and there’s just a lot of hype. And then there’s a foodie who comes in who is used to eating at FIG and they’ve got a perception of what we should be versus the experience of what they actually had.”
On his name tag it says “fourth generation.” Eli is proud of his family story which begins nearly two centuries ago with his great-grandfather, who used the original building for a general store. It wasn’t until a hundred or so years later that Eli and his brother Aaron opened the deli in 1986 and the restaurant in 1987.
They were the gentrifying pioneers of their time, taking a gamble on two restaurants in a neighborhood where winos and prostitutes had once lolled about. With the completion of Charleston Place in 1984, though, the undesirables were shooed away, and Meeting Street slowly cleaned itself up. “We were the only ones on the block for a year and a half,” recalls Hyman. “Over the years, my brother and I bought a whole row of buildings.” Today, there’s the deli and the restaurant with multiple dining rooms on three floors, plus a gift shop that sells the Hymans’ Holy City brand of salt scrubs and soaps. Of course, patrons are forced to exit through the gift shop, in the most authentic expression of sales and marketing acumen that Eli Hyman refuses to take credit for.
“Do I look like a genius?” he laughs when we ask if it’s marketing genius that keeps Hyman’s serving an estimated 6,000 covers over the course of the 2017 Southeastern Wildlife Weekend, the unofficial kickoff to the tourist season in Charleston. We mention the bright green to-go bags, the free hushpuppies for people waiting in line, the stickers that proclaim “Hyman’s Seafood Raving Fan,” the free crab dip, and the VIP cards for locals that allows them to skip the line and get validated parking.
“I’m no genius and my wife can verify it,” he says, attributing Hyman’s success mainly to the family attitude of taking care of their guests.
“We are touching every single table,” he says, “engaging them and trying to figure out if something is wrong. If I see something wrong, even if they don’t, I’m going to fix it immediately.”
Hyman shares management of the restaurant with his nephew Brad Gena, who is the son-in-law of Aaron. Brad is considered fifth generation, according to his name tag, and he joins us for some of the interview. As the operations guy, Brad addresses the perception that lines are manufactured, which Eli dismisses outright: “Fifty percent of the year, you can walk right in,” he says.
But Brad understands that sometimes people don’t get what it takes to run such a high-volume restaurant. It’s a mathematical equation when it comes down to it. Opening a new dining room requires more staff, cooks, and generates other costs.
“The trick,” says Eli, “is to have the right amount of staff so the front of house can make max money without sacrificing service. If they’re making the max amount of money, then they’re going to be happy.”
Speaking of happy employees, we can’t ignore the elephant in the room and ask about the recent lawsuit brought by employees claiming their employer had violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by requiring front of the house workers to pool their tips to pay out back of the house employees and cover breakages. Hyman’s settled the claim for $1 million, as reported by the Post and Courier, which Hyman says was his money, not insurance money.
For Hyman, a business owner who feels personally wounded by the hate of anonymous locals, the lawsuit felt like a complete betrayal by the employees who sued him. Not everyone signed on. Out of the 600 or so eligible employees who’d worked there over the course of three years, the lawsuit had less than 200. After the settlement, Hyman gave the employees who still worked for him who chose not to be a party to the suit the same amount they would’ve received had they signed on.
Hyman’s bartender Samantha Timmerman confirms this. She didn’t sign the lawsuit, but after the settlement she received a letter from Eli with her paycheck. It said, among other things, “I never intended to hurt or deceive any of my employees (or anyone else)…” and included a check for $4,000.
“It was tough on them and a sign of their character [that they didn’t sign on],” says Hyman. “And I wanted to give them a reward.”
Eli spends a lot of time talking details that we won’t go into here, but ultimately, he still feels bewildered by what happened and feels that, even though their practices violated the FLSA, they were honest with their employees about where the money was going and why. He just wishes now that he had been better at knowing what the laws were and that they were following them.
Spend a few minutes with Eli Hyman, a charismatic and earnest human, and it’s clear that details might not be his strong suit. As the interview progresses, he and Brad bring up an ongoing debate they’ve been having that illustrates the sort of big-picture thoughts that propel Hyman. Brad handles the details and implements the changes, so he’s obligated to push back until he’s sure it’s worth the investment and work to make the change happen.
The question at hand: Should they upgrade the plates and flatware in an effort to attract the young modern diner who might be turned off by the low-cost, diner-grade dishes, plastic tumblers, and cheap flatware that Hyman’s uses? To do so would easily cost $35,000 and generate losses from breakage along the way.
And this debate brings us to the problem with Hyman’s right now. As food writer and historian Robert Moss points out, “I think Hyman’s is in that awkward stage where a lot of people (especially local foodie types) don’t see it as relevant. Admittedly, its menu does have a sort of we-got-a-lot-of-different-stuff-to-please-everybody character to it right now that doesn’t seem to have a lot of ties to Charleston (po boys, etc.) But that might end up being the key.”
Would better plates make a difference? Or should Hyman’s just embrace its own uncool factor, cater to its regulars and tourists, and hold tight for 10 years, until it truly reaches institutional status?
Well, that question comes down to the food and the service. Does Hyman’s deliver when it comes down to it?
As a self-avowed food snob, I joined Barrow for lunch recently at Hyman’s to see what that experience was like these days. I’d eaten at Hyman’s several times over the years and always described it as good at what it does — fresh seafood, lots of choices and preparations. You can eat light and healthy if you want or go all in and get everything fried. Barrow had never been. On the afternoon we visited, there was no wait and we were seated in the downstairs dining room. The building has a patina of age, but it’s clean and comfortable. Nothing fancy. Nothing gross. Lots of wood and pictures of celebrities.
Since it was lunch, we ordered the top hits. As an eater, I lean toward light preparations, salads, and veggies, so hushpuppies, shrimp and grits (called the Carolina Delight), and the Reuben Greenberg sandwich were probably not going to make me fly over the moon with happiness, but we were interested in checking out the best-sellers. The dishes came out brimming with food — toasted rye piled high with corned beef and swiss cheese, slathered in Thousand Island. The Carolina Delight is basically shrimp and grits built on a grit cake foundation with fresh shrimp and a flavorful parmesan cream sauce, which didn’t benefit from the additional cheese and bacon that Barrow misguidedly added to the mix. Everything was good, filling, and affordable — you won’t have your mind blown by the food, but you will notice that Brad Gena “fifth generation” comes by to chat and see where you’re from and find out what you ordered and if you’re happy. Brad, who was unaware of who we were at that dining experience, spent a solid minute or two chatting us up and making us feel special. He then gave the same attentive, VIP service to the next table, and we felt good about that.
For food writers Eric Doksa and Robert Moss, who stopped by Hyman’s for a fried shrimp crawl, Moss says, “We were both impressed not only by the shrimp themselves (which are excellent) but the overall experience, especially the setting/decor which had sort of a cozy, comfortably worn feel.”
Food writer Jeff Allen sees Hyman’s as currently being in landmark status. “It exists nowhere else and is certainly an important landmark in Charleston’s dining history. And if they opened one in Vegas and stamped Tom Colicchio’s name on the sign, people would celebrate it. Yet it’s way more real to me than anything on his Top Chef show — simply an old seafood house that cashed in on tourism in a tourist town. You can find Phillips Crab House-branded backfin crab in every Costco and airport in America, but it’s an institution in Ocean City, Maryland, and it should be.”
Moss sees the same sort of institutional future for Hyman’s. “If they can keep it up for another 10 years, you may well have food writers insisting breathlessly, ‘And, of course, you must duck into Hyman’s for their crispy flounder or the Carolina Delight. They’re a Charleston institution.'”
So there you have it. Hyman’s isn’t hip. But it certainly is what it is: a casual restaurant in a landmark building on Meeting Street in downtown Charleston that attracts locals and tourists to its comfortable menu of seafood that has so many choices you know your picky toddler and your impossible grandma won’t be going home hungry. And you can be sure that Eli and Brad will treat you and yours like the VIPs you truly are. And if you hate that, we’ve got nothing for you here.