“Stay away from the City Hall and the County Court House,” Jack Leland’s managing editor told him when he was bumped up to the political beat at The Evening Post. “Do all of your coffee drinking and snacking at Robertson’s. Byar’s Drug Store and the Timrod Inn are all right at times, but if you want to find out what’s really going on, go to Robertson’s.”
For more than 70 years, everyone went to Robertson’s, the state’s first cafeteria. They didn’t all come for hot tips and coffee: Charlestonians were so smitten with the home cooking, fair prices, comfortable ambiance and guarantee of bumping into friends that many customers ate there on a daily basis.
“I might just jump out my window,” regular George C. Evans brooded when he learned of the restaurant’s closing.
Robertson’s first opened in 1914 as a cigar shop and soda fountain. Five years later, Edward Robertson, inspired by a restaurant he’d visited in Cleveland, added a self-service lunch counter to the building at 13 Broad St. Robertson told The News and Courier that “many patrons had been, for some time, suggesting that the company add a cafeteria to its activities.”
Alexander Robertson in 1934 took over his father’s business. He opened a second location on Wentworth Street in 1954, followed in 1970 by a location in the St. Andrew’s Shopping Center. Robertson’s was integrated on July 10, 1964, when two African-American women had lunch at the Wentworth Street cafeteria.
The Robertsons shut down the Broad Street cafeteria in 1971, citing diminishing profit margins. The Wentworth Street cafeteria closed in 1975. But the St. Andrew’s cafeteria held on: The restaurant in 1977 ran a newspaper ad pointing out it was the only one of 75 restaurants listed in the 1920 Charleston City Directory still in existence.
As a reviewer pointed out a decade later, “Even yuppies make the trip to the no-ferns, no-wine spot in St. Andrew’s Center.” Her dinner for four cost $12.03, or $23.87 in today’s dollars, and included fried chicken, fried shrimp, red rice, collard greens, seafood cakes, green beans and fried okra.
Robertson’s was equally renowned for its vegetable soup, macaroni pie, crab casserole, deviled crab, fried apples, Huguenot torte and Lucille’s Pie, a chocolate-and-cream cheese concoction, although every loyal customer considered his or her favorite item to be the cafeteria’s can’t-miss dish. Alexander Robertson described the menu as “Charleston food, the kind that is distinctive of this city.”
When Hurricane Hugo tore through Charleston, it ripped the roof off Robertson’s. And then the cafeteria’s lease ran out. Robertson’s closed in 1989. “Charlestonians of all ages are taking the news hard,” an Evening Post editorial commiserated.
A few months later, the owner of Mount Pleasant’s Po Folks Restaurant reopened the restaurant as The Cafeteria at St. Andrew’s. “This cafeteria was like a cult,” he said, promising he wouldn’t change much more than the façade and dining room artwork. While the relief of fans (some of whom reportedly had to learn to cook after Robertson’s closed) mostly outweighed their skepticism, an early review allowed that the custard was overcooked and the biscuits were dry and crumbly.
Renamed Fyshbyrne’s, the cafeteria spawned a Mount Pleasant location in October 1991. It closed after two months.
Around the same time, cafeterias started edging away from the comfort foods that defined Robertson’s menu: S&S touted its cheesecakes made with Nutra-Sweet, and K&W pushed grilled chicken breast. But a Fyshbyrne’s manager said the toughest challenge was an ordinance that prohibited the restaurant from reposting a big “cafeteria” sign on its roof. “People didn’t know we were here,” he said.
Fyshbyrne’s closed on July 12, 1992.