Charleston is now known as one of the food capitals of this country and even the world. With these accolades came the loss of restaurants, culture and people that made the foodways of this city desirable in the first place. Alice’s restaurant was one of those casualties of the new wave that hit this city.
To this day, I have not seen a downtown Charleston restaurant accomplish what Ms. Alice did in bringing people together from every walk of life, class, race all in one place to enjoy great food. So, I asked my friend Antwan Smalls, owner of My Three Sons restaurant, to share the history of Alice’s Fine Foods and Southern cooking. He writes:
Alice E. Warren known as “Ms. Alice” has been a staple in the Charleston food scene since August of 1966. She came from humble beginnings growing up on a farm in Ashton, S.C. In the beginning, Ms. Alice worked as a maid at Burke High School while also working at the Ladson House.
In 1967, that all would change when she got the attention of her mentor, the late Mr. Edward Ladson. He saw the potential and within one year she was promoted to head cook and was able to quit her job at Burke. After working with Mr. Ladson for 13 years he decided to turn over the managerial duties to Ms. Alice while his focus shifted to catering service for supper clubs and other private parties.
When Mr. Ladson opened in 1963, he had no idea that he was the bridge for what would shape the black food scene in downtown Charleston. After 22 years The Ladson House closed its doors.
In November 1986, along with Price Whitaker, Alice’s Fine Food Restaurant became a reality at the first of four locations that Ms. Alice would go on to open. This is the location where my mother (“Ms. Lorraine”) started working with her.
The original location was on the corner of King and Cleveland across from the King Street Palace until Hurricane Hugo destroyed the building. The second location was in North Charleston on Old Meeting Street Road from November 1990 to December 1992. Realizing there was a need in the city, Ms. Alice opened a third location downtown on Meeting Street in Sept. 1991 to July 1994.
This is where I came into the story. I started as a dishwasher at the age of 13 and worked through high school and college. As the business continued to grow Ms. Alice made the tough decision to close the North Charleston location to focus on the downtown location.
At every location the food and reputation spoke for itself. In October 1994, Ms. Alice opened the fourth and final location in the heart of King Street. Ms. Alice gives Frederick Whaley a lot of credit for his leadership and guidance for her opening this location which ultimately became the most productive.
This fourth location was unique because it offered the ability to seat about 80 in a general seating area, plus offered a private banquet hall that seated about 110. The daily flow was about 300 people of all races and nationalities. On any day you could be seated next to a senator, mayor, chief of police, pastor, or a celebrity passing through the city. She embodied the spirit of making good food for everyone to enjoy.
In 2003, Alice’s Fine Foods closed its door for good and the food industry in downtown Charleston has never been the same. Along with restaurants, many other prominent businesses met the same fate because of the shift in the community.
Ms. Alice is still around today offering guidance and words of wisdom to my mom and me as we own and operate a restaurant of our own, My Three Sons of Charleston. We picked up where she left off and have become a staple in the community offering great food and service to everyone. I often tell Ms. Alice every chance I get that her legacy will live through us because she has poured so much into us and into the Charleston community.
Born and raised in Charleston, personal chef and caterer Benjamin “BJ” Dennis infuses the flavors and culture of the Lowcountry into his Gullah Geechee cuisine.
Antwan Smalls is an Army veteran and co-owner of My Three Sons of Charleston, a family-owned soul food restaurant.