We’re always so excited when a new restaurant in Beaufort opens. Like a kid on Christmas morning. We usually wait a while before we visit, however, just so the new hot spot has a chance to get the seasonings exactly right, refine the experience, and work out any opening kinks. Then we like to wait a few months before dishing out our thoughts on the new place, just in case. Well, lucky readers, we’re thrilled to announce that our due diligence is complete, and Beaufort has a new winner on Lady’s Island with Locals Raw Bar.
Located in the old Fuji Restaurant space on Sea Island Parkway in a little shopping center at the corner of Sunset Boulevard, next door to Upper Crust, Locals Raw Bar has been on the tips of lots of tongues (and tastebuds) since opening last summer. And now that we’ve been four times (and counting), we are believers and can’t wait to spread the gospel.
Let’s start with a little background and a sweet love story. Locals Raw Bar chef and co-owner Hunter Cozart moved to Beaufort with his family while he was in the fifth grade, when his father got a job running the PX at Parris Island. Hunter loved food, with one of his earliest memories being cooking up clams with his dad. He knew early on that he wanted to become a chef, despite his parents trying to talk him out of it. “My mom said, ‘You’re going to work late and be around alcoholics and floozy women.’ I said, ‘Count me in!’”
After graduating from high school, Hunter jumped into the industry with both feet, starting out at Royal
Pines Country Club (known today as Lady’s Island Country Club), where he was under the tutelage of Executive Chef Will McLenagan. “He was phenomenal. He really had this knack for cooking, and he ate it up,” recalls Will. “I’d bring him my curriculum books from culinary school, and he ate those up too. His appetite to learn everything about food and his passion of the food—and of the plate—was amazing.”
The love fest was mutual, in that Hunter considers Chef Will his first mentor, teaching him how to build soups and sauces, how to season and how to pair ingredients.
After stints at Brays Island Clubhouse and Foolish Frog (which reunited Hunter with then chef/owner McLenagan), Hunter eventually left Beaufort for The Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, not long after meeting the love of his life, Jessie Rhoades, at Brody’s, where Hunter had gone to have drinks with a friend and Jessie was a server. Having moved to Beaufort as a teenager, Jessie also loved the industry and was on the opening team of Brody’s during her sophomore year in high school.
Within three months of their meeting, Hunter was offered a position at The Hermitage, and he asked Jessie to go with him. These two young kids in love (and in love with the restaurant industry) set up life in Nashville—Hunter as the sous chef, where several chefs yet again took him under their wing, and Jessie as a server, bartender, and more. But they always talked about opening their own restaurant one day. When the Hermitage’s food and beverage director left for The Umstead in Cary, North Carolina in 2018, he encouraged Hunter and Jessie to come with him.
Hunter then worked under famed Executive Chef Steven Greene and Chef de Cuisine Spencer Thomson at the Forbes Five-Star restaurant, Herons, where he continued his education. “Hunter’s strengths are passion and work ethic,” recalls Steven. “He also picked up on techniques and plating quickly and any chance to have creative input, he was always ready to share.”
Meanwhile, Jessie continued as a breakfast and back server for the hotel and then passed her Sommelier Level 1 exam and was promoted to front server for Herons. According to Steven, Jessie had the same drive and passion for the industry as Hunter. “It’s rare to find someone as young as she was to be so equipped in the roots of hospitality,” he says.
But they still talked about opening their own restaurant.
Then the world changed, as Covid arrived in early 2020. Hunter and Jessie stayed on at Herons initially and pivoted their roles, as we all did during that time. As time went on, however, Jessie’s family was going through some challenges and Hunter and Jessie decided to move back to Beaufort to lend a hand. Both got jobs at Dataw Country Club—Hunter as executive sous chef, and Jessie as dining services manager and then director of food and beverage.
Having put their dream of owning a restaurant on the back burner during Covid, they were living in a camper
and working long hours at Dataw. They finally bought a house and just as they were in the middle of a bath renovation, they heard through the grapevine that Fuji Restaurant was closing. They looked at the space and knew that it was their moment. They took all their savings and leased the space in late-2022.
They spent much of early-2023 renovating the space on a budget, reusing lots of things left by the previous owners, painting, upcycling and giving the space a cozy vibe that we love. They hired Dani Mussman from Walla Walla, Washington, where she ran a fried chicken and oyster bar, as their sous chef and collaborated on what their menu would look—and taste—like. They knew they wanted oysters and fried chicken on the menu. And sushi. And steam buns. And lobster rolls. And things that showed off the techniques and hospitality they’d all learned on their journeys.
The resulting (and ever-changing) menu is what Hunter and Jessie say is soulful Japanese–whimsical, different, fun and keeps you guessing. Small plates at lunch and dinner include: oysters on the half shell (usually Single Ladies from Lady’s Island Oyster); luscious she-crab bisque packed with crabmeat; steam buns filled with their Japanese fried chicken or perfectly rendered pork belly; and duck lumpia (currently only on the dinner menu).
Sushi is a huge draw at Locals Raw Bar, with the Instagram-worthy rolls being created by Hunter and the restaurant’s own sushi whisperer, Chris Roberts (son of Frank Roberts of Lady’s Island Oyster fame) and stuffed with tuna, crab, shrimp, flounder, grouper and veggies, topped with a special house sauce.
Big plates stretch from salads (Caesar or ginger) topped with their finger-lickin’ fried chicken, crab meat or
lobster salad to sandwiches like Yellowfin tuna melt, short rib melt, fried chicken sando, lobster roll or lobster grilled cheese. Dinner includes a few more entrees, including a cabbage pancake topped with pork belly, a sunny side-up egg and their house sauce, Mafalda pasta with duck chorizo and clams, shellfish fried rice with crab, shrimp and conch, along with a daily special. If you are feeling particularly adventurous (and hungry), spring for the five-course prix-fixe Chefs Tasting Menu.
Locals Raw Bar just started serving Sunday brunch and we predict it’s going to be a homer. A few highlights include a breakfast Bahn mi with pork belly and soft scrambled eggs, a fried chicken biscuit with sausage gravy, lobster hash and a cabbage pancake, as well as tried-and-trues like bacon, egg and cheese biscuits, biscuits and gravy and shrimp and grits. And did we mention their homemade Bloody Marys, which have been a huge hit with us and many others.
Hunter and Jessie are committed to sourcing as much locally as they can, estimating that 70 percent of their menu is from the region. From seafood from Sweet Tail Shrimp, Lady’s Island Oyster and Maggioni Oyster Company to fresh produce from New Leaf Produce and GrowFood Carolina, and breads from Doughcountry, their daily specials typically feature 100 percent local ingredients. Plus, their desserts are all homemade in-house (don’t miss the peach pecan cheesecake!).
The beverages options are equally entertaining, with sake (including Lucky Dog
served in a kiddie juice box, complete with straw), a stellar beer list (who doesn’t love seeing Miller ponies on a menu?), a perfectly curated wine selection from smaller vineyards (thanks to Jessie’s wine chops) and creative house cocktails, all named after the dogs in Hunter and Jessie’s lives.
In keeping with the fun vibe, you can even score a seat at the kitchen counter (now our fave spot) running the length of the building and watch all the action as Hunter and his staff create their whimsical creations before your very eyes and Chris rolls his spectacular sushi. In addition to half-priced oysters on Sunday and Monday from 5pm-6:30pm, Hunter and Jessie have planned special events like New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day dinners and hope to start offering oyster roasts and happy hours in the courtyard.
Locals Raw Bar is fun, family-friendly, casual and oh-so-delicious. We’re happy to share a tasty new kid on the block.
Locals Raw Bar
97 Sea Island Parkway #202
Beaufort, SC 29907
Open Thursday-Monday 11:00am-4:00pm and 5:00pm-9pm
Beaufort-based travel journalists Lynn and Cele Seldon (www.seldonink.com) often cover culinary travel around the world and Lowcountry Weekly lured them to write a monthly feature covering the local food scene. This includes articles about restaurants, chefs, food-focused stores, farms, farmers, farmers markets, and more. They welcome suggestions for topics.