As the boundaries of what is considered “living in Charleston” continue to expand, so do the business enterprises once limited to the 29401. Set on Johns Island between Wild Olive and The Fat Hen, The Royal Tern is a welcome and well-positioned addition to that existing pair of successful Maybank Highway restaurants.
First and foremost, the building is glorious. Outside, it’s effortlessly stylish and would look just as appropriate nestled amongst a row of upscale beachfront estates. Inside, the chic, airy space boasts wood floors and high ceilings adorned with dramatic lights that resemble giant clusters of white grapes. The interior incorporates a number of current trends, including an open kitchen, marble-topped bar, and miles of banquette seating. The building is also incredibly loud, so if there is a conversation you’ve been meaning to avoid, this would be a great place to not have it.
With a focus on fish, the menu offers an aquarium-full of options. Along with a raw bar, there are fried “and chips” platters, elegant small plates, and four variations of cooked oysters. Add to that a handful of sandwiches, a half-dozen seafood entrees, and a hat trick of wood-fired steaks, and it’s a rather ambitious reach.
On the appetizer side of things, expect some basic standbys like fried calamari ($12) and a crab cake ($13), which render the potted shrimp and gravlax ($16) the exotic pick. Served on a wooden board, it’s the pescatarian answer to charcuterie, and includes four chunks of crustless grilled rye bread, a glob of Dijon mustard, and a fanning of buttered crackers, as well as capers and a host of other clutter. For its part, the potted shrimp is delicate and buttery. Permeated with the flavor of the sweet shellfish, it’s balanced with a touch of fragrant nutmeg. Equally sublime, the salmon gravlax is lightly cured and seasoned, letting the fresh flavor shine through. The abundance of Marie Kondo-defying accouterments aside, the delicate, namesake seafood preparations are a welcome testament to restraint.
Hailing from New Orleans, the BBQ Shrimp ($12) are a little cheekier. Here, seven large, tail-on shrimp bathe in a deep bowl of oregano, thyme, and lemon-flavored broth dotted with diced garlic. Mellow and Worcestershire sauce-forward, it’s a messy undertaking and the accompanying half of a grilled po’ boy bun provides insufficient sauce-soaking strength. Although the waiter did eventually deliver the promised finger bowls, it was long after irrevocable damage had been done to my napkin. Proceed with caution.
Also flavor-forward, the poke ($14) arrives heavy with powerful soy, sesame oil, and fresh chili purpose. Dotted with mango and sesame seeds, and served with two, thick, sesame-seed covered wonton chips, the intense flavor profile is more pungent than a traditional Hawaiian marinade, but works on this scale as a small shared plate.
Likewise, the scallop ($12) is eyebrow-archingly dainty, yet memorable. Accurately named, what we’re talking about is a single, raw scallop that’s been cut into six paper-thin slices and circled around a spoonful of caviar. Drizzled with olive oil and dusted with lemon zest, chives, and olive oil, the scallop acts as a vehicle for the other flavors. Here’s what it is: Fresh and citrus-forward, with a delicate composition and salty caviar finish. Here’s what it isn’t: Filling. Only slightly larger than an amuse bouche, if you’re into experience over satiation, do not miss this beautiful palate cleanser.
Along with the varied array of dishes is an equally crowd-pleasing list of cocktail offerings, including an oyster shooter ($6). There’s also white sangria ($11.50) made with cucumber, the vodka-based Wolfe martini ($12), and a traditional Peruvian pisco sour ($10). The restaurant is quite popular and consistently busy, so while the servers are friendly and informative, they seem to be stretched thin. Expect dishes to arrive clustered in waves, with long pauses in between courses.
When it does arrive, the swordfish ($29) is an interesting brainchild. If you simply heard the ingredients, you might think it was Cream of Yesterday: four baby potatoes, some blackened swordfish, and a piece of roasted broccolini, plus a ham and leek bisque.
Perfectly cooked, the thin cut of meaty fish is remarkably tender, while the broccolini is also outstanding, imbued with smoky notes from the wood fire grill. These items, together with the tiny potatoes, are plated atop a mild, chunky ham and leek bisque that would, I can say without hesitation, be better off played by a creamy Creole or anchovy and olive-spiked Portuguese sauce.
The chicken sandwich ($13) meanwhile, is what it sounds like, with a small grilled or fried boneless, skinless thigh served BLT-style on a toasted Hawaiian bun. It’s accompanied by pickles, as well as some lightly garlic powder-dusted French fries. The Royal Tern doesn’t offer lunch service, so it’s safe to say that anyone inclined toward a simple chicken sandwich at a dinner-only seafood restaurant will likely find this version satisfactory.
One of the best-looking joints in the area, The Royal Tern offers a hip, airy, and occasionally deafening place to scratch a variety of seafood itches on Johns Island. With a near-cheddar bay biscuit-level desire to satisfy all tastes, not everything on the sweeping menu is like shooting fish in a barrel. However, as evidenced by some solid chef skills and several moments of elegant triumph, great things are likely to come.