By Kristin Hackler
“To come to work and look at that,” said Chef Barry Waldrop as he looked out over the bright blue waters and winter-brown marsh surrounding the new Stono Café at St. Johns Yacht Harbor. “After all we’ve been through; it’s by the grace of God.”
The first Stono Café came into being 26 years ago on a shoestring budget and nothing more than the confidence of an excellent chef who, at 23 years old, was awarded the Gold Medal of Honor from Paris while working as the executive chef at Perdita’s, one of Charleston’s first fine dining restaurants.
“Our first stove was given to us by a Boy Scout camp in Savannah,” Barry laughed. “It was a ten burner Vulcan and we had to roll it into the restaurant on logs.”
There were days, Barry remembered, that he would have to serve breakfast before he would have enough money to buy ingredients for lunch, and then the same thing for dinner. It was a struggle every day, but he was doing what he loved: and it showed.
Before the restaurant even had a name it had regulars and they would line up, sometimes five deep, at the tiny counter behind which Barry would be putting on a show with the many sauté dishes in which he specialized. The first sign for the little restaurant was a gift from a set designer, Scott Carruth, who created the sign overnight after a graphic designer left a sketch of it scribbled on a napkin at the bar.
“If we didn’t have it, it came,” said Barry. “Every night at the café was like a big dinner party where everyone knew each other.”
The comraderie which the Stono Café inspired, as well as the amazing cuisine, carried Barry from his original location on Wappoo Drive to a larger location in the shopping center where the Terrace Theater is located on James Island. After 11 years in that location, Barry decided to move again to a spot just off of Maybank Highway where he could focus more on catering.
“The catering was fine,” said Barry, remarking on how nice it was to have a quieter, less stressful environment for a while. The catering did so well, in fact, that he invited his cousin, Mimi Duffy, to move to Charleston and help him with the business. Mimi enjoyed the work so much that she soon branched off and opened her own restaurant, Mimi’s Café, which stood in an idyllic waterfront location off of Harborview Road for several years.
But the recession soon pressed its grim hand against the catering company’s growth and Barry found himself wondering what he was going to do. Then the phone rang.
“It was the folks at St. Johns Yacht Harbor,” said Barry. “’We’ll work with you,’ they said. It was like a miracle. I flagged Mimi down as she was getting ready to leave for work and yelled, ‘Something’s happening!’ We met with them that day and the rest … well, here we are.”
And where they are is the best elements of both beloved restaurants combined. The colors of the restaurant are warm, light and airy, and there are plenty of windows looking onto the water; but that’s only if you want to sit inside. The wide porch boasts plenty of outdoor seating and leads back to a large outdoor wet bar which sits directly above the open harbor. It’s the ideal place for oyster roasts or just catching the sunset, and if you want to do both, the Stono Café features all-you-can-eat oysters every Sunday from 2 to 6 p.m. with live music.
The menu is both a Barry and Mimi signature. It’s short, simple and boasts the best of Lowcountry cuisine. Crab cakes made with fresh crab and little else; shrimp sautéed with bacon, tomato and scallion in a garlic cream sauce over stone-ground grits; Barry’s Famous Oysters which shows off the chef’s skills with a perfectly crisped pan-fried crust surrounding a fresh oyster served with citrus sauce on toast; and the epitome of island desserts – Mrs. Yvonne’s Famous Coconut Cake, which takes a minimum of three days to make as the cake has to sit and “marinate” before it’s ready to serve.
The menu will certainly change a little here and there as Barry and Mimi learn their customers’ tastes, and there will always be at least one daily special. A few days ago, the featured item was Freshwater Catfish sautéed and served on a Crab Cake with a Beurre Blanc finish.
“I’ve never been thanked so profusely in my life because of this reopening,” Barry smiled, and he’s thrilled to have this fourth reincarnation of what has come to be known as an island institution. “It’s amazing to be affiliated with such an incredible, first class marina,” said Barry. “Too see so many people pouring back … we’re just really excited and glad to be here.”The Stono Café is located at St. Johns Yacht Harbor on Headquarters Island between James Island and Johns Island off the Stono bridge (2408 Maybank Highway). Lunch is served Tuesday – Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and dinner is served Tuesday – Friday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. The restaurant is open all day Saturday and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. with all-you-can-eat oysters on Sundays from 2 to 6 p.m. during the season. Drop by on Super Bowl Sunday for all-you-can-eat oysters and the game on the big screen in the outdoor bar. The Stono Café also offers private catering and waterfront land and tents for outdoor weddings. A tastefully decorated dining room/lounge room is available for private dinners for up to 65 people. The private room is located directly on the water, which allows for arrival/departure by boat. For more information about catering, rental and wedding options, call event coordinator Myrna Flowers at 762-6660. For more information about the Stono Café, call the St. Johns Yacht Harbor at 557-1027.