Take a taste-filled walk down memory lane through some of Charleston’s most beloved 20th-century eateries, from seafood dives to fine dining and everything in between
Cheap beer and local oysters are standard fare at the legendary James Island shack that Jimmy and May Bowen founded in the 1940s —Suzannah Smith Miles
“Eating in Dante’s Inferno” is how New York food critic Alan Rich described his dining experience at Bowens Island in the early 1970s. The shack—which could easily have won a prize for “Worst in Exterior and Interior Design” while proudly displaying its Grade D Health Department rating—took rustic ambience to an extreme. Yet it offered something that couldn’t be found in any other restaurant: oysters prepared the Lowcountry way—steam-roasted over an open fire.
Established in 1946 by Jimmy and May Bowen on their marsh island off the Folly Beach causeway, the original cinder-block building was located alongside a tidal creek with a rickety dock and shrimp boat at the end of a jolting, pot-holed road. By the 1960s, the inside looked like a junk sale gone amok—a cluttered sea of tables and chairs (if you could locate two that matched, you got a free meal), walls covered with graffiti, and a permanent smoky haze hanging just below the ceiling.
To the left was the kitchen, the domain of Mrs. Bowen, who took your order and produced Pabst Blue Ribbon (if they had another beer, we didn’t know it) and paper plates heaped with boiled shrimp caught fresh on the boat outside. Originally, the oysters were cooked in the main room, but at some point the health inspectors decided this was unsanitary, and the Bowens had to build an adjoining space dedicated to oysters.
This was the inferno that had so impressed Alan Rich—a low-ceilinged, longish cubbyhole filled with rows of wooden tables covered with newspapers and dominated by a huge fire pit that was the back wall. Here, the oyster man roasted the salty bivalves, shoveling them hot and steaming in heaps onto your table. It was grand.
Both Jimmy and May have gone to the great oyster banks in the sky, but the restaurant remains an institution, albeit far more presentable due to rebuilding after Hurricane Hugo and a devastating fire in 2006. That year, the Bowens’s grandson, Robert Barber Jr., accepted the James Beard “American Classic” award, wearing a tux and white shrimp boots. Today’s Bowens Island Restaurant, under the helm of fourth-generation Hope Barber McIntosh, may offer imported beers and local drafts, but its rough-and-tumble charm continues, and they still roast oysters the old-fashioned way.
You’ve not lived in the Lowcountry until you've shucked and eaten freshly roasted oysters at Bowen's Island Restaurant. In this video, tag along with oysterman Jamie White to learn his harvesting process, then meet the family behind the institution and its history that spans generations of oystermen, kinship, and darn good food.
Cheap beer and local oysters are standard fare at the legendary James Island shack that Jimmy and May Bowen founded in the 1940s —Suzannah Smith Miles
How to describe The Cavallaro? Think couples two-stepping around the dance floor to “Fly Me to the Moon,” then breaking into a jitterbug to “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” Imagine foursomes dining on lavish steaks, and at a particularly celebratory table, the joyful pop of a Champagne cork.
C.B. “Skeet” Lawrence and Marcus Bloom opened this famed dining and dancing establishment in an Art Deco building on Savannah Highway in 1946—the height of the Big Band era—and named it for Lawrence’s mother’s favorite entertainer, Carmen Cavallaro, the pianist of the Eddy Duchin Band.
For the next five decades, The Cavallaro offered a full night out on the town—a place where you could expect superb service, indulge in a steak dinner, and dance. Over the years, men walked on the moon, and heavy metal music blasted the airways, but The Cavallaro remained unchanged. It was with heartfelt regret that later owner Ryan Condon finally closed the supper club around 1990. The building is now a car dealership, but the memories linger on.
Piggie Park Drive-In
No night of cruising the streets of Charleston was complete without a stop at Melvin Bessinger’s Rutledge Avenue barbecue joint —Suzannah Smith Miles
It’s Saturday night in Charleston, 1961. Dad has given you the keys to his Ford Fairlane, you’ve picked up a few of your friends and tuned the radio to WTMA. Listening to “Hit the Road, Jack,” you do just that. First stop is the new Piggie Park Drive-In on upper Rutledge Avenue, where the Bessingers make the best barbecue in town. You pull into a space, and when the car hop comes to the driver’s window, you order Cokes and Big Joe’s heaping sandwiches of pulled barbecued pork. Man, those sandwiches are good! When WTMA plays “I Like it Like That,” everyone agrees the song could be talking about the barbecue.
When the Piggie Park opened in Charleston, it became instantly popular. On Saturday nights, it was hopping. Joining a steady stream of cruising cars, you head over to The Patio drive-in on Cannon Street, where the DJ from WTMA broadcasts live from the big glass cage on top of the restaurant. As Dion rocks with “Runaround Sue” and Connie Francis croons “Where the Boys Are,” there’s no question about it—they’re here, driving the circuit between the Piggie Park and The Patio. As the Capris sing “There’s a Moon Out Tonight,” you decide to venture West of the Ashley and check out the new Paul Newman movie The Hustler at the Magnolia Drive-in. You spend the entire evening without ever getting out of the car.
And while the Rutledge location closed, nearly 50 years later, you can get a taste of the family’s barbecue legacy at Melvin’s and Bessinger’s on Savannah Highway.
1¾ cups yellow corn meal (plain)
2 Tbs. sugar
3/4 cup self-rising flour
2½ tsp. double acting baking powder
2 Tbs. melted shortening
1 tsp. salt
1 cup milk
Preheat oven to 400°F. Grease pie tin or iron skillet and heat in oven. Sift dry ingredients into a large bowl. Add eggs, melted shortening, and milk all at once. Stir only until all ingredients are wet. Pour batter into heated tin or skillet. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown.
Celia’s Porta Via
As Charleston puzzles over its relative lack of female chefs, this popular Italian bistro stood tall as a successful woman-owned and -operated restaurant —Teresa Taylor
When the dining room was full at 49 Archdale Street, as it often was, Celia’s Porta Via was boisterous and teeming with life. It felt as though one had plopped down at the table of a large Italian family dinner in Queens or the Bronx. The owner and chef was New York native Celia Cerasoli, a single mom, whose daughter (now in her 40s) used to do her homework at the bar. They lived upstairs, “the only way it was possible to run a restaurant,” Cerasoli says.
On one side of the building was the dining room, made warm with family photos. On the other side, deli cases filled with prepared foods tempted customers to elevate their take-home dinners or better yet, indulge in a picnic with house-made bread, fresh mozzarella, and grilled veggies.
At Celia’s, it was nearly impossible to zero in on a signature dish, because so many deserved a standing ovation. An ethereal 25-layer lasagna took top honors, but also high in demand were Pasta Gorgonzola with grapes and Pasta Teodoro, artichoke hearts and capers in marinara sauce over penne. Critics’ picks included creamy risotto Milanese and pasta primavera.
In its day, Celia’s made Charlestonians feel in tune with its international arts festival, Spoleto, matching its spirit in a culinary way. Indeed, the neighborhood bistro was a favorite of Spoleto musicians, some of whom would play for their supper after their stage performances.
Cerasoli had an arts background herself, originally coming to Charleston in 1975 and subsequently joining the Gibbes Museum of Art as curator of collections. Later she sowed the seed for her restaurant with catering, then returned to New York for culinary school.
Family was always at the heart of her cooking, with many of her dishes inspired by her parents and grandparents. She was at the right place and right time for an old city flushed with the new energy of a growing arts and dining scene. And for those craving Celia’s handmade lasagna, caponata, and sugo: you’re in luck. A variety of her prepared dishes and products are available online under the Celia’s of Charleston brand.
The aisles were a gourmand’s paradise, and the gallery upstairs was a perfect place to enjoy a Kosher-prepared, traditional midday dinner —Suzannah Smith Miles
The aroma was the first thing you noticed when you entered Harold’s Cabin on Wentworth Street: the pastrami and smoked sausage scents of a New York deli mixed with the tang of dozens of imported cheeses. Add to that freshly baked bread and a Charleston-style dinner waiting to be eaten. Harold’s Cabin was all of the above—an honest to goodness Jewish delicatessen and specialty-foods store with a restaurant that served, buffet style, the food Charlestonians loved to eat.
In 1954, when Harold Jacobs and his wife, Lillian, moved the neighborhood grocery his parents had founded on Congress Street and transformed it into a gourmet emporium/restaurant, he was catering to two important audiences—the centuries-old Jewish population who had nowhere to purchase Kosher foodstuffs and the downtown Gentile crowd who had nowhere to purchase specialty items, such as smoked oysters and imported cheese. The blending of the two was an immediate success.
One could shop downstairs at the deli and store (the aisles were a gourmand’s paradise, jammed with goods from all over the world) and then go to the upstairs gallery for a traditional, midday dinner with dishes (prepared Kosher) such as Bolognese-baked chicken breast. Jacobs eventually built a small empire around the business with mail-order and catering services.
The original Harold’s Cabin closed in 1964 when Jacobs allied with the Piggly Wiggly stores. For years the name reigned over the grocer’s gourmet foods department, where some of Jacobs’s most enduring concoctions— including his famous Savouré (pronounced sav-o-RAY) cheese, a scrumptious blending of cream cheese, spring onion, poppy seeds, and seasonings—could be purchased. And while those offerings died with the Pig, a new Harold’s Cabin restaurant opened in the original Congress Street location in 2016, giving its namesake a tip of the hat with menu items such as Savouré spread and the Harold & Lillian, a smoked salmon and latke dish.
William Deas, the creator of the now-fabled she-crab soup, was the chef at Everett’s, the first place the public could dine on the divine bisque —Suzannah Smith Miles
In 1952, when Everett Presson built his restaurant and motel on Cannon Street near the Ashley River Bridge, he already had a strong following of customers who had eaten at his Beshear’s Bar & Grill on lower King Street. The new enterprise had an enviable location off Highway 17, ideal for drawing in the steady flow of north-south travelers. Presson had another ace: his chef was William Deas, known jokingly as “Rhett’s Butler” for his tenure with Charleston Mayor Goodwyn Rhett.
While cooking for Rhett, Deas had created a unique crab bisque when he added the orange roe of the female, or “she-crab.” Thus was born Charleston’s famous she-crab soup, and there was no place better to get it than Everett’s, where the creator himself was in the kitchen.
Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (the only day it closed was Christmas), Everett’s was a beehive of local activity. Breakfast and luncheon meetings were held there, and at suppertime people came for Deas’s pan-baked chicken, the meat so tender it fell off the bone, and slices of the luscious coconut cream pie.
Yet Deas’s cooking wasn’t the biggest draw. This credit goes to Romeo, a large, garrulous Mynah bird who happily greeted everyone at the door with a squawking “HELL-oh! HELL-oh!” and piercing wolf whistle. When it came to deciding where to eat, the children in the house often held the final vote: “Let’s go to Everett’s, so we can see Romeo!” Everett Presson Jr., who grew up working in his father’s restaurant, says “that bird sent me to college!
Fort Sumter Hotel
Guests of the Fort Sumter Hotel dined in the elegance of The Flag Room while gazing at the beauty of Charleston Harbor —Suzannah Smith Miles
Opened in 1922 and correctly touted as “Charleston’s only waterfront hotel,” the Fort Sumter Hotel at the foot of King Street was magnificent in its heyday, with white marble floors, white-gloved bellhops, and a grand lobby dominated by a gargantuan mural of the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Many notables stayed at the hotel, perhaps the most notorious being John F. Kennedy who, during his pre-World War II Navy days, purportedly had an affair (gasp!) while lodging there.
A gift shop sold benne wafers and other uniquely Charleston curios, and in the adjoining beauty salon, a stylist named Margaret gave many a local debutante her first professional coif. For cocktails, there was the Pink Coat Room, a low-lit space with toile wallpaper of plantation scenes and prints of hunters on horseback riding to hounds. The city’s favorite pianist, Ralph Wise, entertained while listeners sipped the house special, a Stinger, served in frosted green stemware.
The Flag Room restaurant, located on the Battery side of the hotel, boasted an unmatched view of the harbor and the dock where tourists caught the Grey Line boat to Fort Sumter. The Flag Room was a favored dining spot for downtowners, since it was within walking distance from home and the place for ladies’ luncheons.
Specialties were shrimp in a basket (a baker’s dozen of perfectly fried jumbo shrimp) and Charleston’s perpetual favorite, she-crab soup. This grand hotel had a long run—60 years—before it was converted into condominiums in the 1980s.
Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the tiny Calhoun Street eatery was a home away from home for generations of students —Suzannah Smith Miles
Now that the place where the Goodie House stood on Calhoun Street is a Clean Juice—what can one say? It’s doubtful the person taking your order knows you by name or will ask how you did on your English lit exam. Nor can you get a hamburger just like you want it or the best chocolate pie ever.
For generations of Citadel cadets and College of Charleston students, the Goodie House was home away from home. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it was the place where you went before classes for a quick breakfast and to do that last-minute cramming for a test, where couples in evening clothes ate pancakes and eggs next to a pipe fitter on his way to the graveyard shift at the Navy Yard. It was jammed at lunch with everyone from businessmen to little old ladies to college professors.
The hamburgers were renowned and, as a student at the college in the 1960s recalls, “They had the best hash browns in town. On a study break, the whole dorm went there to get them.” One Charlestonian, talking of her college days in the 1950s, recalls how everyone used to congregate at the Goodie House after a dance. Twenty years later, she returned to college to finish her degree and was back at the Goodie House again. “This took me through the father to the two sons, C.M. and Cliff Williams,” she recalls. “The father I only knew as Mr. Williams, but to watch them work—the generations side-by-side—was a wonder. I hated to see it go.”
When the Goodie House closed in 1997, it was packed to overflowing with those who came to say farewell to the Williams family and to the restaurant that was such a memorable part of their own lives’ passage.
- During Easter and Thanksgiving, the Goodie House would fill some 200 pie orders. The orders had to be capped, as the staff could only bake six pies at a time. However, a lucky few from the waiting list could snag a cancelled pie.
- The most popular pie was the chocolate cream. The Goodie House alos baked banana cream, coconut cream, pecan, and apple.- All recipes were made from scratch, crusts were hand-rolled in the back kitchen, and real whipped cream was the topping. - There were only 12 stools in the restaurant, and customers often complained about how uncomfortable they were. (The owners were fine with that, as they wanted customers to eat and leave, so new customers could come in.)
The Colony House
An old Charleston stalwart became testing grounds for European-style fine dining and ushered in new culinary standards to the city —Teresa Taylor
A downtown hub where politicians courted the home base, maritime folks and civic groups were regulars, and couples raised anniversary toasts, The Colony House was opened in the 1950s by Bill Snipes at 35 Prioleau Street and was as old-Charleston as a three o’clock dinner. Dining here was a formal, special-occasion affair defined by charcoal-grilled beef and seafood.
Yet the old-school grande dame stirred the pot now and then with the latest innovations. The restaurant once boasted radio-controlled service. In the ’60s, waitresses were summoned and dispatched via radios the size of a cigarette pack. When live lobster tanks were faddish, The Colony House had one, too.
In 1976, the business was purchased by Franz Meier, Chris Weihs, and Harry Waddington. The trio brought Culinary Institute of America-trained chef Robert Dickson from Hilton Head to helm the kitchen. When they replaced the old menu with a continental one that emphasized imported dishes, locals roared their disapproval.
Front-of-house partner Meier described the reaction as a “revolution,” and it forced the partners to regroup. They created The Wine Cellar, a restaurant within a restaurant devoted to French cuisine and fine wines. Six courses could be had for a mere $17.50. The partners brought back the old menu in the main dining area—a low-risk solution that paid off. Charlestonians who traveled and had wider dining exposure allowed The Wine Cellar to slowly take off.
For more than a decade, The Colony House continued to be the place for special occasions—locals such as Robert and Susan Rosen got engaged at The Wine Cellar—and drew politicians and celebrities alike. Hollywood’s Jeff and Beau Bridges and their parents were known to visit, as well as Morgan Fairchild and Patrick Swayze. Famed New York Times critic Craig Claiborne gave a thumbs-up to the fish and grits.
Most significantly, The Colony House helped to establish what was called the “European backbone” of Charleston dining. Meier and Weihs later partnered in opening Carolina’s, the first restaurant in the city to have an open kitchen (see Perdita’s, page 123). The two sold The Colony House in 1989 to then-emerging restaurateur Dick Elliott, who saw Charleston’s potential. His instincts proved spot on: one of his early moves was to hire chef Frank Lee, who became one of the city’s leading advocates of featuring Southern foodstuffs in fine dining.
Elliott and David Marconi operated The Colony House until the end of 1993, when they teamed with Lee to open a game-changing restaurant with a tongue-in-cheek moniker, Slightly North of Broad,or S.N.O.B. In 1994, Club Corporation of America became the new owners, rebirthing the venerable Colony House as the members-only Harbour Club.
At Henry’s on the Market, the quiet formality of the dining room was enlivened by the cacophony of people three deep at the bar —Suzannah Smith Miles
Remember Seafood à la Wando—lobster, shrimp, crabmeat, and oysters mixed into a heavenly casserole and served with a great golden-brown brick of grits? How about Flounder à la Gheradi—a huge fish filled with shrimp and crabmeat, topped with bacon and chopped olives, and drizzled with sherry? If your mouth is watering and your eyes are tearing up with memories, then you knew the original Henry’s on Market Street.
You remember the high-ceilinged barroom with its faded monumental photographs of harbor tugs and freighters, the comfortable crush of any given Friday night when it seemed that all of Charleston was congregated three deep around the bar and happily sardined into the booths, everybody talking at the same time. You recall the quiet formality of Henry’s dining room, where impeccable waitstaff placed a starched white napkin in your lap and started you out with a relish tray of crudités and a bread basket filled with homemade biscuits and corn muffins. You knew the hostess Marguerite by name, and she knew yours, and as she escorted you to your table, she asked about your mother, father, children, grandparents, and favorite hunting retriever—all of whom she knew, too.
Established in 1932 by Henry Hasselmeyer, Henry’s was, for more than 50 years, Charleston’s most popular restaurant. (Oh, what we would give for one more taste of their deviled crab!) And more business deals probably went down around its tables and at its bar than at any other place in town. When Henry’s closed on August 31, 1985, even though it was pouring rain and Market Street was under water from a full-moon tide, folks slogged in wearing waders to eat dinner one last time and toast the staff good-bye.
Kitty’s Fine Foods
A true-blue meat-and-three with an eclectic mix of customers —Suzannah Smith Miles
In the same location as the Tattooed Moose’s first outpost on Morrison Drive was a relaxed, down-home, meat-and-three kind of place where everybody from state politicians to truck drivers were diving elbow-to-elbow into superb home cooking.
Started by Neeley Katherine “Miss Kitty” Proctor in the 1960s, Kitty’s Fine Foods was a true diner where a substantial meal was downright cheap and just plain good. There were no pretensions with the food nor the eclectic mix of customers. Service came with a smile, and if you visited more than once, you were treated like a regular. The menu was solid country cooking—hamburger steak or chicken with rice and gravy, mashed potatoes, the best greens in town (the piccalilli sauce was on the table), homemade biscuits, and sweet iced tea.
“You can set your watch by who comes through the door,” said Miss Kitty in 2007, referring to the “coffee club,” a group who gathered for cups of hot joe and conversation at 9:15 every morning. When they grew too numerous to fit at one of Kitty’s tables, one of the members simply built a table large enough in his home workshop and presented it to the restaurant as a gift.
Kitty’s was like that. Good people, good service, and darned good food.
The Atlantic House
For a decade, Edwin “Eddie” S. Taylor served fresh seafood to locals and tourists amid the crash of the waves on Folly Beach —Suzannah Smith Miles
For surfside dining, nothing topped The Atlantic House on Folly Beach. Built on tall pilings, the restaurant wasn’t alongside the beach—it was right on top of it! At high tide, the surf came rolling in beneath you. It was akin to dining on a ship that didn’t travel, that is until the fury of Hurricane Hugo claimed the building in September 1989.
The fact that the house (actually two, as the eatery was converted from side-by-side beach cottages) lasted even that long in such a precarious position was something of a miracle. Back in the 1950s, the two homes were part of a long row of summer cottages on Atlantic Street, which ran parallel to the ocean. By the 1970s, erosion had not only claimed most of the front beach houses, but Atlantic Street was part of the ocean floor. After 1979’s Hurricane David devastated the island with a six-foot surge during high tide, only the two side-by-side cottages remained, now doubly picturesque for their lonely situation on the beach.
Folly Beach restaurateur Edwin “Eddie” S. Taylor—for whom the Folly Beach Pier is named—saw an unsurpassed location for seaside dining. For a decade, his Atlantic House establishment was favored by locals for its seafood and by visitors who likely never forgot the experience of feasting on Eddie’s shrimp creole as the surf roared beneath them.
Far more than a restaurant, the Atlantic House became a symbol of Folly’s past and the island’s individuality and spirit. Of all the buildings taken by Hurricane Hugo, the loss of the Atlantic House perhaps hurt most. It really was the end of an era.
Atlantic House Restaurant Crab Dip
2 cups mayonnaise
2 cups crabmeat
Sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup horseradish
1 cup French dressing, to taste
Mix in a bowl and serve on Captain’s Wafers.
LaBrasca Pizzeria & Spaghetti House
With egg rolls and Chinese lanterns on one side and spaghetti and Chianti on the other, LaBrasca Spaghetti House was an innovative eatery that became a Lowcountry legend —Suzannah Smith Miles
In the 1950s, most Charlestonians had never heard of pizza, their excuse for spaghetti sauce was three cans of water to one can of tomato paste, and an egg roll was something children did on Easter Sunday. Enter the enterprising LaBrasca family, who opened Charleston’s first and only Italian/Cantonese restaurant. You read that correctly—Chianti bottles and red candles in one room, Chinese lanterns and chopsticks in the other.
Everyone loved LaBrasca’s, which was located on the corner of King and Cleveland streets. “My greatest rival in the kitchen was not my mother-in-law but Mama LaBrasca,” recalls one Charlestonian. Her then-newlywed husband, who had Sunday supper there every week when he was growing up, adored Effie “Mama” LaBrasca’s spaghetti sauce. “No matter what I did, I could never please him with spaghetti. It just wasn’t like Mama LaBrasca’s!”
The family was the first to introduce pizza to Charleston, ingeniously creating “Pizza Queens,” wherein LaBrasca cousins paraded down King Street, giving out samples. The family eventually built an empire of restaurants, and, 30 years later, the indomitable Miss Effie was still behind the same cash register that had been at the original store, seating the crowds that now congregated at her popular Mama’s Tea Room on Sullivan’s Island. When Miss Effie died in 1989, just two years shy of 100, Charleston lost a most beloved restaurateur.
LaBrasca‘s Meat Sauce
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic
1½ lbs. ground beef
2 6-oz. cans tomato paste
2 10½-oz. cans tomato purée
3 16-oz. cans tomatoes
25 oz. water
1 Tbs. sugar
Salt & pepper, to taste
Put a little oil in saucepan. Add onion and garlic and braise until golden brown. Add ground beef, tomato paste, tomato purée, tomatoes, and water and mix well. Add one tablespoon of sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil for two hours, stirring now and then. Cook spaghetti when sauce is done. Pour over portions of spaghetti.
The beginning of the city’s European culinary “revolution” —Teresa Taylor
Longtime local restaurateur Franz Meier once described East Bay Street in the late 1970s and early ’80s as looking like “Berlin after the war,” with windows knocked out of buildings and debris inside. Few could envision its future restoration and the restaurant row it would become.
Though less dilapidated, a stretch of Meeting Street behind what would rise as Charleston Place looked pretty scruffy, too, and was home to a hodgepodge of businesses including Star Bargain, the Copa Lounge, some wholesalers, and Marianne—one of the city’s first authentically French restaurants.
Serge Claire opened Marianne in 1977, just a year after Spoleto made its debut in the Holy City, unlocking the doors to an influx of sophisticated and food-savvy visitors that helped launch the city’s restaurant scene. The name “Marianne” was taken from the feminine symbol of the French revolution and the first Republic and, intentional or not, was in sync with Charleston’s unfolding culinary liberation.
In the $9 range, at least in the early years, one could splurge on French classics such as steak au poivre vert or rack of lamb carved table side, a house specialty. Overflowing with cheese, its hearty French onion soup was the rage by 1980, remaining a customer favorite through the years.
There were also more exotic offerings for Charleston at the time, such as veal sweetbreads, mussels marinière, and a spectacular bananas Foster. “The flaming desserts were all done table side,” recalls longtime bartender Joy Gerardi. “The waiter would douse it with rum—and woof!” The French bistro was a popular spot for revelers seeking a late-night meal, whether it be eggs Benedict or Chateaubriand for two.
Originally opening at 219 Meeting Street, Marianne moved to Hasell and Meeting streets in 1982. According to Gerardi, after Claire’s wife passed away in 1995, he hosted one last Bastille Day and then closed the doors shortly thereafter. He sold the building to Sticky Fingers and retired to Florida.
Small, expensive, and elegant, Perdita’s helped start a grand tradition of haute cuisine in Charleston —Suzannah Smith Miles
Walls in rich red brocade, the low light of candles and crystal chandeliers, a gourmet menu that could easily be found in Paris—this was Perdita’s. Opened in 1953 at 10 Exchange Street, Perdita’s was not only Charleston’s premier restaurant of the time, it was one of the finest in the country, winning the prestigious Paris Medal of Honor in 1960. Small, expensive, and elegant, it was a place held aside for special occasions, such as an anniversary or wining and dining important clients.
The handwritten menu changed nightly, and although the dishes were primarily French, with appetizers such as pâté de foie gras and truffles, the kitchen took full advantage of the fresh seafood caught locally. Flounder, oysters, and crabmeat came to the table in fragrant sauces and heavenly papillotes. Charlestonians were introduced for the first time to dishes such as coquille St. Jacques and Chateaubriand.
Legends abound about the restaurant’s Exchange Street history: the building was supposedly a popular bordello during the Revolutionary War. But stories notwithstanding, Perdita’s was legendary in and of itself. And the legend continued as European restaurateurs Franz Meier and Chris Weihs of The Colony House took over the space, opening Carolina’s in 1987 with a young Donald Barickman as executive chef.
Some guests griped about the petite portions, but many loved experiencing the haute cuisine and high style of this acclaimed bastion of all things French —Teresa Taylor
The name of this fine dining establishment seemed squarely aimed at the upper crust of society, but it wasn’t manufactured, instead belonging to its founder, Philippe Million. The dining room that the Frenchman opened at 2 Unity Alley (today’s McCrady’s Tavern), Philippe Million Taverne Historique, was unlike anything Charleston had seen before.
Million was lured to Charleston by Chi Xuan Diep, a French-educated native of Vietnam who taught French at the College of Charleston. Diep also was a patron of the Million family’s Michelin-starred restaurant and hotel in the French Alps, which has roots dating to 1770. Portuguese-born chef José de Anacleto, who trained under Philippe Million in France, was charged with steering the Charleston outpost and subsequently became an owner in 1988.
Most everything about Restaurant Million, as it came to be known, was authentically French. Its menu, the products, the Limoges porcelain, the Aubusson tapestries, even down to the tablecloths. Some guests griped about the petite portions and its formality, but the food, wine list, and service were executed with an intent that brought international acclaim. The restaurant snared a coveted Relais Gourmand distinction from Relais et Chateaux in 1985.
De Anacleto was proud of its exclusive feeling, telling the News & Courier in 1989, “To us, it isn’t the point to be full from eating, satisfaction comes from well-presented food and the experience of the palate. Of course, the surroundings of the meal are important, too.”
Palate-enriching it was: A 1990 ad touted its gossamer fresh foie gras en gelée, coriander-marinated chilled lobster, crusty roulades of rabbit, and duckling salad. Five years later, a local restaurant critic praised a veal chop served on thinly shredded braised leeks, “glorified with aromatic slices of lusty black truffle.”
By 2000, McCrady’s was the flagship of Unity Alley, and Million was no more. De Anacleto and his wife, Su-Chen, left for France after purchasing Hôtel Restaurant Million in Albertville in November 1999, which they still run today. But Million’s footprints remain: Among the chefs who toiled in the kitchen are two deans of Charleston hospitality, Frank Lee and Frank McMahon.
What sticks with Lee is the restaurant’s “extremely high level of professionalism,” where no shortcuts were taken. “Everything was cooked in the moment,” he says, remembering dishes such as a half pigeon wrapped around a log of foie gras.
Regular patron Jane Clary, a retired economics professor at the College of Charleston, recalls the silver cloches being lifted in unison to reveal the remarkable dishes, such as the cauliflower soup nestling an oyster. Even today, she says, “we still don’t have anything like it.”
Many a political or business deal was forged at the Broad Street restaurant, whose owner vowed to serve “the dishes Charlestonians prefer” —Suzannah Smith Miles
When E.H. Robertson opened his cafeteria at 11 Broad Street in 1920, he vowed to “keep high standards and serve the dishes Charlestonians prefer.” For more than 70 years, the Robertson family kept that pledge. Many of the recipes were those E.H.’s mother, Julia Robertson, had brought from her Chesnee Plantation home near Walterboro with a focus on seafood dishes, rice—especially red rice—and fresh local vegetables.
The Broad Street site was a prime location for business and politics. According to family lore, says descendant Bubber Robertson, “Politics were carried on out front while my grandmother cooked over a wood stove.” In the 1950s, the News & Courier even directed their reporters to have lunch there every day so they could gain access to the movers and shakers who frequented the popular cafeteria. Noted one reporter, “It was the closest thing to a London coffeehouse of the 1700s that Charleston would ever see.”
In the early 1960s, Robertson opened a second cafeteria on Wentworth Street between Meeting and King, and having lunch at Robertson’s became de rigueur for a day of shopping. In 1970, the Broad Street cafeteria closed when Robertson’s built a new cafeteria West of the Ashley at the St. Andrews Shopping Center. There would be long lines on Sundays as folks waited to get in after church. Nobody minded. Once inside, there was a huge buffet steaming with fried chicken, crab casserole, shrimp served every way imaginable, and rice with okra and tomatoes. Robertson’s was the next best thing to eating at home, except for the macaroni and cheese, which was better.
Robertson’s Crab Casserole
2 celery ribs, chopped fine
1 medium bell pepper, chopped fine
1 medium onion, chopped fine
Butter or nonstick spray
6 cups evaporated milk
3 cups chicken or shrimp stock
Flour paste for thickening (1 part flour to 2 parts cold water, whisked together)
Salt to taste
Few drops yellow food coloring
1 Tbs. chopped pimiento
1/4 cup real sherry, not cooking sherry
1 lb. claw crabmeat
Grated sharp cheddar cheese for garnish
Pimiento strips for garnish
Preheat the oven to 325°F
Sauté celery, peppers, and onion in butter or oil spray until soft. Set aside.
In a separate pot, combine evaporated milk and chicken or shrimp stock. Bring to a simmer, almost to the boiling point, stirring often. Add the reserved vegetables. Add two to three tablespoons of the flour paste. Cook mixture until slightly thickened. Add salt and the yellow food coloring. Stir in pimiento. Add sherry and stir well.
Remove the pot from the heat and let mixture cool. Divide crabmeat as desired into individual dishes or ramekins, about six to eight ounces in size. Pour milk mixture over crab. Top with sharp cheddar cheese and pimiento. Bake until slightly bubbly and cheese is melted and beginning to brown, about 15 minutes.
Robert’s of Charleston
The restaurants with staying power have personality, and those that don’t can fall as flat as a Florence Foster Jenkins aria. Robert’s of Charleston had it in spades —Teresa Taylor
Chef Robert Dickson first opened his eponymous dining room in 1976 in the Rainbow Market, from the get-go combining two of his considerable talents: operatic singing and haute cuisine. Fittingly, the effervescent Dickson would belt out “Food, glorious food,” from the 1968 Broadway musical Oliver!, in addition to show tunes and opera favorites, as patrons supped on multi-course prix-fixe dinners.
As he worked the dining room, his baritone voice was as enveloping as his rich lobster bisque or Chianti-imbued beef shanks. Robert’s culinary and musical performances continued for more than three decades. He wowed diners with French-inspired dishes, such as scallop mousse and chocolate chestnut torte, executed magnificently first in the Rainbow Market, then the Planter’s Hotel, and finally from the impossibly small kitchen at Robert’s final address at 182 East Bay Street. (Dickson even resorted to enlisting a George Foreman grill from time to time.)
Robert’s of Charleston was a singular dining experience that attracted not only enthusiastic locals but celebrities passing through, such as TV news luminaries Walter Cronkite, Willard Scott, Jane Pauley, and Tom Brokaw. Henry Kissinger dined there; Paul Newman tried but had to be turned away from a full house.
Though the whole operation was a family affair, with his wife Pam running the front of the house, daughter MariElena Raya was the one who followed in his footsteps. Both father and daughter are grads of the Culinary Institute of America. (While a student there in 1961, Robert handily hooked an invitation to cook with Julia Child at her house, and the two later corresponded regularly.)
MariElena and her husband, Joe Raya, wisely allowed Robert’s to become a legacy after he retired, supplanting the restaurant with The Gin Joint in 2010. After all, who would have been able to pull off an encore of the “Singing Chef”?
Watch the video below and experience Charleston’s own singing chef.
Robert’s Mousse of Scallops
Chef’s Note: The panade, or pâte à choux mixture, is the most important ingredient outside of the fresh scallops. Without this puffy paste, the mousse would not rise.
1/2 cup clam juice
3 Tbs. butter
1 tsp. lemon juice
6 Tbs. flour
1/4 tsp. Worcestershire Sauce
2 dashes Tabasco
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. white pepper
1½ cups fresh scallops, bay or sea
3 egg whites
3/4 cup heavy cream
To make the panade:
In a saucepan, boil the clam juice, butter, and lemon juice. Stir in the flour, mixing with a wooden spoon until a small sticky ball is formed. Remove the mixture from the heat and add the eggs, one at a time. Then add the Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco sauce, salt, and white pepper. Set aside.
Grind the scallops in a food processor until fine and pasty. Whip the panade and scallops together with the egg whites and heavy cream in an electric mixer until light and airy, about one to two minutes.
Place in a well-buttered 1½-quart casserole. Bake at 400°F about 25 to 30 minutes, until puffy and firm in the center.
Photographs by (Fire & Graffiti) Cramer Gallimore, (exterior) Jim Brueckner, & (2) Peter Frank Edwards; Photographs by (Plate) Peter Frank Edwards & (2) Cramer Gallimore; Photographs by (Lasagna) Sarah Alsati & courtesy of (4) Celia Cerasoli; Photographs (5) courtesy of special collections, College of Charleston Library; Photographs Courtesy of (Pamphlet) Charleston County Public Library & (William Deas) Everett Presson; Photographs (2) Courtesy of Charleston County Public Library & Postcards (2) courtesy of Russell Douglas; Images courtesy of (Building) Kevin Eberle & (Postcards, map, & menu) Denise Barto; Images courtesy of C.M. Williams; Photographs courtesy of (2) Kitty Proctor & (1) Martha Grant; Photographs & menus courtesy of Edwin S. Taylor; Photographs courtesy of Leonard LaBrasca Jr. & Donna Maria LaBrasca; Photograph courtesy of Historic Charleston Foundation; Photograph by David Seithel; Photographs (3) courtesy of Su-Chen De Anacleto; Images, Clippings, & Menus courtesy of Robert Dickson