Ruta Smith

For a city with such deep historical roots, Charleston’s restaurant industry is relatively young. Where are our counterparts to New Orleans’ Galatoire’s (1905), Commander’s Palace (1893), or Antoine’s (1840)? We have no shortage of acclaimed fine dining establishments, but few are old enough to truly qualify as a “Charleston institution.”

The old Henry’s Restaurant (now called Henry’s on the Market) is often cited as Charleston’s oldest. Its roots stretch back to the 19th century, when a young German immigrant named Henry Otto Hasselmeyer opened a grocery store at 54 Market St. Like most grocers of the period, he sold beer, wine, and liquor alongside canned goods and provisions, and customers could enjoy a drink on premise at the bar in the back.

The arrival of the state dispensary system in 1893 — a largely forgotten temperance experiment that restricted alcohol sales to government-run dispensaries — forced grocers to either abandon liquor sales or operate as a “blind tiger,” Charlestonians’ term for a speakeasy. Hasselmeyer took the latter route, and his store was raided repeatedly for selling alcohol in the decades that followed.

As soon as Prohibition ended in 1933, Hasselmeyer launched “Henry’s Beer Parlor” in the building adjoining his grocery store. He started selling boiled shrimp and deviled crabs to hungry beer drinkers, and soon converted the store into a large dining room.

Henry’s eventually evolved from beer saloon to Charleston’s swankiest restaurant. Hasselmeyer’s son, Henry Jr., and son-in-law, Walter Shaffer, took over the business, and their chef, John Bolton, an African-American World War II vet, introduced Charlestonians to an array of French-inspired seafood dishes like flounder meuniere and trout Colbert.

Through the 1950s and ’60s, Henry’s was the place in Charleston to dine, drawing tourists and locals alike for a big night out on the town. By the 1970s, though, the restaurant was starting to show its age. A critic for The International Review of Food & Wine was “shocked at the cooking” she found there in 1979, and Bill Moore of the Asheville Citizen-Times noted, “The furniture in the dining room was battered. The red leather booths in the bar were worn … It needed paint.”

Henry Hasselmeyer Jr. died in 1980, and his son-in-law George Brownwell ran the business for another five years before throwing in the towel. Business sagged as the market area became more tourist-oriented and parking more difficult; “You can’t run a ’40s restaurant in the ’80s,” Brownwell told the Greenville News.

In 1985, Brownwell sold Henry’s for $1 million to a young restaurateur named Leo Chiagkouris, who thoroughly remodeled the aging buildings and overhauled the menu. Over time Chiagkouris has added a whiskey lounge, a rooftop bar, and a dance club complete with bottle service. But the Henry’s name persists in honor of the location’s past, and I sometimes take out-of-towners there for a nostalgic drink at the worn wooden bar on the first floor.

The modern Henry’s bills itself as “the oldest continuous restaurant in Charleston,” but that continuity is more with the physical building than the food. The current menu offers a fairly standard selection of fried flounder and catfish along with tacos, burgers, and pasta. Long forgotten are Henry’s “Famous Shore Dinners” with tenderloin of trout and deviled crab and Bolton’s many creations, which he adorned with grand names like Seafood a la Wando and Spanish Mackerel a la Gherardi.

Surviving long enough to become an institution requires a tricky balance between continuity and reinvention. Stay too wedded to the old ways and you’ll be left behind by changing fashions and the wear and tear of time; reinvent too much and you can lose what made the restaurant special in the first place.

Down on lower King, you may have noticed the blue banner hanging in front of Old Towne Grill declaring it “Charleston’s Oldest Family Owned Restaurant.” It was founded in 1972 by Spiro Fokas and Steve Ferderigos, two brothers-in-law from Greece who immigrated to Charleston.

Old Towne’s menu has changed little since the 1970s, and the open kitchen is located right at the front, so passersby can see the chickens spinning on their roasting spits through the window.

Blue banner aside, it would be more accurate to call Old Towne “downtown’s oldest family owned restaurant,” for there are older candidates to be found elsewhere in the city.

I’m excluding Bowens Island (1946). It’s an undeniable Lowcountry institution but isn’t in Charleston proper. Gene’s Haufbrau, established in 1952, serves a full slate of wings, burgers, and sandwiches today, but it would be more accurate to call it Charleston’s oldest bar. During the 1970s, pinball, a jukebox, and kegs of beer were the highlights, and it operated during the 1980s as a private club, requiring a membership card for entry.

For my money, the Charleston restaurant with the best claim for being a genuine Charleston institution is Bessinger’s BBQ.

The Bessinger family traces its barbecue roots back to 1939, when patriarch Joseph “Big Joe” Bessinger opened the short-lived Holly Hill Café up in Orangeburg County. Bessinger’s 11 children learned to cook pigs from their father, and many of them ended up moving down to Charleston and opening restaurants.

Around 1952, J. D. Bessinger opened the first Piggy Park, a drive-in on Rutledge Avenue near Hampton Park. His brothers Melvin, Thomas, and Robert all moved down and started working at that original Piggy Park, but they soon branched out and opened restaurants of their own.

In 1960, Thomas and Melvin teamed up to open what is now Bessinger’s Barbecue on Savannah Highway. At the time, Thomas’ son Michael Bessinger recalls, that area was all “cabbage patch fields and farms.” In the early days the brothers cooked whole hogs on brick pits, and carhops delivered chopped pork sandwiches along with other drive-in standards like hamburgers and hot dogs.

Unlike the old Henry’s, the Bessingers regularly updated their restaurant to accommodate changing times. By the early 1970s, drive-ins across the country were struggling to compete with fast food burger chains, and in 1974 the Bessingers overhauled their operation. They phased out curb service and later removed the old car canopies, replacing them with two trendy new innovations: a drive-thru window and an all-you-can eat buffet. They also changed the name from Piggy Park to Bessinger’s Barbecue.

In 1983, the brothers branched out and opened the first Melvin’s Barbecue in Mt. Pleasant, and more locations followed. In 1990, they ended their formal business partnership, with Thomas retaining the Savannah Highway restaurant and Melvin continuing to build out more Melvin’s outlets.

The key to becoming an institution? Having a clear line of succession to the next generation of owners, be they family members or long-time employees who can maintain the restaurant’s identity and ways of doing things.

Thomas’ two sons, Tommy and Michael, run the business today, though the elder Bessinger — now 88 years old — still comes in daily and isn’t shy about correcting workers who are not doing things to his standards. (The two remaining Melvin’s, I should note, are run today by Melvin’s son, David Bessinger.)

Tommy and Michael now split the management duties, and as they navigate the business into its ninth decade they are still making revisions. A few years back, when Texas-style barbecue became trendy, customers started demanding, “where’s the brisket?” Bessinger’s retired the sliced eye of round and replaced it with salt-and-pepper brisket. These days, instead of black plastic plates, barbecue is served on stainless steel platters lined with brown butcher paper, like one might find in a central Texas joint.

Even more dramatic changes may lie ahead as market headwinds stiffen. In September 2018, as food costs spiraled, the Bessingers shuttered the all-you-can-eat buffet to focus on counter-service. The city’s recent prohibition of non-recyclable containers raised the cost of a take out box from 6 cents to 75, creating a tough choice between raising prices or reducing portion sizes.

Changing barbecue tastes are an even bigger challenge. A new crop of highly acclaimed barbecue restaurants has opened their doors in recent years, importing craft barbecue styles and offering full bars with cocktails and wine. It’s exposed a growing divide between younger, more affluent diners, who will happily pay more for prime-grade beef and local beers on tap, and Bessinger’s traditional clientele, who are more price-sensitive and happy with things as they are.

“We’ve never seen such a change as in the past seven years,” Michael says. He and his brother are trying to decide how to best use the big space that once housed the buffet side of the restaurant. “We might put a bar in there, and cater more to the trendy crowds — fun appetizers, cocktails, beer.”

“You have to give a little to get a little,” Tommy says, but he knows there’s a risk, too. “Old timers come in here and they are so appreciative that things haven’t changed.”

Michael agrees. “You have to evolve or you will die out,” he says. “But you fear the old way of doing things will get lost.”

Even if they add fancier apps and draft beer, the Bessingers have no plans to abandon their long-running offering of chopped pork generously dressed in tangy mustard sauce. It may seem like anathema to those who learned from food television that “good barbecue doesn’t need sauce,” but pre-saucing the meat is how it’s always been done in South Carolina.

A recent Eater Charleston article asked “Is Charleston’s Massive Barbecue Bubble Shrinking?”

It noted the recent closures of Smoke BBQ’s two locations and Black Wood Smokehouse, then observed, “In a town with Rodney Scott’s BBQ, Home Team BBQ, Lewis Barbecue, Swig & Swine, Martin’s Bar-B-Que, and more, it’s a tough field to play.”

Conspicuously absent from the list were Bessinger’s and Melvin’s, which is a shame. My hope is that, rather than shying away from something that seems old or unfamiliar, newer Charleston residents and visitors from afar will embrace local traditions like yellow-sauced pork and slow-simmered hash.

“Tommy’s and my goal is to hit 100 years,” Michael says. They already have 81 under their belt. The question is how to get through 20 more.

“Who are we going to be moving forward?” he asks. “My gut is telling me to stick with what we are doing. Stay tried and true to what we are.”

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.