101 Church St.
Today: Parking lot at Church Street and St. Michael’s Alley
Yesterday: St. Michael’s Inn, 1932-49
On the menu: Cream cheese and raisin sandwich, 15 cents (circa 1935)
When Carolina Recipes Inc. in 1948 held a contest to popularize its new shrimp paste, the Charleston company knew exactly who was qualified to judge it. In addition to Walter Shaffer of Henry’s and Roper Hospital’s chief dietitian, St. Michael’s Inn proprietor Lily Bamberg was invited to choose the best application of the buttery spread. (Mr. A.D. Zirkle of Sullivan’s Island went home with the $25 prize.)
Born Lily Eisenmann in 1882, Bamberg was an expert in tearoom cuisine. For more than a decade, she served ham sandwiches, asparagus salad, benne wafers and Orangeade to a decidedly high society crowd.
“Even Duncan Hines called it quality,” The News and Courier’s C.B. Williams recalled in a tribute published 22 years after the restaurant closed. “Ruth and I never came back from our travels near meal time that we didn’t drop in at Mrs. Bamberg’s and feast.”
Bamberg in 1911 married George Hammond Bamberg, who would serve on City Council. It’s not clear exactly why she decided to “serve meals (and) solve your housekeeping problems as to salads, cakes, desserts,” as described in her opening announcement, but the date provides a clue: In 1932, her children were edging toward adulthood, and economic conditions across the country were prompting many women to pursue additional sources of household income.
The restaurant’s format was “of the type so popular with tourists and other visitors to Charleston in recent years,” The News and Courier noted approvingly. Proving the paper right, nearly three dozen people dined at St. Michael’s on its first night in business.
Over the following years, St. Michael’s hosted countless meetings of garden clubs, alumnae groups and sororities such as Chi Omega, which in 1933 set every table with swan-shaped vases filled with red and yellow flowers.
St. Michael’s closed in 1949, a few years before Carolina Recipes suspended shrimp paste production. But before the company folded, it sold jarred pickled shrimp, smoked shrimp and smoked roe in Macy’s, Gimbel’s and B. Altman’s, introducing Northerners to the same flavors that distinguished Bamberg’s little cafe.
— Hanna Raskin