14 Courthouse Square
Today: Charleston County Courthouse area
Yesterday: The Rathskeller (1929-1957)
On the menu: Royal Pilsen light beer (Aug. 3, 1933*)
*Four months before the repeal of Prohibition
When Robert McKay in 1929 opened The Rathskeller, promising “a quiet and refined atmosphere that will remind many of ‘Ye Olden Days,’” he threw in a free lunch for his first patrons. But the beer hall is better remembered in some circles for its free liquor.
Because of its proximity to county offices, The Rathskeller was a favorite of local politicians. In 1980, local newspaper columnist Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. recalled “a likable and able old coot” who frequently found himself halfway between his desk and The Rathskeller’s bar in the middle of the day. He “used to joke that he could not always remember whether he had just had a drink or was en route to get one.”
College students patronized The Rathskeller, too, partly because McKay was famously tolerant of customers who structured long checkers-playing sessions around a single beer. As another newspaper columnist Jack Leland told the story, one of the students came up with a scheme to transfer their game to The Rathskeller’s black-and-white tiled floor, using filled jiggers instead of traditional checkers pieces.
“Your opponent would have his 12 jiggers filled with your kind of booze, and you would fill his with yours,” he explained. “When you captured one of his, you would drink its contents.”
Older patrons liked the idea, and bought the students two dozen shots of bourbon and scotch. “Chug-a-lug Checkers became a weekend feature at The Rathskeller,” Leland wrote, adding that the ritual was broken up by World War II.
McKay died in 1943, months after selling The Rathskeller and opening a package store in North Charleston. A few years later, the popular bar he’d created was outfitted with Colonial-style furniture, keg tables and a fireplace meant to evoke “taverns of yesteryear.”
It’s not clear whether The Rathskeller’s food menu also had a tavern bent. At some point it was owned by James Dengate, who catered the Hibernian Society’s annual hoppin’ John lunch and later served boiled shrimp, deviled crab and red rice at his Rutledge Avenue key club.
— Hanna Raskin