Dolly Frock doesn’t want to close Idle Hour, the humble North Charleston lunch counter she opened in 1979. But despite her best efforts to hang on to the business that’s been in her family for nearly eight decades, it seems the time has come.
The restaurant occupies 1,000 square feet at 1065 East Montague Ave., but stepping inside Idle Hour catapults you into a different era. Though Dolly has been closed for six months, faux flowers, salt and pepper shakers and Texas Pete still stand ready for chili cheeseburgers and hot dogs. Photo collages line the wood-paneled walls alongside press clippings and faded pictures. She’s not sure what she’ll do with all the stuff. (But the Dallas Cowboys cheerleader poster is her brother’s. So is the framed Gamecocks tapestry.)
Where trendy restaurants and bars now spill out onto sidewalks, Dolly remembers the post office, a cleaners, two drug stores. She probably remembers more than any of her neighbors along the main strip in what’s now the Park Circle neighborhood.
(By the way, Dolly is actually Carol … Dolly was just the name that stuck to her when her oldest niece couldn’t pronounce Carol.)
But her memories of her uncle’s original Idle Hour restaurant, opened next door in 1942, are limited to tapping on the window to rustle up a few hot dogs to take home — women weren’t allowed inside.
“It was strictly men,” she told the City Paper during a recent interview at Idle Hour. “But over the years, they started to get lenient because they were having parties and stuff.”
Dolly had lost her job at the Pantry Pride grocery store in West Ashley around the time when her brother, who took over Idle Hour, had a stroke and died in 1979. Now raising her 5-year-old nephew and booted from the spot next door by the landlord, Dolly tried to replicate the original Idle Hour where it is today — minus the pool tables in the back.
With $1.25 hot dogs, along with burgers, lunch specials and cold beer on the menu (at first), Dolly remembers a full house for lunch when the Navy shipyard was running full-tilt until it shut down in the mid-90s.
“The place would be packed with people and they’d be standing three-deep trying to get stuff to-go,” she said. “Shipyard days were the best times.”
The shipyard closure prompted a bit of uncertainty, Dolly said.
“I worried about losing the customers and what it was going to do to my clientele,” she said. “But I kept going.”
And customers kept coming. Dolly even hosted and appeared in the TV series Mr. Mercedes, which filmed at the restaurant a few years back.
Looking back over her 42 years on the block, Dolly said only about 20 people have ever put on aprons as employees. Geneva worked with her for 37 years, Billie for 17. With her crew, Dolly worked a full day to be open 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. for lunch.
“It has been a good business. For being open four hours a day, I can pay the bills and pay my help and everything. That’s all I cared about,” she said.
Fighting tears when she looked around the restaurant and thought about her regulars, Dolly said she remembers her customers most.
“They don’t want me to close,” she said.
It wasn’t even the pandemic that claimed Idle Hour. Not that it was smooth sailing, but Idle Hour weathered COVID. A confluence of events in the past year have put the restaurant in a tough spot.
Now 77, Dolly said her own health issues, along with some for longtime employees, have made it tough to keep things going. That, on top of a broken cooler and a finicky underground water leak, and Dolly has found herself with an unexpected retirement — not that anyone would blame her for taking it.
“This is not something I want to do. But I don’t have a choice,” she said. “It just seems like everything’s turned to crap.”
But it will be the good times that longtime locals remember.
“It was a great place to have memories and then look at what had transpired in the last 20-something years to the street,” said North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, who remembers Idle Hour as a landmark when he was first elected in 1994.
“When the street was dead, she was a fit. And when it got very lively, she was a fit as well,” he said. “She just adapted to whatever was there — very smart business lady for a small business.”
“The Idle Hour and Dolly’s will always have a presence in the history of that street,” he said.
For now, Dolly’s not sure what she’s going to do in retirement. Her husband, Rodney — also recently retired after 27 years at North Charleston Coliseum — is ready for her to come home as well.
She’s talking with local real estate professionals about selling the East Montague storefront she’s owned for years. But always prudent, Dolly said if she doesn’t get the right price, she’s in no hurry.
“I’m not going to give it away,” she said.
A celebration of Dolly’s retirement will be held Nov. 7, 3-5 p.m., on the patio at Madra Rua in Park Circle.