Visitors to Charleston are forever looking for downtown restaurants with waterfront views, but tourists in the late 1970s didn’t have to settle for a seat alongside the harbor: They could dine aboard a restaurant floating in it.
The Scarlett O’Hara in 1973 opened at the foot of Charlotte Street. The 215-foot barge, which in 1920 began life as a Great Lakes steamer, was remade to resemble a Civil War blockade runner with smokestacks and a paddlewheel. In keeping with the “Gone With the Wind” theme, its dining room was outfitted with chandeliers and velvet curtains.
“This is a very exciting, thrilling thing to be part of,” owner Susan Drew told The News and Courier prior to the restaurant’s opening.
The newspaper published its first review of The Scarlett O’Hara in August 1974. Critic Karen Amrhine concluded the experience was too costly, considering the bland, pasty she-crab soup, skimpy servings of cocktail sauce, fish that tasted “a bit too fishy,” and a failed attempt to disguise frozen vegetables with hollandaise sauce.
“We felt that dinner at the Scarlett O’Hara didn’t quite live up to its price tag,” she wrote. “Sorry!”
Eight months later, Amrhine returned, seemingly chastened by the response to her cavalier dismissal of the restaurant’s culinary ambitions.
“I determined I had mellowed somewhat or Scarlett had gained some grace as she entered her second year,” she wrote before raving about the “luscious” oysters Mornay and king crab imperial. She still wasn’t crazy about the salad dressing, but allowed that her only “major disappointment” was that two salesmen seated at a nearby table talked business for the duration of their meal.
That same year, a barge parked near The Scarlett O’Hara came loose. After hitting a dolphin, it bumped into the restaurant. The tap didn’t cause any significant damage.
What the restaurant’s owners feared most was fire: They stressed the Scarlett O’Hara was constructed from non-flammable steel and concrete, and insulated by non-flammable material. “There will be automatic fire extinguishers in the galley and extinguishers throughout the ship,” The News and Courier promised.
But the restaurant’s demise came via water, not fire. On Jan. 28, 1979, the boat hit bottom during low tide. When the tide came in, the Scarlett O’Hara filled with water and sank. A few bobbing masts were all that remained to be seen of the city’s first floating restaurant.
Salvaging the Scarlett O’Hara became a top priority after it started nosing into the navigating channel. The Army Corps of Engineers in March 1979 paid a Mount Pleasant company $324,000 to raise the 1,000-ton boat.
“The steel vessel’s weight was greatly increased because of concrete flooring that had been poured into her,” The News and Courier reported.