Ellen Bright closure displaces Aaron Short’s seafood

Hanna Raskin

Downtown Charleston, which has lately been stripped of its black-owned eating places, this month lost another traditional African-American cooking purveyor with the closing of Ellen Bright Hall.

Ellen Bright Hall, 1104 King St., was one of the last juke joints on the peninsula. Over its 33-year history, the spacious room hosted weddings, birthdays, crab cracks and dance parties. For the last five years or so, its event schedule also included weekly appearances by seafood maestro Aaron Short, who sold steamed crabs, clams, oysters and shrimp to pair with the bar’s beer and malt liquor.

Short started his commercial seafood career about 20 years ago. His Saturday stand at Ellen Bright earned him a sizable group of loyal fans, including chef BJ Dennis. A tireless guardian of Gullah foodways, Dennis used social media to champion Short’s repurposed cardboard soda can flats, teeming with cluster oysters, crab legs, sliced sausage and split corncobs.

In addition to shellfish, Short also served devilled crab, pork chops, fried shark steak, whiting, chicken wings and rice. “Real local right cha,” Dennis wrote in a typical Facebook post.

(Full disclosure: I first visited Ellen Bright with Dennis, though quickly learned I didn’t need an escort to claim one of the hall’s newspaper-covered tables on an oyster season Saturday afternoon. In 2014, I named Short’s operation to my list of 20 Essential Charleston Restaurants.)

“What’s going to happen next is I’m hoping to find another location,” Short told me. Now a working electrician, Short is hoping to cook more than one day a week.

The closure of Ellen Bright follows the 2014 closings of Huger’s, Ike’s, Alluette’s, Dellz and Georgean’s Caribbean Soul, leaving Hannibal’s Soul Kitchen, Nana’s Seafood & Soul and Dave’s Carry-Out as the only black-owned restaurants south of the Neck. At least a few members of the local African-American community have lamented the lack of an obvious gathering place for mourners and their supporters in the wake of the Emanuel AME massacre, a role that in previous generations was played by restaurants such as The Ladson House and Alice’s Fine Cooking.

Short allows he may have to relocate to North Charleston, although he’s exploring the possibility of setting up at Dolphin Cove, just three miles from Ellen Bright Hall.

“I would love to stay downtown,” Short says. “We’re trying.”