When locals think about Charleston’s food scene back before it began to really emerge, one name is often mentioned: Robert Dickson, owner of the legendary Robert’s of Charleston. His restaurant might have been tiny (with a maximum of 28 seats), but it attracted big names from all over the world. They often came for the food, but they also came for the entertainment. Robert, a trained chef and opera singer, would step out of the kitchen nightly to make rounds and sing to his patrons. He became known as “The Signing Chef” and even today makes rare appearances to belt out a tune or two.
We caught up with Robert recently to learn more about his illustrious career and to see what he was doing with his time today. He had a lot of great stories to share.
The Daily Meal: So how did you first start to cook?
Robert Dickson: I grew up in New Jersey and had always watched my mother and her family cook. My mother taught me several of her recipes which would come in handy when she worked the gruesome hours she did as a nurse. I soon took over the cooking duties and found out I was pretty good at it. In high school, I decided to take a baking class in New York City. Which soon lead to me making birthday cakes for friends and family—and to impress the girls.
And when did singing come into play?
I always sang with my mother and her sisters as well as singing in the chorus in the eighth grade. I took a break until my senior year in high school. I began to perform solos. My mother also worked at RCA Victor in the 50’s and she brought home all the reject 45 records. I would listen to them all the time and was very fascinated with music of that era.
Ironically, it was my high school music teacher (who was also my guidance counselor) that encouraged me to look into going to the Culinary Institute of America.
So tell us more about your time at the CIA and after?
I loved my time at the CIA and it was there I met my long-life friend John Bennett. After attending a year at the CIA, we decided we wanted to go to France. Before we left, we heard Julia Child and James Beard speak to our CIA class. John and I became friends with Julia and she helped us get into a lot of great wine and food places while in France. We loved it there and stayed for a short while to help out in Julia’s cooking school in Paris. Then I moved back to New York and eventually moved to Oklahoma City to work with John.
What did you do then? What were some of the highlights?
John and I worked together at The Cellar Restaurant as co-chefs and after a brief time back home, I moved back to become Chef and John became the General Manager. The restaurant was remodeled into a first class French style restaurant with the best equipment and furnishings. I was there for several years but got burnt out with the routine and long hours. I was offered to help open a restaurant in Oklahoma. This was where I met my wife Pam. We got married three months after we first dated. We moved to Tulsa and then later to Chicago where I worked for a Hungarian chef. Two things stuck with me while there—one, he offered a pre-fixe dinner menu (which I later modeled my restaurant after) and two, it was the first place I witnessed a chef coming out of the kitchen to “work” the dining room. I loved how engaging he was and how much the guests loved it.
How did you end up in South Carolina?
The Hungarian chef’s partner was planning to take over a hotel on St. Simons Island, Georgia and was looking for a chef. I took the job and also taught cooking classes in the area. My next move was to the Sea Pines Plantation to become chef at their newly opened café and later to become Executive Chef at the Plantation Club. While there, I met my first business partner. We bought property on Hilton Head and established a German restaurant from the ground up. Working with my new partner was super tough and our partnership failed. Pam, our first daughter and I moved to Vail, Colorado to take a break from the restaurant business. I was motivated by my daughter to pursue music again and after meeting an English voice coach at a music festival, moved to London where I studied opera singing for three semesters. We returned to Hilton Head where my folks had retired and came across my former boss at Sea Pines—Franz Meier who asked us to come to Charleston to take over as Chef at the Colony House in 1976.
Now we are talking, the Colony House was THE original fine dining restaurant in this city. What was that like?
Well when I started, they made massive changes and took away the long standing lunch buffet which created a big drop in business. I was anxious to find my own place again and found a 500 square foot space in the Rainbow Market on Market Street.
So tell us about Robert’s of Charleston.
Pam and I opened Robert’s of Charleston on a sweltering night in July 1976. The restaurant had 28 seats and we offered a six course pre-fixe menu. It was a massive success and after six years, we expanded into the next door space. We then had 40 seats and started to attract some major celebrities. We were in the Rainbow Market for 12 years.
Wasn’t there a time Paul Newman tried getting in and couldn’t?
Well, he tried. When he called the receptionist, we were already full. But I got creative and brought in two chairs from home and moved around furniture. We called Mr. Newman and told him two regulars gave up their seats for he and his wife. He did not want to make such a fuss and they ended up at Poogan’s Porch.
The restaurant moved eventually right?
Right, we had three locations: the Rainbow Market, the Planter’s Inn (where Peninsula Grill now is) and 182 Easy Bay Street, where The Gin Joint is now located. I took three years off to do tours in Italy and wanted to retire in 1998 but found a space on East Bay Street. In 2006, my chef daughter MariElena and her husband, also a chef, Joe came to work until 2010 when I finally retired. Two months later, they rebranded the East Bay location into The Gin Joint. The rest is history.
What have been some of your most memorable moments?
Serving Jackie Kennedy while in culinary school was amazing. After having Willard Scott and his wife at Robert’s, we became good friends. He was in Charleston on a cruise ship broadcasting The Today Show, and after dining at Robert’s, he broadcasted that we were “the best restaurant in the whole world” on The Today Show the following morning. Another time, Jane Pauley and Tom Brokaw came while broadcasting at Spoleto in 1977 and also touted the restaurant on The Today Show. We had the pleasure of hosting people like Henry Kissinger, Eva Marie Saint, and Walter Cronkite and many more. Our place was never empty because of them.
Do you still sing?
Yes and cook, as well as draw and paint landscapes. I perform at my church and special events, here and afar.
Where do you like to eat in Charleston?
Roadside Seafood, The Macintosh, Lotus, and Grill 225.
Any words of wisdom for the new breed of chefs?
The best cooks are the ones that read about cooking and research and try new things. I learned this from John Bennett.
If you are lucky to meet Robert, you will want to take the time to sit down and chat. He is full of stories and wisdom. This piece could have been longer with more space and time. And get him to sing to you—maybe Food Glorious Food or something of that nature. May his food and music always live on!