When you step into Ernie’s, check your need for white cloth napkins and interior design at the door.
Like grandma’s house on Sunday after church, there is always a plate waiting for you.
It may be filled with lima beans or okra soup over rice, fried chicken or fish, steamed cabbage, ox tail, mac and cheese, corn bread, bread pudding and sweet tea.
In this place with eclectic furnishing, everyone is treated like family, no matter who you are, owners say.
It’s the down-home kind of place Ernie Kinloch had in mind when he opened the restaurant nearly 40 years ago.
Kinloch, a Huger native, bought the Spring Street restaurant from Jack Keith in 1977. There were only a few soul food places back then, Brooks Motel among them.
The black-owned motel, which has closed, had long provided African-Americans a place to stay and dine during segregation when white-owned establishments were off-limits.
Martin Luther King Jr. stayed there at one time.
Now Kinloch’s family-run 64 Spring St. business serves upwards of 200 people most days. Its takeout business is popular.
Customers come from MUSC, the VA hospital, Franklin C. Fetter, College of Charleston. But people from off are finding it, too. A Maryland woman flies here twice a month, calling in her order for Hoppin’ John a day ahead.
Family members call her “The Baltimore Lady.”
Recently, the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival included Ernie’s on its soul food tour.
“This place was packed,” nephew Antuan Kinloch said. “We were so busy, I was second guessing myself whether we should have done this.”
Several other restaurants were on the tour: Charlie Brown’s Seafood for Jacksonville crab; Bertha’s Kitchen in North Charleston for mac and cheese, turkey perlou and bread pudding; and Hannibal’s downtown for crab and shrimp perlou and local shellfish stew.
After last year’s tour at Ernie’s, Antuan Kinloch said a woman in her early 60s came back to celebrate her birthday. “We don’t do birthdays in here,” he said. However, “We sang ‘Happy Birthday,’ clapping like they do at Applebee’s and using bread pudding for cake,” he said.
“I can’t make this stuff up.”
Despite the name, Ernie is not the man behind the good food taste at Ernie’s; it’s his four sisters — Ida Gadsden, Essie Bryan, Henrietta Kinloch and Linda Kinloch, Antuan’s mom — who do most of the cooking. Another sister, Mariah Williams, who is deceased, and cousin Beatrice Jenkins also were cooks.
Antuan, also a cook, said his uncle Ernie was never a cook. “He is a taster,” he teased. So is his other uncle, Norman Kinloch. “He can’t cook either.”
Ernie Kinloch, who owns a contracting business, says he makes a point of staying out of the kitchen, watching his weight, he says in jest.
His thought was to have a traditional restaurant where every day would be like Sunday — great food, good conversation — where everybody is like family.
His wish came true.
Reach Assistant Features Editor Shirley A. Greene at 937-5555.