There's a line forming down Meeting Street Road, a clear sign the 11 o'clock hour is nigh. Five minutes later, the doors to Bertha's Kitchen are still not open, but this is not a restaurant crisis. The lock won't turn until each steaming pan is positioned and the tea hits its hallmark pinnacle sweetness.
A clutch of aproned ladies hustle about the kitchen, one dipping a plastic spoon into a pot of gravy for a last-minute taste test, one making adjustments at the cash register, and another shaking hot grease from the last few pieces of fried chicken before the lot is tumbled into a heap beneath a warming light.
When everyone's ready, Julie Grant saunters through the dining room and releases the lock, the clickety-clack a familiar sound to the hungry folks sweltering on the sidewalk in the North Charleston sun. The line moves indoors and, with it, the buzz of anticipation. Once inside, lots of easy conversation ensues between the counter staff and customers.
"Your whole work crew coming in?"
"Is your mama still living on Comstock?"
"I was gonna do hamburger steak today, but that chicken's lookin' good."
"You gotta have cornbread with your lima beans."
The chatter mingles with the clanking of metal spoons and the white noise of the television in the dining room, which feels more like the family room in a well-lived-in house, especially when you add in the family portraits and aromas of soul food cookery. But unlike home, orders are served up in Styrofoam clamshells for dining in or carryout. At Bertha's, it's all about simplicity, convenience and good eating.
On any given weekday, you might find fried pork chops, hamburger steak, fried chicken, yams, green beans, macaroni and cheese, rice and gravy, field peas with hocks, limas cooked with smoked turkey necks and a Gullah tradition, okra soup, which is a rib-sticking, tomato-y stew studded with chunks of ham.
Don't forget the cornbread - moist cake-like squares that pair perfectly with any of Bertha's offerings. This is soul food of the highest order served up in time-honored, humble surroundings.
This is also the stuff American paradigms are made of, a point not lost on the James Beard Foundation. In May 2017, the institution recognized Bertha's Kitchen with an America's Classic award, given to restaurants with "timeless appeal, beloved in their regions for quality food that reflects the character of their community."
"We were very excited to get the award, and believe we got it because of the relationship we have with the people who come here," said Grant, who co-owns the operation with sisters Linda Pinckney and Sharon Grant Coakley. "We are nice to people and they are nice to us. And if somebody comes in who has no food and is down and out, we'll feed them."
The eatery was established in 1979 by their late mother, Albertha Grant. She is touchingly memorialized in a dining room mural of the family created by the late Charleston artist, Charles DeSaussure.
"I know Mama is really happy about the award," Grant said. "In April, it was 10 years since her passing, so when we first got nominated, we knew she was smiling down on us."
Bertha's Kitchen is open weekdays only, so plan accordingly. Once you find Meeting Street Road, look for the bright blue, two-story building with a constant flow of folks going in and out.