Last night we went out for dinner. We eat out rarely while we’re doing our July stint in South Carolina. And this whole Lowcountry region is a wealth of riches where eating out is concerned. So, we choose our very-few-meals-out very carefully.
Harbor Island is about 20 minutes outside of Beaufort, SC. Beaufort has been thought of as a sleepy little southern town, sort of the little brother hiding in the shadows between its two garnering-all-the-attention beautiful big sisters: Charleston and Savannah. But for the past five years we’ve been coming here, Braydon and I have not seen it quite that way at all. We see Beaufort as a nice-sized city (yes, tiny, but tiny is a nice size sometimes), a quintessential Southern coastal town, with a big arts footprint and a blossoming food scene. We love Charleston and Savannah. A lot. But we’ve come to love Beaufort too, and appreciate it for what it truly is: this is not the cowering little brother that it’s sometimes made out to be, Beaufort is a standing-on-its-own-two-feet, in-its-own-spotlight, not-going-down-for-a-nap-at-all, culturally vibrant gem of a town situated beautifully in the Lowcountry.
The Old Bull Tavern is ranked #2 for Beaufort on TripAdvisor, and it gets great reviews across the board. We wanted a place with very high quality food that would not be too pretentious, and it had to be a place we could bring the bambinos without needing to dress up K & O in khakis and collared shirts. Meera, of course, is dressed up everyday (a skirt or dress is her 24×7 signature style), but summer = a break from the khakis-and-collars school uniform for K & O and we want to try to respect that whenever humanly possible.
We dropped into the Old Bull Tavern around 6pm last night, and from the minute we arrived to the minute we left it was an awesome experience all around. I don’t say that lightly. Y’all know: we are a family that can critique a good restaurant with the best of ’em. So, take us seriously when we say: the Old Bull Tavern was awesome!
OVERALL: 4 (on a scale of 1-5; reserving 5 for only perfection, which we almost never encounter; note– remember that we live on a college campus, mommy is a professor, and we’re tough graders).
- Meera: 4
- Kyle: 4
- Owen: 3
- Braydon: 4
- Heather: 4
ATMOSPHERE: Before we even walked through the door, as we were walking past the restaurant’s windows approaching the entryway, Kyle said, “This looks like a place Mommy picked.” He then turned to Braydon and said, “Papi, I don’t think you picked this place out!” (LOL! Translation: this means a little high-end, a little eclectic, a little funky/edgy, lots of attention to detail, a Foodie’s restaurant. Papi tends to pick slightly ‘less risky,’ less Foodie places.) Once we were seated, Kyle’s observations were, “It looks like a Southern tavern. Sort of like a pub that Papi and I went to in Gettysburg, but Southern.” He’s right on. And with a more European-flair. It feels like you’re sitting in a triple fusion between London and Gettysburg and Beaufort. Meera’s the real deal hard-core restaurant critic though, especially when it comes to atmosphere. This morning she said, “I think it looked pretty good. I liked the candles. It was a good look for the place that it was.” She gives the atmosphere a 3 (1-5 scale), which, for her, is pretty darn decent (she’s tough as nails where atmosphere is concerned). I, personally, loved the look and feel of it. It has a very different vibe for the South (dark colors, not whites/pastels, a little urban/edgy, but still lots of glass and natural light coming through). And I absolutely adore a restaurant that embodies high-end food contrasted with a totally unpretentious look and feel. Old Bull nails that.
SERVICE: Stellar. Our server, and every staff person we interacted with (including the owner) was incredibly well-skilled in serving us, super knowledgeable about the menu, and just-the-right-amount-of-professional-balanced-with-friendly. We don’t hold back on questions about the menu or requests for recommendations, and we got truly stellar service at the Old Bull.
FOOD & DRINK: Really, really good.
- Drink ~ I have to say, the bar menu really stands out here. We’ve been so spoiled rotten by our hometown favorite Bolete that Braydon and I rarely order cocktails anywhere these days that truly impress us. But the Old Bull Tavern has a nice offering of craft cocktails, and we decided to give it a whirl. Holy heck are we glad that we did! I told the server I don’t like sweet drinks, and he recommended one of the house cocktails, “Snoop Juice.” Gin, grapefruit juice, rhubarb bitters, and cocchi. After only a couple of sips I could say with full confidence that this drink was on par with Bolete — which, basically, means, for me it was a 10 out of 10, as good as it gets, hit out of the park, highest praise possible. Braydon ordered the “Purgatory” cocktail — silver tequila, grapefruit, honey, and habenero. It was awesome. Old Bull also has a nice little list of interesting beers and “wines on tap.” Braydon and I each had a glass of wine with dinner, one white and one red, both recommended by our server, and both really solid (and just as with cocktails, because of our ridiculously high wine standards, this is something we can’t say very often these days). The bambinos were envious of the adult drink menu. They tried to order kid-friendly pina coladas, and were disappointed to hear it was a no-go from the bar. I agree that it would be nice to have a couple of non-alcoholic craft drinks on the bar menu for kids and folks wanting something special sans alcohol.
- Food ~ We started with a local melon and prosciutto appetizer that was perfect. (Did you see that? I said “perfect”… something I rarely say about anything ever.) We shared two salads — the Winemaker’s Salad (mixed greens with red flame grapes, ubriaco cheese, salami, toasted walnuts, and citrus vinaigrette), and the Caprese (local tomatoes with house-made burrata). Both were tremendously good. Meera had a cheeseburger (grass fed Mibek farms hamburger with cheddar) that came with “gaufrettes” (thin waffle cut homemade potato chips). She ordered it medium rare (which the server appreciated and found adorable… as they always do if they’re serious about food and find a just-barely-seven-year-old girl ordering her beef medium rare). For us five, the cut-through of the burger or steak is always the “moment of truth” to see if the kitchen knows what they’re doing. They did! It was cooked perfectly to Meera’s liking. And it was delicious. And those”gaufrettes”?! Meera said this, “Mommy, write this down! These chips are OFF THE HINGES!” Owen had the pappardelle with chantrelles, cherry and cream. This was the only dish of the night that was disappointing. Owen thought it wasn’t creamy enough or flavorful enough. I agreed. (Note: every bite was gone nonetheless.) I had grilled swordfish (with roasted eggplant, tomato, lavender, honey), which was delicious, perfectly portioned and only just a tiny bit over-cooked. Braydon and Kyle both got pizza, which, as it turned out, was the food highlight of the night. Old Bull does wood fired, thin crust, pizza — and it is so good (when the bambinos eat every bite of the crust, you know it is good). Kyle got the house-made mozzarella, tomato, and basil. Braydon got the applewood smoked bacon, sweet onions, gruyere, and creme fraiche. They were both to die for. The only critique comes from Braydon who says the pizza was a little too oily. I agree, but also know that there’s not much that can be done about that when cooking pizzas at such high heat with such high quality cheeses.
FAMILY FRIENDLY: The Old Bull Tavern is definitely not catering to kids, but is definitely warmly embracing to them. I’d say that if your kids are well-mannered and have some experience with fine dining, this is the perfect choice in Beaufort for a family who can appreciate together a serious foodie establishment with high-end food. But there is definitely no kids menu here, and last night the bambinos were the only three people in the place (which was packed, by the way) who were under 20. The restaurant is located right in downtown Beaufort, within easy walking distance of the waterfront park, playground, and a nice ice cream shop. We enjoyed all three after our meal!
FINAL COMMENTS: “Get the pizza!” (K & O). “Get the burger!” (M). “Don’t eat the habenero in the Purgatory drink!” (says Owen, who loves experimenting with food and didn’t hesitate to eat the fresh habenero garnish out of Braydon’s cocktail. Which, upon eating, he exclaimed made him feel like he “got a sunburn and his skin was peeling off” LOL!) Overall the entire experience between the haute-cuisine-holy-trinity of atmosphere-service-and-food was consistent and consistently good. Again, I want to reiterate my love and appreciation for a restaurant that can craft truly creative, high quality, top-notch food and drink, but do it in an unpretentious and welcoming way. The Old Bull Tavern is hitting on all cylinders. And they’re incorporating seasonal, locally sourced ingredients — which makes it an especially knock-it-out-of-the-park foodie gem — right in the center of Beaufort. Thanks to the folks at Old Bull for a great night out for our family!
I hope we’ll always have this, Owen and me. My live-life-to-the-fullest-100%-of-the-time, FUN-LOVING-as-his-essence son. He can’t wait to be able to drive the golf cart (legal age = 16; it’s gonna be a long wait). Until then, he’s taking selfies of him and his mom from the front seat as we drive back from the pool. Love him so, so, so, so, so, so inarticulately much!
And then, during July, I glide. I use this month to recharge, relax, rejuvenate myself, and to reinvigorate my relationships with my three kids. I deal with work-related stuff that absolutely cannot wait, and I respond to email (for the most part), and I maintain a bare minimum of getting by with my career. But I don’t do anything major in terms of my work.
This isn’t easy for me psychologically/emotionally; it has been a big challenge to my psyche to learn to do this for July. If I’m honest, I’ll admit: it is hard for me to know that I am gliding for this month while my peers are putting the pedal to the metal, head down in their books, sitting at their computers, in their offices, pushing out the publications, and crushing me with their lists of summer-time-achievements. Summer is crunch time for academics. It is publish or perish. And it is hard for me to know that I’m not keeping up with the real go-getters.
But a few years ago I came to the realization that I’d rather perish than miss out on this precious time with my bambinos. Oh, and there is also the little fact that we do live on campus (and thus, justifiably, all deserve and need some true R&R and time away). And, dang nab it, for real, I have worked my butt off for 20 years to be able to take this time in July. So, I work really, really, really hard all year to carve out and protect the month of July for my precious three. It’s become almost sacred for me. This is one of the beautiful things about tenure’s flexibility: the ability to choose how and when to spend work-related time.
Braydon, however, doesn’t have quite so much flexibility. He doesn’t have tenure. And he works a lot. Owning and running a business means a lot of flexibility, but he cannot take very much time truly off. Luckily, he’s pretty mobile with his work. So, he comes to South Carolina. But he’s working most Mondays through Fridays.
Yesterday the bambinos and me spent a good chunk of our day fishing off the Hunting Island Pier. One of Kyle and Owen’s favorite activities in SC is ocean fishing. And if truth be told, Meera pretty much loves it too.
I have learned that squid is the best bait. I’ve learned how to bait the squid on a big ocean-fishing-hook. I’ve learned the right size weight to use on the lines, and the right weight line to use on the poles. And I’ve learned that our catch (or lack thereof) is not important whatsoever.
Yesterday was a great example of why July has become so precious to me. So, there we were. Fishing off the pier. And a big pod of dolphins showed up swimming, playing, and feeding within just feet of us. We could hear them coming up for air, blowing through their blow holes, and flapping their tail fins smacking the water.
My three had their lines in the water, the day was gorgeous, I’m watching dolphins play all around us. And I’m thinking, “Nothing could be finer, than summer in South Carolina.” Suddenly, all my peers holed up in their offices on their campuses don’t seem to matter so much. Suddenly, it is crystal clear that this is the whole thing: this right here, the sun, the salt, the sitting there waiting for fish to bite, the time to just soak it up and see my children see all this.
I tried to take photos with my iPhone, but it was pretty useless — there was no way to capture the life and playfulness of those dolphins. There was no way to actually capture any of the fishing with dolphins.
Honestly, the work matters. It really does. I’m fortunate to have a career that I believe in, that I’m passionate about, that matters in the grand scheme of things. It’s important stuff, that work that I do. But it is also important to have this time. In so many ways. And this time is what makes the rest of it possible.
And so. For now. I’m spending July in this crazy remote location, almost off the grid, almost about as back to basics as it can get. And my fingers are smelling like raw squid, and my hair is getting bleached out from the salt and sun, and my skin gets darker by the day despite my layers of SPF 30. And there is sand and salt everywhere. My office back on campus is just as I left it, and pretty much vacant. Although come September I’ll be full throttle at work again. And, for now, I’m right there with my bambinos, fishing with dolphins. Catching nothing, getting everything.