For Robert Dickson, the last few weeks have been a continual retirement of sorts, culminating in a private gathering on Sunday night that saw the last plate exit his kitchen, past the naked Venus who gazes out over the dining room. But it also saw a new era being ushered in, one that will see daughter MariElena and son-in-law Joe Raya take the helm of a new, radical departure from Robert's storied establishment.
For the final night, they came from all over, from Litchfield Beach and Richmond, Va., but mostly Charleston, special guests invited to celebrate the man and his accomplishments in the only way Robert's ever knew how to do — with songs, lilting throughout the night from various singers who once worked with Robert and now returned for a family reunion of sorts. They serenaded, belted out show tunes, and reminisced about the 33 years that Robert charmed the Holy City with his baritone voice and classical take on fine food.
There were stories: Robert's tales of friends from culinary school, trips to New York to eat in the finest restaurants, even a letter read from an old pal unable to make the party. There was beautiful food and then beautiful music, and then more food and music, intertwined as if the culinary and musical arts could scarcely coexist without lending each other a sympathetic ear.
We ate all of Robert's favorites: potatoes with Bearnaise, scallop mousse, creamed spinach sporting a nutmeg-laden bechamel. Stalwart classics that MariElena has come to perfect under her dad's tutelage. As always, the wine flowed freely, and, inside, we were all family to Robert.
There were the ladies at the front table, a spry group who ran the First Federal Bank for years, ladies who set aside a dollar apiece from every paycheck and bought the entire restaurant one night a year. There was the New York man whose operatic voice could only be bested by his charming Oscar-winning wife with whom he sang a duet. There was the young couple from Uruguay arriving straight from Miami as surprise guests, eager to serenade Robert.
Among them all stood Robert, basking in the well-deserved attention of a job well done. He meant much to this gathered family — as the menu said, he was "Chef, Owner, Baritone, Father, Boss, Teacher, and Friend." And so they saw him off, into a retirement that he says will mean setting up a small art studio; most of the paintings decorating Robert's are his own.
When he told the crowd that on Tuesday a crew would demolish the inside of the restaurant to make way for the younger generation's new venture, the loss was palpable. One can hardly understand what it might feel like to build such a venue and then tear it down, but then you wouldn't understand Robert or his innate understanding for the rituals of life.
His restaurant demonstrated these values. Any given trip always meant sitting next to a person celebrating a birthday or anniversary, and Robert would sing a special song, tailored to the occasion, or perhaps a rendition of the happy couple's "first dance," his priority being to recognize achievement. He is the consummate host, with a disarming personality and caring nature, a true restaurateur dedicated to the craft of hospitality rather than a corporate boardroom. The guests always took their seats at 7 p.m., and he took their concerns as his own.
So it was only fitting when he reeled around to announce a family member expecting a new child, extended a beautiful vase of flowers, and burst into song. Then it was on to the birth of the new restaurant, a place Joe and MariElena will call The Gin Joint, dedicated to pre-prohibition cocktails, foie gras torchon sold by the inch, duck hearts, and something called "pig in a pot" — decidedly un-Robert, but garnering his full support.
By the end of the night, with the big, delicious retirement cake portioned and devoured and stories unfolding from every table, he announced the impending marriage of the young couple from Uruguay. Robert explained his quest to become a notary public so that he can preside over the wedding. He'd been searching for appropriate vows, which they would now practice. The couple drew close and began to sing in a beautiful Spanish duet, interrupted only by the presiding voice of Robert, providing an English translation of the vows.
There, in that moment, one saw a real restaurateur. Someone who understands the craft, how to disarm the customer, how to make them forget the pressures of the outside world and enjoy themselves. One who feels what his customers feel and demands the best for them, because their satisfaction is his true reward. You never find many of those people in a town, and while Robert Dickson certainly isn't planning on going anywhere anytime soon, downtown dining will never be quite the same without him.