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A Dining Dynasty

If you are a longtime resident or visitor to the Grand Strand, it is very likely that you bemoan the fact that the landscape is not what it once was. You feel a pang of sorrow when looking at the former Pavilion site. Or, you become wistful remembering that motor inn that your family stayed in on Ocean Boulevard that is now a fast food restaurant, or worse, a parking lot.

Yes, things have moved on here in our little corner of Carolina. However, in this seemingly never-ending tide of change there remains a constant. It’s a little piece of continuity that we can all take heart in: the dining dynasty known as the Lee family. You’ve undoubtedly enjoyed their food and friendship, whether at Lee’s Inlet Kitchen in Murrells Inlet, or at Chesapeake House and Chestnut Hill restaurants in Myrtle Beach.

It all began in the late 1940s, when Eford and Pearl Lee, small-scale farmers from the Conway area, took a chance. They decided to leave generations of farming and Eford Lee began managing Lokey’s Restaurant (that subsequently became the Wayside Restaurant, and is now the Hot Fish Club) in Murrells Inlet. At a courthouse auction in 1948, Eford and Pearl bought a building in Murrells Inlet with a checkered past as a disreputable bar. In its place, they created Lee’s Inlet Kitchen.

“That original restaurant had 10 tables,” says Kelly Lee Dorman, granddaughter of the founders. “They lived over the restaurant with five kids. Everyone worked from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.” From the very beginning, the Lees served up a special kind of fare, stressing family as much as the food. For decades, the Lees built up the restaurant’s solid reputation as the place to get great food at great prices in a great atmosphere.

In the 1970s, Eford and Pearl’s son, Billy Lee, took over running the business. Billy Lee and his former wife, Jean, had four children of their own. Daughter Kelly Lee and her husband, Dexter Dorman, took over the restaurant in 1983. Kelly and Dexter in turn have four children of their own. “They all work at the restaurant; they’re all still a part of it,” says Kelly. When asked about a good memory from the restaurant, she says, “What stands out in my mind is the good feeling I have always gotten from the restaurant. It’s not just a business; it’s part of us and our lives. It’s always been a continuation of our family.”

Kelly’s brother, Chris Lee, co-owner of Chestnut Hill restaurant with his brother Greg, remembers his youth at Lee’s Inlet Kitchen. “We started young. I was 10 years old and washing dishes,” Chris says. “Growing up in Murrells Inlet, fishing was my first love. I worked on the boats, got off and then went to the restaurant. I was always busy!”

Jean Cribb (formerly Lee), Kelly and Chris’ mother, caught the restaurant bug while working at Lee’s Inlet Kitchen. “I married into the restaurant. I worked there for many years and always enjoyed it. It was wonderful seeing customers, providing food and making friends,” she says. After divorcing Billy Lee, Jean still had restaurants in her blood. She married Ed Cribb, who worked over at Oliver’s Lodge in Murrells Inlet. Together they opened Chesapeake House in Myrtle Beach (she now operates Chesapeake House with her son, Buddy Cribb). In 1987, Jean opened Chestnut Hill with her sons Chris and Greg. “The land next to Chesapeake House was up for lease. We decided to lease and build Chestnut Hill as a dining complement to Chesapeake,” Jean says. “Better to compete with family than strangers.” Chestnut Hill, taken from Jean’s maiden name, was one of the first truly upscale restaurants in the Myrtle Beach area, but still its core values were those of the entire Lee family.

“We buy the freshest and serve the freshest food,” says Chris. “The best is worth it, because our name and reputation is in every plate we serve. I learned this from my parents and grandparents.” Sister Kelly echoes this sentiment: “We serve the best quality food we can, with best service. We’re very particular about our employees.” Kelly says servers have “a sense ownership in the restaurant” and they really care that everything is done to the highest of standards. No greater example can be seen than with Aunt Alzata Lee, 82, Lee’s Inlet Kitchen’s very first waitress. She now serves as hostess. On a recent Saturday night, she was seating customers with a spring in her step and a smile on her face and commenting, “If I live to October, I’ve worked here for 62 years.” On this same night, the restaurant was welcoming the Cox family for their annual family dinner. The group was only numbering about 60 this year, down from past years of 80-plus family members. “It’s wonderful being with customers, especially repeat folks year after year,” says Kelly. “Generations of these families are our customers. They’re our extended family, too.”

As the fourth generation of Lees begin to come into their own and think of their futures, the older Lees are wistful, yet pragmatic, about the fate of their dining dynasty. “The restaurant business is harder than it used to be,” says Kelly. “With the prices of food, services, insurance, plus the burden of many food regulations, it’s not as profitable as it used to be. The future is cloudy.” Still, Kelly is hopeful that one of her children, maybe daughter Ashton, who graduated from Coastal Carolina University with a degree in business, may take up the challenge and keep Lee’s Inlet Kitchen in the family.

Chris Lee is cautiously optimistic, too. “Hopefully we’re going to keep doing our own thing,” Chris says. “I think we’ll continue with restaurants, it’s in our blood. We can’t not do it.”