Learn more about some of Charleston's historic taverns on this segment of I Love the Lowcountry.
The historic site of the former Shepheard's Tavern is included on Charleston Raconteurs' Architectural and Cultural History Overview Tour, as well as Lost Charleston.
Charleston has long been known for its hospitality. Yet it's also been known throughout history as a city whose citizens enjoy a good time. There were no Puritans here! Well, except for Josiah Quincy, who was just passing through anyway.
Thus, not only has Charleston been characterized by its beautiful houses and churches, it's also been home to a number of noteworthy taverns that have played important roles in the city's history.
Taverns were the hub of colonial social and civic activity. The term "tavern" referred to a public establishment that served multiple purposes, not only for eating and drinking, but also for lodging, conducting business, holding public meetings, staging shows and entertainments, and even serving as post offices. Before a former bank building was designated as City Hall in 1811, all of Charleston's civic meetings and courts were held in local taverns. Thus, in showing up late of an evening, a man could explain to his wife that he hadn't really been out drinking all evening; he'd been out doing his civic duty!
Taverns also played an important role in the city's philanthropic life, and Charlestown was a philanthropic town. Here gentlemen of various ethnicities and persuasions met regularly, forming benevolent societies (link to come) to raise funds as they drank in support of newcomers to the colony as well as fellow countrymen who had fallen on hard times.
According to Robert Rosen in A Short History of Charleston, the Holy City boasted more than 100 taverns during the colonial era, among them Dillon's, Swallows, Gordon's, Sign of the Bacchus, City Tavern, Henry Gignilliat's, and the Georgia Coffee House. Below are some quick sketches highlighting a few of Charleston's more noteworthy taverns.
Shepheard's Tavern was established by Charles Shepheard c. 1720 on the corner of Broad and Church streets. The tavern's "long room" served as the city's first courtroom. The first theatrical season in America was staged here, as was the nation's first opera, both in 1735. That building burned the Great Fire of 1740 (link to come), but Shepheard immediately rebuilt at the same location using salvaged materials and was accordingly appointed postmaster in 1743. Solomon's Lodge No. 1 of Freemasons met here in 1754, and the tavern was the birthplace of the Scottish Rite Freemasonry in America, 1801. But perhaps one of the most historically significant activites to take place here was that Shepheard's served as the meeting place where Christopher Gadsden sparked the flames of the America Revolution among his rebel group that became known as the Sons of Liberty. After nearly two centuries as Charleston's favorite drinking hole, though operating under various names over that time, the tavern was torn down in 1924 to make way for a bank, which is what is located there today.
McCrady's Tavern is the only historic Charleston tavern that still exists as a dining establishment and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Edward McCrady built this tavern with a separate kitchen to reduce the threat of fire c. 1779, offering meals, drinks and lodging. By 1788, McCrady had completed its "long room," which was used for banquets and theatrical performances. McCrady, a devout Patriot, was captured by the British and sent to prison in St. Augustine, Fla., along with other leading Charleston Patriots. After the war, he returned to his home and business, which became the hub of social activity in Charleston in the years following the Revolution. Small wonder then that when President George Washington visited Charleston in 1791, McCrady's was the site of a magnificent 30-course banquet held in his honor by the Society of the Cinncinati - very appropriate given Edward McCrady's return to his old business a la old Cinncinatus himself, the consummate citizen-soldier. After McCrady's death in 1801, the property continued to be operated as a tavern until 1884, when it was used as a warehouse. In 1913 it became a print shop. The buiding suffered from neglect and poverty, finally being restored as a restaurant and tavern in the early 1980s and again in 2006. Today McCrady's is nationally renowned as one of the finer dining - and drinking - spots in Charleston. This historic site is the real deal!
The Pink House, 17 Chalmers St., served as a popular local tavern in the 1750s. It has variously been used as a brothel and lawyer's office, rounding out the more unsavory aspects of its history. In more recent times, the building, made of Bermuda stone with a tile roof, has been used as a residence, art gallery and office space.
American Patriot and tavern owner John Readhimer, who departed this life in May 1826 at the ripe old age of 72, was not only known as a brave soldier, but as a gentleman, devout Christian, honest businessman, and true friend. He is buried in the St. James Goose Creek Chapel of Ease, not far from where he operated his tavern.