You’ve not lived until Chef Robert Dickson has belted out the closing refrain from “Old Man River” about 18 inches behind your ear as he makes his way around the small dining room at Robert’s of Charleston.
This time around, though, it wasn’t actually Robert’s of Charleston but The Gin Joint. Robert’s closed back in 2010 when Dickson retired, and his daughter MariElena Raya and her husband, Joe, transformed the small space on East Bay Street into one of the South’s premier cocktail bars.
Gone were the restaurant’s golden-hued walls and curtains, the colorful paintings and cloth-back banquettes, supplanted by the grays and metals of more spartan decor. But the white tablecloths were back, and as soon Dickson’s deep baritone filled the room with the opening lines of “Food, Glorious Food,” Robert’s of Charleston was back, too.
The event, dubbed “One Night Only,” was part of the Charleston Wine + Food Festival’s Thursday night series of Signature Dinners, but in this case it wasn’t a visiting chef taking over a local kitchen but a local chef temporarily reclaiming his old digs.
For 33 years, Robert’s was Charleston’s top special occasion restaurant, the scene of countless birthday and anniversary dinners. It was first located in a 500-square foot spot on Market Street and later in the Planter’s Inn before Dickson moved it over to the small space on East Bay that is The Gin Joint today. Trained both as a chef and opera singer, he would step out from the kitchen between courses and regale diners with show tunes and arias, a unique form of dinner theatre found nowhere else in town.
Dickson got to focus more on the singing side after MariElena Raya, who like her father trained at the Culinary Institute of America, moved back to town in 2006 to take over the kitchen. For the One Night Only event, it was her chance to put aside the more cocktail-centric provisions she makes for the Gin Joint (the pickled shrimp and beef jerky are especially splendid) and return to larger format, French-inspired plates.
Winemaker Robert Foley from Napa, California, was on hand pouring the wines, including the white wine that was incorporated along with gin and clarified lemon juice into the opening “French ‘76” cocktail (in honor of the year Robert’s opened), a splendidly dry bite that matched perfectly with a single minerally oyster scented with juniper.
Next up was a dish of “pasta” made from scallop mousse, draped in folds along with slices of white asparagus and lots of herbs amid a pool of buttery lobster sauce. As Robert kicked into “If I Were a Rich Man,” I felt wealthy indeed, at least for the moment, for the main course brought sliced Chateaubriand of beef, rosy red in the middle and dressed in sauce Bordelaise alongside a long slice of king trumpet mushroom, crisp snow peas, and green garlic puree — a straightforward but intensely delicious plate
With the beef course, Dickson shifted into Italian arias, ones I recognized primarily because of Bugs Bunny cartoons, and that only heightened the effect. The food, the wine, and the music combined to cast a brief but powerful spell, transporting us back to an earlier era that wasn’t really that long ago. As I finished my last silky bite of beef and sipped Foley’s excellent merlot, one thought was etched in my mind: we need more music in restaurants — live music, with real singing, not just recorded tunes shuffling on an iPhone. Just as food has a remarkable power to bring people together and nourish both body and spirit, there’s a similar power in the live human voice, especially when lifted loud in song.
We finished the evening with a chocolate ganache tart and a mound of marshmallow fluff topped with strawberry sorbet, paired with a glass of Foley’s Touriga port. By the time Dickson reached the final verse of “New York New York,” the entire room was clapping and singing along, transformed by the doubly-strong spell of music and food. We were no longer restaurant customers or festival attendees but guests at an intimate dinner party. It may have been for one night only, but what a night it was.
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