The median that sits in the center of U.S. Highway 17 North between Six Mile and Long Point roads makes Richard Ruth nuts. Back in 1989, when he opened Richard’s Bar & Grill, southbound drivers could turn directly into Ruth’s parking lot, without a stoplight and a few hundred yards of double-backing to separate them from a can of cold beer and a cigarette.
Inevitably, the traffic pattern was redrawn to accommodate Mount Pleasant’s growing number of carpooling SUVs and new-money sports cars, somewhat isolating Richard’s. But the fiercely unpretentious bar isn’t just spatially removed from the high-gloss city around it: It’s cut off in time from the rest of the Lowcountry, which has mostly gone along with legislation banning indoor smoking and allowing full-size liquor bottles.
More than 10 years after the end of South Carolina’s minibottle era, Richard’s is one of the very last drinking establishments in the state to stock its back bar exclusively with 50-milliliter nips. It switched over to free pour in 2006, then reverted to the old system after two years because, as longtime customers put it, bartenders were robbing Ruth blind.
At least, inventory control was the official reason. But in a bar where nine out of 10 customers won’t share their names with someone holding a notebook and pen, lest the wrong party — a wife, a boss, a parole officer or the armed forces — catch wind of his whereabouts, the real motivation was sentimentality.
Richard’s is a dive bar in the truest sense of the term. That doesn’t just mean pool tables and well-used bathrooms and thousands of defaced dollar bills tacked to the ceiling and walls, although the dimly lit Richard’s has all of those things. It means the bar is congenitally inclined to take in strays (and actual dogs too: A doted-upon chihuahua is a frequent visitor.)
Minibottles are troublesome. They wear metal caps that shred bartenders’ hands, and create a tremendous amount of waste. Yet after the state abandoned them, Ruth got the idea that the unwanted South Carolina tradition deserved a home. In much the same way, the bar first hung a Confederate flag the day after the Statehouse permanently lowered it, despite a racially integrated staff and clientele.
So now customers seated at Richard’s bar face the Southern Cross and stacked rows of teeny-tiny bottles. They could squint at the scene and not accurately guess the year, but doggone it, they’re proud to be in its presence.
Short history of minis
Although South Carolina is likely to be forever associated with airplane bottles of booze, a distinction it secured in 1990 when Utah became the eighth state to revoke its legal insistence on minis, it didn’t mandate them until 1973. Prior to that point, restaurants were governed by Prohibitionist laws that formalized brown-bagging: The sale of ice and mixers was permitted, but customers had to supply their own liquor.
When liquor-by-the-drink was approved, the minibottle provision was adopted as a measure of control. In reality, it had much the opposite effect: Because it was against the law for bartenders to recap minis, South Carolinians got in the habit of downing all 1.7 ounces poured, or nearly twice as much as the shots measured out in other states. It was impossible to fit a legal Long Island Iced Tea, made with five kinds of liquor, in a glass, so bartenders mixed the single-serving cocktail in a pitcher.
And that was about the extent of the barkeep’s art in those days, since elaborate and imaginative drinks require various amounts of different spirits, many of them not available in minibottle format (Minibottles were first introduced after Repeal as a way to hook drinkers whose brand loyalty may have eroded during Prohibition.)
But like the nation’s celebrated late 19th-century bar culture that produced such enduring classics as the Manhattan and Martinez, South Carolina’s minibottle years had their own lingo. Specifically, drinkers knew to ask for “three, five ways” (three minis to make five drinks) or “two, three ways,” an expression that today survives primarily as a local band name: Two 3 Ways has performed at the Cooper River Bridge Run multiple times.
At Richard’s, though, it’s how patrons still order, baffling out-of-state visitors who wander into the bar after an event at nearby Boone Hall. Oftentimes, they don’t even name a liquor brand, since the bartenders know what their regulars drink.
Another reason that Richard’s customers don’t have to detail what they’re drinking is they all tend to drink the same thing: Vodka. Asked what he serves most frequently in a bar that’s revered by bikers, bartender Danny Runza doesn’t hesitate.
“Vodka soda. Vodka water. Vodka ginger,” he says. “Most of our clientele are — how do I put this? — cougars.”
During the day, Richard’s does a steady lunch business. The bar serves a $7 meat-and-two that comes with a choice of cornbread, hush puppies or a roll. Whether piled with fried whiting, rice-and-gravy or lima beans, the plates are exemplars of the kind of country cooking that’s supposed to be near-impossible to find in Charleston County these days.
Still, even at 1:30 in the afternoon, Richard’s draws people so disinterested in food that they can’t be bothered with a lime or lemon wedge in their vodka sodas.
In the brief free-pour window, Runza says, “People would constantly complain about under-pouring.” Nobody comes to Richard’s for a limp drink. And that’s fine by Runza, who’s happy not to mess with full-sized bottles. “Honestly, when you’re busy, I’d rather count sleeves than weigh bottles,” he says.
His co-worker Alexis Bunch agrees. “Some people ask you, ‘Why minibottles?’ It’s easier to do. You don’t have to measure.”
It also simplifies the endangered bar ritual of welcoming newcomers by sending over a drink, which is fairly standard practice at Richard’s. Whereas at free-pour bars, the hospitable gesture is diminished by the ruffling of cocktail menus and esoteric requests, first-timers at Richard’s just have to indicate whether they like their liquor brown or clear.
John DeZinna, a Richard’s devotee who 20 years ago relocated to Mount Pleasant from Flatbush, Brooklyn, drinks Tito’s and lemonade. As nobody would be surprised to learn, the bar staff isn’t painstakingly squeezing lemons for the latter.
“This is an old-school neighborhood bar,” says DeZinna, whose favorite Richard’s pastime is putting $50 in the electronic jukebox. “The people are friendly, the food is fantastic and the liquor is cheap. Free pour is free pour, you know? I went to this place, Rue de Jean, and they’ve got this little thing for measuring.”
DeZinna pantomimes a jigger, shaking his head. “At least here, you know you’re getting a drink.”