Tides that Bind

January 2010
Written By: 
Sandy Lang
Photographs by: 
Peter Frank Edwards

Time-worn tradition and family folklore share a place on the menu of the Sea Captain’s House, one of Myrtle Beach’s most storied restaurants.

At one of the granddaddy restaurants of Myrtle Beach, the grandfather of ten has just finished a shrimp po’ boy lunch when he leans back in his chair and talks of his first years with the restaurant, nearly fifty years ago.

Just over the dunes from the pine-paneled dining room at the Sea Captain’s House, the ocean is slate-gray and rising with waves from a sudden winter storm. But where Clay Brittain sits with his family, in the comforts of the restaurant’s “Chart Room,” it is all snug and warm, with the smells of sweet fried hushpuppies still rising from woven baskets on the table. They gather here every Wednesday for a communal meal. It’s the same room where Mr. Brittain, now officially retired, will celebrate his eightieth birthday later this month. He and his uncle Steve Chapman founded the Sea Captain’s House in 1962.

’Tis the season of cozier festivities for the Grand Strand, and notably for a classic gathering place like the Sea Captain’s House, at 30th Avenue North and Ocean Boulevard. From Thanksgiving through December, the restaurant—housed in a 1930s beachhouse and its former guesthouse—is decked out in fresh-cut pine trees and boughs, with a wassail pot warming near the fireplace. It’s all part of the traditions of food and family that fill the space year-round, even in the modern glass-walled rooms and patio additions that have been added to the modest shingled structure that sits beside a towering line-up of the Strand’s oceanfront hotels.

The core rooms of the original home have remained little-changed through the decades, set with upholstered furniture and game tables for checkers and dominoes. (I first ate at the Sea Captain’s House as a student in the 1980s, and felt the history immediately.) Even more so today, stepping inside the restaurant is like re-entering another era in Myrtle Beach—back when the Pavilion still drew crowds along a wooden boardwalk, and had bathers’ changing rooms, photo booths, and Skee-Ball machines.

History and family traditions are alive and well at the Sea Captain’s House, where the Brittain and Chapman names are still synonymous with the restaurant. It’s now operated by the next generation of Brittains—brothers David and Matthew Brittain and their wives, Ann and Marie-Claire. Steve Chapman, grandson of the co-founder, grew up at the restaurant, and his father, Bob Chapman, managed the restaurant for many years. Seven of the ten Brittain grandchildren—all in their teens and early 20s—worked in the dining room this past summer.

The landmark restaurant still serves three meals each day—from grits and fried-egg breakfasts to lunches and dinners of house specialties like fresh-made crab cakes, chowders of chopped clams, and South Carolina oyster singles on ice served with a Champagne mignonette. In a recent conversation with Phil Ratcliff, executive chef, he easily put his hands on an original menu for the restaurant; many of the same dishes are still served. “The prices are pretty nice from when Mr. Brittain set this up,” Ratcliff says, reading some items off the decades-old list: $2.25 for the Seafood Platter, Shrimp Creole for $1.75, and desserts for just 25 cents each.

Mr. Brittain and his wife, Pat, recall those early days well, and they revisit with fondness the recipes they collected when the restaurant began serving food back in early 1960s. There’s the She Crab Soup with cream and sherry from a Charleston recipe; the Avocado Seafarer, made with lump crabmeat and avocado; and the Sea Island Shrimp, from a recipe shared with the Brittains by a home economics expert who was a frequent guest at the Chesterfield Inn, two miles south. “Now, that’s a great recipe,” Mr. Brittain says of the popular cold shrimp dish that’s marinated with capers and onions. “It comes from when the Sea Islands had no electricity, so they’d pickle the shrimp, even burying it underground to keep it cool.”

There are other stories. Near the kitchen is a photo and framed news articles about Eunice Lee “June Bug” Dantzler, a popular and well-known employee at the restaurant for decades before he died in 1994 at the age of 75. Originally hired as a busboy, Mr. Dantzler officially worked about two days a week, but he showed up most days anyway, always wearing a red sport coat and tie and greeting customers with a handshake. He also set the fireplace with logs each winter morning and minded the fire. Ann Brittain says there are times when the staff still feels the longtime employee’s presence in the building. If they find a door is open that shouldn’t be or a creak upstairs, someone inevitably says, “It must be June Bug.”

Speaking of upstairs, the second story of the restaurant, with its dormered ocean-view windows, was once filled with bedrooms. The house was originally built as a vacation residence in 1930 for a High Point, North Carolina, family, and was later operated as a guesthouse called Howard Manor, which offered both food and lodging. When Clay Brittain and his uncle Steve Chapman purchased the property in 1962, they had major changes in mind. “We bought it to knock it down and build a ten-story high-rise,” Mr. Brittain recalls. “But we didn’t have enough money. So we thought, ‘What can we do temporarily, just to keep it open?’”

They decided to open a restaurant. One year of this short-term solution turned into two, and on and on. In the initial years, they continued to rent out upstairs rooms to overnight guests. But when the popularity of small inns on the Grand Strand waned with the construction of more modern motels and high-rises, the bedrooms were eventually converted to offices. (Change evolves slowly at Sea Captain’s House. The original sign announcing lodging still hung on a post outside into the 1990s.)

Today, the restaurant regularly serves hundreds of customers each day, with two longtime chefs—Ratcliff and Andrew Gardo—leading the busy kitchen and creating daily specials with each day’s delivery of fresh seafood. New seating areas have been added over time, but other changes have been few. The biggest the family can point to are how in the 1980s, beer and wine were added to the menu, and two years ago, live music on the patio made an appearance for the first time. And whenever they make any changes, the family says, rumors often follow that the restaurant might be torn down, as has happened with so many other buildings of old Myrtle Beach.

At his weekly lunch meeting with his family, when Mr. Brittain talks of the history of the well-worn restaurant, the mention of such rumors brings a teasing twinkle to his eye. Running the restaurant was never intended to be a long-term proposition. “It’s still temporary!” he declares, his wife, sons, and daughters-in-law smiling in agreement. Then, as sure as one of the shrimp boats chugging past the ocean-facing windows and the hum of conversations filtering in from other dining rooms, talk turns to plans for another holiday season and the new year.


Photograph Courtesy of the Brittain Family

She Crab Soup

January 2010

In a large stockpot, cook onions in butter until very soft, approximately 25 minutes. Reduce heat to low and add the flour, stirring until well blended. Cook on low heat, stirring frequently, for 20 minutes. Add the half & half and cream, and continue stirring. Add the mace and sherry, and simmer 45 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the crabmeat and simmer for 5 minutes. Ladle into soup bowls and serve immediately, topped with a splash of sherry. You must use good-quality crabmeat to obtain the desired quality of soup.

Soups, stews
  • 2 large onions, finely diced
  • 1 cup clarified butter
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 quarts half & half
  • 1 quart heavy cream
  • 1 1/2 tsp. mace
  • 1 cup good-quality Sherry, such as Dry Sack
  • 1 lb. fresh Atlantic blue crab meat, well-picked of any shell pieces

(Yields: 6 cups)

Champagne Mignonette

January 2010

Serve with South Carolina oysters on the half shell.

Side dish
  • 1 750 ml. bottle dry Champagne
  • 4 Tbs. Champagne vinegar
  • 3 Tbs. red-wine vinegar
  • 2 Tbs. minced shallot
  • 2 Tbs. minced fresh parsley
  • 2 Tbs. kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper

(Yields: 1 quart)


January 2010

Bring all ingredients to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes. Strain immediately and serve warm.

Soups, stews
  • 2 gallons apple cider
  • 1 Tbs. vanilla extract
  • 1 cup honey
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 2 oranges, halved and squeezed
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 lime
  • 8 whole cloves
  • 6 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 Tbs. whole allspice

(Yields: About 2 gallons)