Had a Taste of Charleston event existed in 1938, Henry's restaurant, established in 1932, might have been serving Fried Shrimp A la Gomez.
Lobster "dainties" might have been the crowd favorite in the 1950s after Perdita's and the Colony House came on the scene.
The first Taste of Charleston launched on Oct. 16, 1981. By that time, the old guard of Charleston dining gradually was giving way to a new generation of restaurants that was energizing the local food scene. There were more of them in number, for one, and the food and service were reflecting a greater range of styles, from French to Mexican, casual to "gourmet."
At Charles Towne Landing that October Sunday, Marianne was dishing out veal and crepes Suzette, while San Miguel's was passing crabmeat enchiladas and tacos. The Colony House was doing conch fritters.
Fast forward 30 years. The farm-to-table philosophy is in full sway locally and across the country. Many Lowcountry restaurants have embraced the local sourcing of ingredients, so the Taste of Charleston this weekend could live up to its name like never before.
Eating out well in Charleston 75 years ago was more formal and slow, like a waltz. It has ended up, perhaps appropriately, as lively as the "Charleston."
In the past five years, Charleston has boasted three consecutive James Beard Best Chef Southeast winners. Husk was named Best New Restaurant in the country by Bon Appetit just last month. Travel and dining kudos in other national publications are common.
To see how food and dining has changed over time, The Post and Courier sought out old menus from longtime residents. They reveal ingredients that have come and gone, when trends were hot and then not. If there's one constant in the Lowcountry's palate, it's our love of food from the sea.
Menus are signs on local foodways. They show when the city's restaurant industry experienced its French "revolution." They mark the point when Southern cuisine became worthy on white tablecloths.
Era of elegance
Seafood was the backbone of the menu at the old Henry's, which opened at 54 N. Market St. in 1932 and became one of the city's most treasured dining spots.
Among the shellfish listings in the 1930s, oysters were offered nine ways -- raw, stewed, fried, broiled on toast, Creole, Rockefeller, roasted with bacon, scalloped and steamed. Crab could be had au gratin, Creole, Newburg or Imperial style.
Types of fish uncommon today included Spanish mackerel, bluefish, pompano and shad.
House specialties arose in later years, one of which was "a la Gherardi." It was a stuffing that included crab, shrimp, olives and a whisper of sherry.
Henry Shaffer, 81, of Mount Pleasant helped in Henry's kitchen when he was growing up because his dad, Walter, was the manager.
Shaffer once asked about the origin of the dish.
His father laughed and said he named it for a naval officer stationed at the Navy base who ate at Henry's quite often.
Likewise, Chicken A la Clinton -- chicken that was both fried and fricasseed -- was named in honor of a chef who had worked there.
As for "a la Gomez," Shaffer isn't sure. The dish may have had a Spanish influence or been inspired by a person, Shaffer says.
Special occasions defined mid-20th-century dining in Charleston, says Ginny Snipes of Mount Pleasant.
"Back then, there really weren't many restaurants," recalls Snipes, daughter of the late Bill Snipes.
He first established The Sergeant, a lounge within the Sergeant Jasper in the 1950s, later adding The Flag Room as the restaurant. They later became the genesis for one of the city's grande dames of restaurants, the Colony House on Prioleau Street.
"My father thought you should have five steaks a week," says Snipes.
And so it was: Charcoal-grilled prime beef and seafood dominated the Colony House menu. The restaurant also had a lobster tank, fashionable at the time.
Even today, Snipes has no idea about the lobster "dainties."
"They certainly didn't come from our harbor," she says, and Snipes is right -- most likely they were slipper tails, a similar type of crustacean but not true lobsters.
Frankie Webb, 75, of Charleston remembers her first experience at Perdita's, a nationally recognized restaurant at 10 Exchange St. that is now home to Carolina's.
Her future husband, Edward, took her on a date with another couple in 1956. She says the atmosphere was "divine, cozy but not pretentious," and the maitre d' was "courtly." Perdita's was going out in style.
The Fruits de la Mer "was to die for," Webb says. On the platter was baked crabmeat Remick, flounder fillets, roast oysters, lobster dainties and sea squab, the tail of a puffer fish.
Elizabeth Boineau of Charleston fondly recalls the restaurant bastions of old and dinners there into the 1960s and '70s.
"I have wonderful memories of being at Perdita's for my first Pouilly-Fuisse and escargot, maybe a little Chateaubriand. Henry's was our very favorite for Seafood a la Wando, and Chapel Market Place for wonderful dinners, always ending with cherries jubilee, flambeed from the pulpit."
Of course, seafood wasn't exclusive to downtown. Seafood restaurants that catered to tourists and locals alike sprung up across the Ashley and Cooper rivers toward the beaches.
Shem Creek attracted a cluster, including The Trawler, Lorelei and RB's. Folly Road and Folly Beach spawned Adger's Wharf, Bushy's, Andre's, the Sandbar and the Atlantic House, among others.
Cecil Wilson of Charleston waited tables at the Lorelei in the summer of 1984 just as he was starting out as a travel agent.
"People lined up at the door for the heaping platters of the freshest and most delicious seafood. ... As a welcome, each guest was served a piping hot cup of Lowcountry Fish Stew, made with perch. Also, a scoop of fresh crab dip and a basket of crackers went to each table."
It wasn't unusual at that time to sell 40 to 50 boxes (each 100 pounds) of shrimp a day to those restaurants, says Dan Long of Crosby's Seafood.
Now, most of those classic seafood houses don't exist. Long says it's probably a combination of reasons, including the effects of free trade, a shunning of fried foods and the aging of those restaurateurs with no one to replace them.
A wave of change rolled into the city in the mid- to late 1970s, powered by the first Spoleto Festival USA in 1976 and the new people it brought to the city.
"When Spoleto opened, it was like, what is going on?" says Snipes. "It was a nice, quiet town."
Franz Meier, Chris Weihs and Harry Waddington also partnered together to buy the Colony House on Prioleau Street.
The Colony House partners introduced a continental menu that emphasized imported foods, not Lowcountry. Some locals spurned the unfamiliar dishes, and business dropped.
The partners came up with a new strategy: The Wine Cellar. It was a dining room within the Colony House devoted to French cuisine and fine wines, where one might see Feuillete d'Escargots aux Champignons Sauvages (vineyard snails sauteed with wild mushrooms served in puff pastry). A six-course meal was offered for $17.50.
Before long, tres Francais became the new fine dining in Charleston. Marianne opened on Meeting Street, Philippe Million on Unity Alley and the Veranda Room at Wild Dunes.
"There was a big influx of French Nouvelle," says Frank Lee, executive chef of Slightly North of Broad. "That was what everybody was excited about."
But following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, a new sea-change washed through downtown restaurants and their food.
Ex-lawyer and corporate executive Dick Elliott turned restaurateur when he bought the Colony House in about 1990. He kept seeing a young chef unloading fresh vegetables and fish from a truck across the street. Elliott became intrigued.
Chefs gathering their own food was something he had read about, "but here was a guy actually doing it."
That chef was Lee, whom Elliott brought on board two years later. They opened Slightly North of Broad in 1993, about the time, Lee says, that American cuisine "was becoming more legitimate."
Local restaurants had started putting grits on their dinner menus. Bits and pieces of traditional Southern ingredients, such as collards, sweet onions, pecan flour and crawfish, begin keeping company with fettuccine and egg rolls.
"Back in the 1980s, there was no such thing as 'Lowcountry,' " says Steve Kish of 82 Queen, now one of the city's oldest restaurants at a young 29 years. Kish, then a chef and now an owner, was at the first Taste of Charleston.
What unfolded in the mid-1990s, Lee says, is "chefs like myself began taking good technique to regional cuisine." They also started paying attention to seasonality and connecting with farmers.
Kish says 82 Queen saw the writing on the wall. The restaurant's slogan was changed from "Majestic" to "Lowcountry" cuisine.
He remembers when 82 Queen used to have a fair amount of pasta; it's not on the menu at all today. "We have a lot of rice and cornbread."
Local supply also has changed dramatically in the past decade, the chefs say.
"The sweet potato lady, the goat cheese person ... they're coming out of the woodwork," Kish says. "We get calls every day from someone different."
Says Lee, "We still have gobs and gobs of people coming through that back door."
Elliott says the biggest challenge to him as a restaurateur has been the evolving taste of those who live here.
"The reality is, a large portion of our revenue comes from those who don't live here. The two have different desires."
But, "Those who live here are very familiar with the food of the region. They look for some diversity besides what they eat every day."
"It's very constructive tension for chefs," Elliott says.
The upscale diner also has been transformed, says Elliott. They have an appreciation for a higher level of cuisine, but also for service.
"They fully expect our servers to understand the food as well as those who prepare it."
Teresa Taylor is the food editor. Reach her at 937-4886.