11 State St.
Today: Private residence
Yesterday: The forthcoming Union Street restaurant, 1976
Before the weather turns sweltering, a number of new downtown Charleston restaurants are hoping diners will check out their patios, which made their debuts over the very cold winter. But it wasn’t very long ago that inviting customers to dine al fresco was a violation of state law.
South Carolina first legalized outdoor dining in 1976, four years after making it lawful to serve liquor by the drink. Although the two measures weren’t formally connected, it’s not unusual in U.S. restaurant history for outdoor dining allowances to follow the relaxation of liquor laws that promote covert hideaways.
“This type of café is in high contrast to the secret, semi-secret quarters of some of the so-called clubs and speakeasies of the Prohibition era,” The New York Times noted approvingly months after repeal, when a New York Supreme Court justice ruled restaurants could set up sidewalk tables. According to the paper’s June 1934 report, colorful umbrellas had popped up on 48th Street; flowering shrubs were arranged on Park Avenue and white tablecloths were aflutter on Fifth Avenue.
In Charleston, though, restaurateurs didn’t immediately cotton to the idea of dining al fresco.
“The majority said they lack the facilities,” The News and Courier reported after surveying local owners in the wake of Gov. James B. Edwards signing the outdoor dining bill. “Others are concerned about fickle weather and insects.”
But the newspaper found two men who believed customers would want to sit outside “even in December and January.” Ben Moise and Arthur Field planned to open Union Street at 11 State St., featuring two neoclassical dining rooms and a walled-in dining courtyard out back.
In addition to the air, Moise pledged, “everything will be fresh.” Union Street was supposed to showcase “foods indigenous to the Charleston area.”
“I'm happy to say, it never got off the ground,” Moise says today. “The banks were very leery of our concept, which was very novel at the time, and would not loan us any money to get started.”
Forced to scrap their vision of a New Orleans-style bar (necessitated by city regulations that prohibited sidewalk seating), Moise and Field started The Moveable Feast catering company with Patty Harrell. Moise describes the back-up venture as “a huge success.”
“In those days, I think three things militated against outdoor dining: bugs; heat and humidity and neighborhood associations who were simply against everything,” he says. “Those same complainers would probably sit for half a day at a sidewalk café somewhere in Europe, sipping their fizz waters and thinking just how wonderful it was.”
— Hanna Raskin