Hemingway's Bistro of Beaufort, South Carolina
Wandering under giant live oak trees draped thickly with Spanish Moss and by picture-perfect Antebellum homes, one can quickly forget their place in time. Horse-drawn carriages clamper by as shrimp boats full of the days catch troll in. This is downtown Beaufort, SC, a quirky mix of local hang, Marine family mecca and retiree haunt.
Beyond the historic sights and odd juxtaposition of people lies one of the best damn bars I've ever stumbled out of though - Hemingway’s. Named for the writer and fittingly, another reminder to never judge a book by its cover.
Half a decade old, and jammed into the second oldest building on the water facing Bay Street, one could easily miss it, tucked behind Palmetto trees and overshadowed by neighboring restaurant's umbrellas. Passing by would be folly though - Hemingway’s is a bar to be sought out.
The pre-civil war building is an imposing three stories of brick, with handsome sandstone columns holding up multiple levels of balconies. It’s one of the only remaining buildings on the main strip, surviving both Sherman raising the South during the Civil War and the fire of the early 1900’ that ravaged Beaufort. The building's easy to find, but to find Hemingway’s, one needs to look. A few tiny signs point back, but even those seem to make it even more perfectly secret.
It’s the type of place its owners Lea & Anida Foster say Papa (Hemingway) would be sure to drink at if he happened through town. It's the meeting spot locals go to get the news, unwind, and toss back a beer or 12. Restaurant workers, chefs, store clerks and other downtown residents fill it to the (low) rafters on shift change. As the sun descends from the sky, the patio and tiny bar come alive, fizzling with energy as locals and tourist alike pour in. Jello shot's, draft beers and whiskeys are the drinks of choice here. Sunday brunch's drink might be their most famous, with exquisitely strong bloodies of all kinds. Frogmore stew (sausage, corn, shrimp, tomato), caviar and goat cheese, and pizza are just a few of the funky Bloody Mary concoctions that Hemingway’s doles out on a regular basis. They also serve some of the best damn She-Crab soup, Muffaletta Sandwiches and Cubans around.
Opened by John Casanova III in 1993, whom the stories say was a real renaissance man with a fervent vision - to transform the old dilapidated storage space of this ancient building into one of the best taverns on the coast. Snug ceilings, catacomb-like passages for extra seating, and a handsomely built wooden bar that would be utterly at home on a sailboat greedily great you when you enter. Almost demanding you knock back a drink. The small bar fits about 7 people, with 8-9 taps of local craft and domestic. Various spirits fill out the wall - nothing fancy, just good honest drinks at rock bottom prices (the cheapest in town!). Dollar bills are pinned up all around, from seemingly everyone that has stopped through. The denominations got so thick at one point the fire depart said they need to take them down, so now they donate them to charity every few years and start anew.
Memorabilia from the South and the Marines training station on Parris Island offset the white painted brick walls. Bookshelves and boardgames are scattered about filling in nooks and crannies. A dartboard is placed prominently upfront across the path in. Regular know to ask when coming through, and amazingly, no one's been hit in all their years of business.
John met the current owners, The Fosters, a dozen years before he decided to open Hemingways. He was selling his 71’ sailboat, and as luck would have it, the Fosters were retiring from a career in gaming and programming that saw them come from Australia to Vegas, to Chicago and back. They purchased the boat and cruised all along the Eastern Seaboard for near 14 years. They were in need of new wooden seating for the aft of the ship and decided to sail up to Beaufort to have John build it (who they became close friends with over their years cruising).
As luck would have it John had just opened Hemingways two and a half years earlier and was in need of help to keep it afloat. The Fosters started tending bar, planning only to stay six months. They ended up buying the bar, selling the boat and putting down their cruising life to enjoy the town and bar’s patrons.
Things have stayed close to the same since then, with a few notable additions. Hemingway’s has a rule that they never close. They were open during the recent hurricane Irma, while every surrounding island was evacuated and nearby business shuttered. Locals that stuck it out and came in to drink, wading through the 7” of standing water to grab a pint. The owner of the local sporting goods store paddled boarded in to grab a beer - it’s just that type of place.
Every Christmas and Thanksgiving Hemingway’s puts on a Orphans and Rascals celebration, hosting a free buffet of food for everyone that comes in. Just pay for drinks and have a good time. It’s a throwback to the Foster's days on the boat, where there was always someone that let them come from the cold for a meal, some great conversation, and a drink. It’s their payback for all the hospitality they were greeted with on their travels, and a way to keep the tradition alive.
Hemingways is now a Beaufort icon, and their ownership philosophy tends to swing towards, if it ain't broke, don’t fix it. With that and one too many beers, I’m signing off. We hope you love it and stop and in when you happen through town and tell them Bottom of the Well sent you. Hemingways is genuinely a nice place if you can find it.
- The Roadrunner