While the term designates a campsite ideal for anglers throughout much of the Palmetto State, “fish camp” for upstate South Carolinians refers to a family-style seafood restaurant serving reasonably priced dinners to a local clientele. Fish camps differ from the calabash restaurants of the coast in that they serve both salt and freshwater seafood, and from more upscale seafood restaurants in their prices and decor, which frequently consists of uncovered wooden tables, ladder-back chairs, and walls decorated with taxidermic fish. With strong ties to the tradition of community fish fries, the restaurants prepare fish (usually flounder and catfish) deep-fried in a cornmeal-based coating. Menus are augmented with additional offerings such as deviled crab, shrimp, and oysters, and all come with hush puppies, fries, and coleslaw on the side. A few fish camps, such as Old MacDonald’s in North Augusta, offer a lowcountry boil or a side of grits, an apparent nod to lowcountry culinary traditions.
Generally, fish camps are located near rivers or lakes, such as the Little River Fish Camp in Saluda and the Lake Wylie Fish Camp in York County. The earliest were established along the Catawba River in South and North Carolina in the 1930s and 1940s and began as sheds where anglers could fry their fresh catches. And while most restaurants purchase their fish from seafood wholesalers and farms, fish camps continue to be found along waterways.
Catering to a loyal, local clientele, many fish camps serve as gathering places, hosting local club meetings and family celebrations and providing many patrons with a regular opportunity to gossip, talk politics, and discuss current events. Politicians have apparently recognized the importance of these restaurants to their constituents and regularly make formal or informal visits. During the 2000 election, the Catawba Fish Camp in Fort Lawn was a key campaign stop for then-candidate George W. Bush, and in 2002 the same fish camp hosted a campaign rally for Democratic governor Jim Hodges. Other popular fish camps include Tall Tales and Wagon Wheel in Cowpens, the Roebuck and Pioneer restaurants of Spartanburg County, Bailey’s in Blacksburg, and Wateree in Pageland.
Edge, John T. Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover’s Companion to the South. Athens, Ga.: Hill Street, 2000.