Three Jamaican sisters have hung up their nurses' scrubs for a run into the restaurant business.
Sisters Mary Kong-Howes, Lileeth Kong and Donna Kong-Jeffries will embark on a new adventure that harkens back to their native roots on Friday.
The three women bought one of the old Panama houses on the old Navy base last November and have spent the better part of 2010 transforming it into a new Jamaican-Caribbean-style, fine-dining restaurant on the banks of the Cooper River.
The view alone is stunning.
From three private dining rooms and the main dining area upstairs, large windows allow up to 120 guests to peer out at ships passing on the river, children playing in Riverfront Park and large oaks draped with moss.
"It is a stunning, stunning place," Kong-Howes said.
A gas fireplace anchors the central dining hall, where hardwood floors and new lighting accentuate the panoramic views through roll-out windows.
A specially installed lift will carry disabled diners to the second floor, where the kitchen is also located. The owners attached a sprinkler system throughout the facility through exposed pipes because the ceiling and walls are solid concrete.
On the first floor, a specially built bar looks out toward the river and a huge patio has been added near the park side of the restaurant, offering alfresco dining and spectacular views from 150 seats in addition to the 25 or so in the bar.
"We want to be part of the park, not apart from it," Kong-Jeffries said.
"A lot of people come to the park with a brown bag to eat lunch, but there is nothing to eat and drink out here," Kong-Howes said. "It's nice to have a place to enjoy refreshments."
Built in 1937, the historical building's facade could not be altered.
"We had to keep in line with its natural historic properties and maintain the color," Kong-Howes said. "They allowed us to do one or two adjustments to allow more light in."
The trio bought the building from the Noisette Co., the first of four Panama houses in the officers' housing area to be sold. The sisters also leased the building beside it. It's being used for storage temporarily, but if Runaway Bay takes off, they hope to transform the second Panama house into another restaurant.
Live Oak Consultants occupies the Panama house closest to the shipyard, and the one to its left is home to the Michaux Conservancy.
"Despite all the water frontage throughout the Charleston region, there are not that many waterfront restaurants, especially in North Charleston," said Jeff Baxter, Noisette's director of development. "It was important to have an active use there. They can benefit from the park and the views, and the park can benefit from the restaurant."
The sisters aren't exactly new to the restaurant business.
Kong, the main chef, once operated Taste of Jamaica in West Ashley about 15 years ago with another sister, Alexis Kong, who is the registered agent for the new restaurant venture through Kongem LLC.
"My passion is the food," Kong said. "We are bringing the Caribbean to the Lowcountry with authentic cuisine. Once a month we will highlight a different dish from another country."
The restaurant will be open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch and 5:30-10 p.m. for dinner.
Reach Warren Wise at 937-5524.
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