Gerry Godfrey brought all of the recipes for The Oriental Cuisine, Charleston's oldest Filipino restaurant, from her home in the Philippines. But turning those inherited preparations into saleable meals required ingredients that weren't locally available in 1971.
"I remember having our garage packed with noodles," Janet Godfrey says of her mother's highly productive provisioning trips to cities with Filipino groceries. "She traveled to New York and all over."
When The Oriental Cuisine opened, it was one of just two Filipino restaurants in the Charleston area. Many of its customers had no experience with any kind of Asian cooking, so they assumed the food that Godfrey and her sister, Gondi Cherba, served was a fairly good approximation of what the whole continent did with soy sauce, rice vinegar and pork.
"They'd go to Chinese restaurants and ask for lumpia," Godfrey recalls. "We actually have a lot of people who won't go to other places because they started on our sauces and recipes."
Tradition is essential to The Oriental Cuisine, where the newest employee was hired a decade ago. Many of the Sunday regulars, who after church head directly for the buffet of pancit and pepper steak, have been coming to the restaurant for far longer than that.
"It's like a big family," Godfrey says. "Everyone is on a first-name basis."
The Oriental Cuisine has twice relocated, most recently in 2006. With business flagging, the restaurant eliminated its bar and settled into a Rivers Avenue strip mall space with 120 seats. While that's a pretty hefty seat count by downtown standards, the previous Oriental Cuisine was twice the size.
"We've had some hard times, but we're trying," says Godfrey, who frets that the surrounding neighborhood's reputation as crime-ridden has cut into The Oriental Cuisine's dinner traffic. She's now thinking about reviving the restaurant's catering division, or maybe buying a food truck.
When Godfrey retires, her daughter will take over The Oriental Cuisine. She'll use the same recipes supplied by Gerry Godfrey, who at 91 is still a constant presence in the restaurant's dining room.
"My parents are here every day for lunch," Janet Godfrey says proudly. "No one believes she's 91. She gets carded."
What to eat
The best thing at The Oriental Cuisine isn't on the menu: It's the inimitable community feel that's been forged over 43 years in business. So make sure to visit the restaurant at lunchtime, same as everybody else. And follow their lead to the housemade lumpia, filled with sweaty, garlic-rich ground pork and wrapped taut.
One of the mainstays at The Oriental Cuisine is the Pepper Steak, Fried Rice and Lumpia (Egg Rolls) combo. The restaurant has been operating for more than 43 years and is in the third generation of management.×
The Oriental Cuisine is the granddaddy of local Filipino restaurants and has been operating for more than 43 years. Now in the third generation of management the restaurant has become a mainstay in North Charleston for lunch and dinner.×
Sisters Gondi Cherba and Gerry Godfrey opened the Oriental Cuisine together.×
The Oriental Cuisine is the granddaddy of local Filipino restaurants, and has been operating for more than 43 years. Now in the third generation of management, the restaurant has become a mainstay in North Charleston for lunch and dinner.×
One of the mainstays at The Oriental Cuisine is the Sweet and Sour chicken, Fried Rice and Lumpia (Egg Rolls) combo. The restaurant has been operating for more than 43 years and is in the third generation of management.×