Charleston is the South's leading restaurant town, as three years of back-to-back James Beard Awards for Best Chef: Southeast attest, but that's a recent development. New Orleans was renowned for its restaurants a century ago, and the stalwarts from that era, such as Antoine's (1840), Galatoire's (1905), and Arnaud's (1918), are still open today. Charleston, on the other hand, drowsed its way through the New South commercial boom, and elegant Lowcountry meals were found primarily in private homes until well after World War II.
But that doesn't mean that Charleston was completely without restaurants during that time. Some remain only in the memories of older Charlestonians, and others are completely lost to the dust of history, but if you look hard enough, you can find a few traces of those old places on the menus of modern-day establishments.
The first period of restaurant dining in Charleston began around the turn of the 20th century, as wealthy Northern travelers first discovered the city's old romantic charms, and it became something of a winter resort.
"All the tourists," the 1912 New Guide to Modern Charleston declared, "take at least one dinner at the Palace Café." Located at the corner of King and Market streets, the Palace was noted for rice-fed Georgetown duck, which was prepared "a la South Carolina." The Occidental Restaurant, also on Market Street near Meeting, was known for its steaks, fish dinners, oysters, and shrimp and was a favorite haunt of the countryside's few remaining planters when they came into the city. Down the block, Riddock's Arcade catered to "the lady trade," serving oysters and shad from Edisto, wild duck from Georgetown, and quail from the Sea Islands.
Following the local custom, these restaurants served dinner in a single seating around 3 p.m. Many northern visitors, accustomed to smaller meals around noon, had to turn to the Women's Exchange, which operated a tea room on King Street. One such visitor was novelist Henry James, who recorded his meal in The American Scene (1907): "I fantastically feasted here, at my luncheon-table ... on hot chocolate, sandwiches, and 'Lady Baltimore' cake (this last a most delectable compound)."
James' tour guide during his visit was another Northern writer, Owen Wister, who incorporated the Exchange's signature cake into the plot of his bestselling novel Lady Baltimore (1906). Wister's novel touched off a nationwide appetite for the dessert. Newspapers across the country published recipes for the soft, creamy three-layer cake with its unique filling of chopped raisins, figs, and pecans, and it became the craze of the social season at Newport.
The Women's Exchange location was most recently filled by Saks Fifth Avenue, and the early Market Street restaurants are lost to modern memory. Edisto shad and Georgetown duck are nowhere to be found, but you can approximate that era in a somewhat reduced form with a Lady Baltimore cupcake from Sugar Bakeshop (59 Cannon St.). Bill Bowick and David Bouffard are New York transplants, but they did their homework and created a delicious replica ($2.50). The white almond-tinged cake is light and fluffy, and the cupcake tops are cut off so a mixture of figs, raisins, and walnuts soaked in sherry can be layered in. The Lady Baltimore cupcake is only available on Thursdays, making it a rare historic treat.
The first phase of restaurants in Charleston was fairly utilitarian. More elegant fine dining emerged in the second phase, which spanned the 1940s through the 1970s. Curiously, this mode of eating out evolved not out of the antebellum tradition of plantation dining but rather out of the urban world of immigrants and bootlegging. Henry O. Hasselmeyer, a German-born grocer and "retail liquor" salesman, was part of the notorious Blind Tiger ring during Prohibition. Hasselmeyer had arrived in the U.S. in 1886 and by 1900 was running his own grocery store at 54 Market St. In 1932, he opened Henry's Café at that Market Street location, and by the 1950s it had evolved into Henry's Restaurant, a fixture of Charleston fine dining.
Henry's featured she-crab soup and a complimentary relish tray with celery, radish, pickles, and a spicy cheese spread. Its signature entrées included "Beefsteak a La Fenwick," shrimp curry, and a creamy seafood dish with the splendidly local name of "Seafood a la Wando." Damon Lee Fowler, in his New Southern Kitchen cookbook, recalls Henry's waiters in immaculate white jackets and black ties bringing Seafood a la Wando to the table "bubbly and fragrant in a gratin dish and then dexterously scooped onto a cake of fried grits with an enormous silver spoon."
Henry's closed its doors in 1985, but traces of its menu can still be found at more than one Charleston restaurant. The Shem Creek Bar and Grill in Mt. Pleasant is a much more casual and down-to-earth place than the old Henry's, but it offers its own version of Seafood a la Wando. There's no tableside scooping, just a big, white bowl filled with shrimp, scallops, and chunks of white fish and salmon swimming in a thick, salty sherry-cream sauce. A big fried yellow grit cake is submerged in the middle of the sauce, and it's the best part of the dish: solid and chewy, it stands up nicely against the rich saltiness of the cream sauce.
Seafood a la Wando can also be found downtown at Hank's. Owner Hank Holliday has explicitly tried to capture some of the old languid style of Henry's, which is reflected in the restaurant's high ceilings, dark brown wood, and waiters in long white jackets and thin black ties. Hank's version of Seafood a la Wando ($26) is served in a round white bowl with a slice of fried grits sitting like an island amid the rich seafood, which includes fish, shrimp, and scallops chopped into bits and enrobed in a saffron and sherry cream sauce that's dotted with white lump crab, diced red peppers, and green scallions. Another old Henry's dish, Curried Shrimp ($22), is equally rich and sweet: eight sautéed shrimp surround a ball of white rice, which is covered with a sauce that has the heat of curry and plenty of sweetness from coconut, mango chutney, and bananas. Cubes of diced carrots and celery decorate the curry sauce — a throwback to an older time when celery was still considered something of a delicacy.
The old Henry's was a legend, but the undisputed queen of fine dining was Perdita's, which opened at 10 Exchange St. in 1953. Its handwritten menu changed nightly, and while its techniques and ingredients — including plenty of foie gras and truffles — were high French, it took full advantage of local flounder, oysters, scallops, and crab.
Perdita's closed in the 1980s, but its location has been inherited by Carolina's, which carries on the tradition of elegant dining and fresh local seafood. Carolina's not only maintains a few honorary menu items but has also kept the Perdita's Room, a splendorous dining space with big wood columns, white tablecloths, and booths lined with burgundy velvet.
They've also kept a historical dish: Perdita's Fruit de Mer ($34), which is not a cold seafood platter but rather more of a bouillabaisse-like seafood stew, with a hearty selection of shellfish served in a big bowl of thyme-infused broth. Two massive scallops and a generous slice of salmon, all seared a golden brown, lay amid a bed of clams, mussels, shrimp, and yellow fingerling potatoes. Pale green celery leaves — that old exotic touch — garnish the bowl, and two slices of grilled, butter-soaked crostini perch on the rim. The crostini are okay, but I prefer the soft, fresh-baked rolls from the table's bread tray for dipping in the rich, fragrant sauce that's left behind once the seafood is gone.
The sweet decadence of the Lady Baltimore cake and Seafood a la Wando are hallmarks of an earlier era, one that seems quaint and almost overwrought in this age of ultra-fresh, locally sourced ingredients. In Perdita's Fruit de Mer, though, one can see the roots of today's new Charleston cuisine, which takes local ingredients like fresh Atlantic seafood and prepares them with European-inspired techniques. At the same time, it is still a classic dish, one that is perfectly at home amid the old purple velvet of the original Perdita's Room, and it offers a little taste of elegance from a now-lost era.