Recently, I made a trek to West Ashley to dine at S&S Cafeteria, a place that plays to my nostalgia. Once upon a time, you could find three or four cafeterias in any little Southern city, from Morrison's and Piccadilly to K&W and the good old S&S, which is the last one standing in this area. Cafeterias are dying off across the region.
These no-frills places with their lunchroom trays, glasses of sweet tea and soft dinner rolls have always been reliable stops for classic Southern "vegetables" (mac-and-cheese, squash casserole, greens, slaw) along with hard-to-find dishes such as liver and onions.
As I slid my tray along, I had a difficult time choosing what to get. Everything always looks appealing in that down-home sort of way, and I tend to grab too many treats. It seems unfair that they put the slices of pie and bowls of cobbler right at the beginning, doesn't it? I loaded up on Ambrosia (oranges, pineapples, pecans, coconut) and a piece of coconut pie before having to pick an entree. The pressure feels intense when the guy asks you what you'll be having. The fried chicken looks good, but ooh, that guy's getting the country fried steak with gravy and then there's baked chicken, always a solid choice.
A man a few trays ahead of me ordered the beef stew, which looked really good. Could it actually be good? I had to try it — over rice, of course. I got squash casserole and some too-sweet turnip greens with a soft roll and a sweet tea. It was way too much food and I didn't clean my plate, but it was a great lunch for not that much money, and it brought a ton of memories flooding back of family moments, like going with my grandparents to Piccadilly or stopping at Morrison's with my mom for a quick veggie plate.
I asked readers how they felt about S&S Cafeteria or cafeterias in general, and they eagerly shared stories and family traditions. Plenty wanted to remember Robertson's Cafeteria, which seems to have been a beloved place for locals that closed down back in the early 1990s.
At S&S Cafeteria on Sam Rittenberg all are welcome, but that wasn't the case during the Jim Crow South. Robertson's didn't serve black patrons until 1964, an era when sit-ins at lunch counters and cafeterias across the South helped force change. It's interesting to dine there today and realize that S&S Cafeteria might qualify as the most diverse dining room in Charleston.
"The subject would not be complete without a mention of the former Robertson's Cafeteria on Wentworth Street. When my brothers and I were toddlers to pre-teens in the late '60s and early '70s, just about every Sunday our family would leave our home West of the Ashley and head to Bethel Church on Pitt Street. Keeping still in church three rambunctious boys was made easier by the promise of after-church dinner at Robertson's. The chocolate pie covered with whipped cream made a bit crusty by sitting on the line, the skipped-by-the-brothers salad selection, the heavily-breaded fried chicken, paper-thin slices of rare roast beef, salty vegetables wilted from sitting on the line, and an assortment of bread we never saw at home were all wonderful to us then. Growing up West Ashley as we did, we made very few trips downtown and they consisted pretty much of church, Max's Men Store to replace the outgrown blue blazer, or Robertson's Cafeteria, which to us at the time, was the finest meal in town!" — David Schools
"Robertson's was always my favorite place to go as a child with my grandparents. Everything was delicious. Fried chicken, red rice, macaroni and cheese, carrot salad, potato boats covered in cheese, green beans, fried okra, fried eggplant, fried squash, fresh desserts and my absolute favorite Honey Bran Muffins. I've tried to find a recipe for them and tried store-bought mixes, but nothing comes close. I always wish someone was still around that had those old recipes. I still miss Robertson's and those muffins." — Julia D. Jones
"Robertson's Cafeteria in West Ashley served excellent fresh seafood dishes before the oceans were depleted!" — Philip Bardin
"When I went to work on Broad Street after I graduated from Bishop England (class of 1963), I would meet my mom at Robertson's Cafeteria for lunch (she worked on Broad Street, as well). Back then, that was where almost everyone ate lunch if you ate out. Then, when they moved to St. Andrews shopping center, we would go over on Sundays for dinner. I absolutely love cafeteria food and it so good when you have kids, because everyone can get what they want. My dad, who just passed away in January, loved to eat at S&S. His sister would pick him up on Sunday when she got out of church and they would go over there to eat. They did this for several years, until about a year ago. Lots and lots of memories in the cafeterias, but I guess it's not really the most healthy food in the world, but it is really good comfort food!" — Beth Tuk
Easier way of life
"Oh, boy. Does S&S bring back fond memories of my childhood. Yeah, we had one downtown in Daytona Beach during the '50s and '60s. Being a young boy of 5 to 10 years old, I would wait with my brothers and sisters for my dad to come home before being rounded up in the family station wagon (a woody Ford) for a dinner at S&S. The seven of us would grab a tray for the long march down the food line. And yes, there was my favorite chocolate pudding at the first stop. Next came the soft Parker House roll and pad of butter. I already knew that the carved roast beef stop would halt my forward progress, complete with au jus accompaniment. Mashed potatoes, gravy and green beans fulfilled my request list for big plate hunger. At the end of the line were the assortment of drinks. No self-respecting kid would pass up a chocolate milk or one of the multi-colored drinks in tall glasses. My beverage of choice was always the grape drink. The crowning glory of that whole culinary experience was the collection of smiling waiters dressed in black pants and crisp white linen jackets with silver numbered badges affixed to their spotless lapels anxiously waiting to scoop up the overflowing trays and escort you to a table for the family feast. Life was so easy back then for a child to enjoy. S&S was a dynamic part of growing up with manners and social involvement." — David P. Coley
Veggies at Morrison's
"Morrison’s Cafeteria, first on King Street and then on Wentworth, was where I learned to love vegetables. No parent prodding or adult involvement was needed to entice me to try their wide array of choices. Ladies, I think in uniform, were all always encapsulated by hairnets to ensure the sanitary conditions of their charge. I was tempted by most of their assortment and learned to try things not offered in my home (certainly not all at one seating). All of these tastings were done with friends or alone if I so choose. I also got there on a city bus, unafraid of my surroundings or fellow Charlestonians. It was another time and place to live in Charleston." — Ruth Kahn Wurtzel
"My wife, Mary, and I had our first anniversary dinner at Morrison's in Cleveland, Tenn. That was 41 years ago. Wonderful food and a great place just to eat and relax. All gone now, including the mall where Morrison's was located." — Tony Carter
"My grandparents had become seasoned seniors at the age of 94 and 89. They enjoyed having a daily meal from Morrison's because of the choices. I miss Piccadilly and Morrison's. Cafeterias are truly missed. The good ole pies, veggies and mac-and-cheese." — Olivette Peterson
S&S part of family
"My office, Parkwood Pediatrics, was close enough to S&S that I often went there for Sunday lunch when I was on call and seeing patients. Delicious food, great red rice. Occasionally go to the S&S on Greenville since I moved to the N.C. mountains. I still mourn the passing of Robertson’s Cafeteria." — Billy O'Dell
"I am a true Charlestonian, born and raised downtown and then West Ashley. I've not lived there since 1983, but I come several times a year. I am now living in Minneapolis, Minn. My family members are all still there, but when I come to town, S&S is always on the list. The problem is I want everything! Liver and onions over rice with some green beans is tops! The red rice, macaroni, dressing and gravy and the fish are all the other favorites." — Kelly Robinson
"My parents, who are in their 70s, still stop by S&S every once in a while. As a child growing up on James Island and in North Charleston, we frequented all the places you mentioned. My favorite was Piccadilly because they had the best macaroni and cheese in Charleston. The ladies behind the line knew what my mother always wanted, watched me grow up and followed up with my mom about how I was doing when I went to college. The manager knew us by name. S&S was where I first tried liver and onions and actually liked it. Morrison's was less than 3 miles from my house while in high school and was a quick stop for dinner if we had any after-school activities. I really miss them all. My parents, brother and I have so many memories of family-filled dinners after church. I would love to be able to do the same with my husband and children. Newer places like Golden Corral are not the same. I am still looking for that mac-and-cheese!" — Faith Lawrence Polkey
"I wish there were more cafeterias around. They are great for portion-controlled meals, and are reasonably priced. As a baby boomer, I get nostalgic for the good old days when dining at S&S; it's like stepping back in time!" — Jennifer Wolfe
"My 88-year-old mother was in town recently for our son's wedding. We wanted to take her to trendy Leon's. We ended up going to the Park Cafe because it was quieter, but she was saying, 'Isn't there a cafeteria around here?' She would have been right at home at S&S. We didn't think of it. Thanks for giving it a thumbs up. Maybe the next time she's here, we'll zip on over." — Joy Hunter
"S&S Cafeteria has always been a favorite with my family. We like to order some side items at holidays to help lessen the load of cooking. We vote S&S as No. 1." — Roberta Banks
"What a great way to spend a Sunday morning after church with my wife Katherine and my two daughters, Sarah and Leah. Everyone could get exactly what they wanted at a reasonable price. We were able to all sit together and spend time teaching table manners and enjoying each other’s company without the concern of cooking and cleaning. The food was always good. We would see other friends and families eating there and had a brief chance to say hello. Now this was between 15 and 20 years ago, mind you, but recently I popped in for a quick bite and thankfully nothing much has changed. Thank goodness for restaurants that can stand the test of time. Hopefully, it will continue for another 20 years and more families can make the same fond memories!" — Brandon Guest
"My family and I would go there (to S&S) every Sunday after church. We always tried to sit in Emmy's section. We did this for over 10 years until my parents' circumstances changed, as did ours, and we all moved away. Whenever we are in that area, we always try to go there to see all the people from years ago. I love that place, not only for the food but for the wonderful people that worked there." — Mellanie Deer Holmes