Forget ungainly high rises and the blemishes of ugly development. The Sea Biscuit Café on the Isle of Palms has managed to stop time.
By HELEN MITTERNIGHT » Photos by ASHLEY WALKER
The café has been open for 28 years and, other than adding a new mermaid wall hanging or two, the little blue and white café with the screened porch has kept itself relevant by offering the same tasty breakfasts and lunches that become part of family memories.
When people say they want their last meal to be a breakfast from the Sea Biscuit Café, it’s not hyperbole. On at least two occasions, breakfast at the café has been on someone’s bucket list.
Not too long ago, someone picked up a Crab Cake Benedict because a dying friend wanted it for a last meal.
Earlier this fall, a woman in an Isle of Palms nursing home asked her daughter to visit from Tennessee. She wanted two things besides seeing her daughter: to dip her toes in the ocean again, and to have breakfast at the Sea Biscuit.
“She had the corned beef hash and a gravy biscuit,” recalls Lori Melsopp, one of the café’s two owners.
That kind of fierce loyalty to the restaurant and its food isn’t unusual, says Wendi Szymanski, the café’s other owner.
“People come here for years,” she says. “It’s the memories.”
The memories, and the food. The menu has changed little since the two women took over the business in 2008 from the previous owners. According to Melsopp and Szymanski, the original couple was ready to hand over the reins after working together since the café opened in 1986.
Szymanski had been with the restaurant since 1997. She left culinary school back home in Minneapolis in the 1970s when she decided she didn’t like working in the kitchen. Eventually, she wound up at Sea Biscuit as a waitress and worked her way up to manager. Melsopp had joined the staff three years earlier than Szymanski, left for a while and later returned to stay.
They say the fact that they both knew the restaurant so well helped the previous owners decide to turn it over to them. Since taking over, they have made only tweaks to the menu, “nothing crazy…people from 20 years ago would say it’s almost exactly the same,” Melsopp says.
The restaurant tends to keep the same people working, including the waitress, Laurie, who came to Sea Biscuit because she had young children and wanted the flexibility of waitressing, and who is still there nine years later; Mary “who’s a friendly greeter and knows a lot of people,” according to Szymanski; and the chefs, including Chris, “who just makes the prettiest omelets,” she says.
The lack of change includes the acceptance of cash only, but that doesn’t stop the hungry crowd. Between the dining room and a screened porch, the restaurant seats about 60, but both owners say they pride themselves on serving quickly, and, on busy weekend days, they serve about 300 breakfasts a day.
Szymanski and Melsopp like being small.
“It helps us keep our charm,” Szymanski says, and Melsopp agrees, citing a popular restaurant in Charleston that built an addition, then slowly went out of business because they were unable to manage the extra space and the extra diners.
The café is named for the sea biscuit shell, which looks somewhat like a sand dollar, “but all puffed up, like one of our biscuits,” says Szymanski.
Puffy biscuits are just one of the dishes that keeps people coming back.
Diners come for the shrimp and gravy (“our shrimp and gravy is made from an original recipe. It’s not creamy like you get with shrimp and grits at some places. The gravy is brown and spicy,” Melsopp says), the blueberry-walnut French Toast, and of course, for the crab cakes, served both on a sandwich slathered with tartar sauce, and as a Crab Cake Benedict.
“Our crab cakes are the best,” Melsopp says. “We put in pepper and onions so they have flavor, and not a lot of filler like some other places.”
Although the two women have made few changes, they are both grateful for one big change since the restaurant opened: employees no longer have to haul water for the restaurant.
“All we had was well water,” Melsopp recalls. “You could cook with it, but it was nasty for coffee or tea. So we’d have to go to the water station and haul back five-gallon jugs of water. That would be your water. It was really hard.”
In the rebuilding after Hurricane Hugo, the Isle of Palms began to use reverse osmosis to get water and now the restaurant has clean, good-tasting water right at the tap.
Some of the customers have probably been around long enough to remember the five-gallon jug days. The two say that they see a mix of tourists, especially in the summer, and locals.
“We have people who come back every year and people who come every Saturday after karate or Sunday after church,” Melsopp says.
The ones who come every year make a tradition out of it.
“They come back because they remember how good it is,” Melsopp says.
“We have a spot on the wall,” Szymanski says. “People who come every year will mark how tall their kids are and date it. We’ve had some who started out as babies in carriers on the table and now they’re in college. It makes you feel old!”
The restaurant stays the same, but the Isle of Palms is changing.
“Now we have new buildings and high rises,” Melsopp says.
“The Sea Biscuit hasn’t changed all that much,” Szymanski adds. “Most of the changes are things that have happened around us.”
Sea Biscuit Café
21 JC Long Blvd., Isle of Palms
Tue-Fri: Breakfast 6:30-11am, Lunch 11:30-2:30pm
Sat-Sun: Breakfast only 7:30-1pm