Spoleto Festival USA offers discounted tickets to locals this weekend, and should buyers score seats to a daytime performance, they won’t have to worry about finding somewhere downtown to eat. In the late 1970s, though, the area’s dining scene was so enervated that the festival opened its own temporary tearoom.
“It was just kind of something we cooked up,” recalls Jane Ries, who managed the operation. “There was no health department or anything. This was when you could do anything and get away with it.”
Precisely when the tearoom occupied the first floor of the Fort Sumter House is unclear: Its one-year run was probably in 1978 or 1979, Ries says. Or maybe it was 1980. Its name has been forgotten too.
“I cooked a couple of events there but my memory is totally hazy on those experiences,” says Glenn Roberts, the heirloom grain evangelist who then worked at Perdita’s. The fogginess is likely testament to how much fun surrounded the festival in its early years: As event planner Mitchell Crosby says, “The old Spoleto parties were a whole genre of great times.”
At night, Ries and other volunteers put on massive dinners in the grand home occupied by founder Gian Carlo Menotti. At some point, though, it was decided the dining room of the Fort Sumter House, then owned by Countess Alicia Spaulding Paolozzi, should function as a public cafe for ticket holders. “There weren’t many places (to eat). There was hardly anything, especially for lunch,” Ries said.
Complicating the plan, the dining room didn’t have a kitchen. It was however equipped with the first microwave Ries had ever seen.
“We did a lot of pasta and a lot of salad. We didn’t do a lot of cooking.” In keeping with the festival’s Italian influence, the luncheonette offered espresso, a rarity in pre-Starbucks America. “It was very forward-thinking,” Ries says.
On many days, the featured dish was curried chicken salad, one of Ries’ favorites before it went into heavy rotation.
“I’ve never eaten it since,” she says.