One can hardly call themselves a Charlestonian without celebrating a birthday or anniversary at Robert's of Charleston. Some people have celebrated every special occasion there for the past 33 years. It has that sort of appeal. Over the years, the little dining room with the best show in town has put on the ritz for thousands of diners, but at the close of this year's Spoleto season, that run will come to an end.
In 1976, chef and natural-born entertainer Robert Dickson opened a dinner theater with a simple concept. He would cook world-class food and sing for his dinner guests. Over the years, there have been location changes and, in later years, tough times when Robert couldn't regularly perform. But for the most part, little has changed since the original show took to the dining room floor. From a small spot on the Market, he launched a concept so original and distinctive that no one in town has even attempted to copy it, so successful that he stands among the most legendary of Charleston's restaurateurs.
Five years ago, Robert almost closed the place for good. With a new lease needing to be finalized he considered retirement, but then his daughter MariElena and her husband Joseph Raya relocated from Palm Beach to run the front and back of the house operations, and the music continued.
Over the years, the experience has always remained one of the most endearing in town. A soft piano in the corner greets you as you arrive for the seating between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m., the wine flows freely, and everyone sits down to dinner. Plates emerge in a multi-course feast, showcasing MariElena's considerable talents at the stove. It's as if you've wandered into an elaborate dinner party, with expert cuisine and world class wines.
For that reason alone, dinner there has become a rite of passage, one of the pleasures that both locals and visitors should experience. But Robert's is not just about food. The music makes it a distinctive experience — the dinner theater at its finest — beginning with the first glimpse of the rotund baritone as he parts the curtains and belts out the opening bars of his signature tune: "Food, Glorious Food!" It's always a rousing introduction to dinner, and encores follow between courses, often with guests or other accompaniment. You will hear the classics, from operatic arias to jazz standards from the 1940s. I once got to hear "Old Man River" by special request, just before a smoky Sinatra tune.
After all this time, the show never gets old. We always look forward to our next trip, to the people that we will meet sitting beside us and their stories of past dinners, to the anniversary or birthday that has never failed to grace the house and be blessed with a special, personalized song. When Robert leaves, there will certainly be a blank in Charleston's dining scene, one that will not be easily filled.
While Robert may be closing the shop, he will continue to sing. He often does events, and I expect he could make an appearance or two at future Wine + Food festivals, or even Spoleto — what a treat that would be — but the weekly grind of the show can't go on forever, and it can't operate without the man who dreamed big so long ago.
"We couldn't even imagine running it without Robert," says Joe. "It just wouldn't be the same experience. He's such a vibrant personality. We were not going to continue Robert's without Robert."
But Joe and MariElena Raya have their own future plans. First, they will continue teaching at the Art Institute, helping run its emerging student-driven restaurant effort. Then, they plan to strike out on their own with a new venture. They're tight-lipped about their plans, preferring to "think things over for awhile and decide what would be best for us to do" — but we can be sure that their ambition and talent will lead them to open another restaurant.
If it's anything like Robert's, we will look forward to a long run of memorable evenings.