Dining on Shem Creek has become so popular that eaters who tried to book a table at newcomer Tavern & Table during Charleston Restaurant Week were forced to choose between openings before 6 p.m. and after 8:30 p.m., and weekend night pickings were even slimmer.
Prior to the 1960s, though, Shem Creek was more strongly associated with work than play. When shrimping was still a viable occupation, retail markets were the only venues drawing nonworkers to the docks. “There was not a floating dock there,” Ronnie Boals, one of the creek’s first restaurateurs, in 2005 told The Post and Courier. “On any given day, there were two or three boats abreast from the bridge to the mouth of the creek. There would be 80 to 100 boats in there.”
But in 1960, Walter and Lillian Toler of the 15-year-old Mount Pleasant Seafood decided to take a chance on sit-down waterfront dining. According to Tressy Mellichamp’s “East Cooper: A Maritime Heritage,” Lorelei Seafood Restaurant opened in a structure that previously served as a fishermen’s bunkhouse.
The restaurant’s arrival wasn’t noted in the local press. But it quickly became popular with area residents, who swore by the platters of freshly caught seafood; complimentary cups of Lowcountry fish stew and the crab dip served with crackers.
“It was a great local restaurant,” remembers Patti Culbertson, who’s still trying to track down a recipe for the crab dip. “You always could order a tasty meal.”
While patrons seated at tables covered with red-and-white checkered tablecloths waited for their food to arrive, they could admire Taffy Stratton’s elaborate mural depicting The Song of the Lorelei, a siren who fatally distracted sailors.
The experience of dining at The Lorelei, which was later joined along the creek by restaurants including The Trawler, London’s, R.B.’s and The Barge, was immortalized in Mary Alice Monroe’s 2012 romance “Beach House Memories,” set in the summer of 1974. The book’s heroine, Lovie Rutledge, a married sea turtle enthusiast, meets an attractive biologist for dinner at The Lorelei. Rutledge chooses the restaurant over the Colony House, which she dismisses as stuffy.
“The waitress interrupted them for their order: Caught off guard, Lovie glanced at the menu and quickly decided on her favorite, grilled flounder with collards and sweet-potato fries. Russell went for the classic shrimp-and-grits. Then, because he’d never tasted it before, they both ordered a cup of she-crab soup.”
Apparently, Russell liked it. “I really had a good time tonight,” he tells Lovie before leaning in for a kiss. At 9:30 p.m., the couple-in-the-making is the last party to leave.
Shem Creek’s first restaurants all closed by 10 p.m. “It’s beginning to be more of a place for kids,” Boals said in his 2005 interview. “It’s not a good thing. Kids are going to be kids, and some will be overbearing. They don’t respect the creek.”