Sisters Ann Warner and Allison Cagle, along with her husband, Hank, are now helming The Wreck, a 26-year-old mainstay in Mount Pleasant
PHOTO: All hands on deck - (Top, bottom right) Allison and Hank Cagle and Ann Warner maintain the signature shrimp shack vibe, complete with paper plates of fried local shellfish (bottom left).
Sitting at The Wreck of the Richard & Charlene, it’s easy to lose track of time. Happy hour rolls into evening in the screened-in dining room overlooking Shem Creek, with diners lulled by the whir of fans overhead and the sight of boats bobbing alongside the docks. The Ravenel Bridge rises in the distance, and you can just make out the traffic inching over it, but the hustle and bustle seem far away. With colored Christmas lights dangling in the rafters and paper tablecloths underhand, it could be 1997, and you’d be none the wiser.
And that’s exactly the point. In 1991, when Fred Scott opened the Mount Pleasant restaurant—named for the wayward ship that wrecked in Shem Creek during 1989’s Hurricane Hugo—he wanted to recreate the kind of shrimp shacks he grew up with here in the ’40s. That meant steaming piles of local Wando Shrimp Company shellfish and fried fish fillets served on paper plates, cold beer, fresh key lime pie, and no air conditioning. And even as the Lowcountry has rapidly developed and modernized through the years, the 26-year-old spot remains remarkably the same.
“It’s an experience,” laughs Ann Warner, who has worked at The Wreck for 16 years. The eatery is off the beaten path, sitting at the very end of residential Haddrell Street in the Old Village, with no signage save for a red buoy numbered “106” marking its gravel lot and a jumbo anchor leaning against the front steps. Yet each night, the dining room and waterfront patio fill up with locals and visitors, ranging from elderly couples to the rambunctious cast of Southern Charm (in October, The Wreck hosted a Halloween party for the reality TV show). The restaurant even won over Top Chef judge Gail Simmons, who wrote in Condé Nast Traveler, “The Wreck makes some of the best Lowcountry-style seafood imaginable.” This summer, when Charleston Wine + Food announced a special dinner to be held there in spring 2018, tickets sold out in 20 minutes.
The eatery’s continued preservation is due largely to its loyal new owners. In 2016, when Scott turned 85, he decided it was finally time to retire. Rather than selling the prime property, he tapped Warner, his veteran front-of-house staffer, to take over, trusting that she’d keep the restaurant exactly as he left it—no A.C. and all. “It wasn’t something I imagined would happen,” Warner recalls. “I thought that once he was ready to retire, he’d sell, and I’d just go on to the next thing along with the rest of my coworkers.”
But the staff stayed intact, as Warner assumed co-ownership of The Wreck in January 2017 with her sister and brother-in-law, Allison and Hank Cagle. “Mr. Scott had a hard time letting it go, because this is his baby,” says Allison, who also co-owns Mount Pleasant’s The Southern with her husband and their business partner, Perry Darby. “Even though other developers promised they’d keep The Wreck the same, I think he knew they would do something else,” adds Warner, noting that one downtown builder proposed raising a two-story fish market and upscale eatery in its place. “He would’ve been heartbroken.”
Nearly a year into ownership, the sisters have kept their word, though they’ve expanded the wine list, added local beers to the mix, and given the place a fresh coat of paint. “We’ve accepted that it’s not for everyone,” Warner laughs. “There’s more freedom that way. We say, ‘This is the way we are, and you can take it or leave it.’”