In the roughly 10 years since opening up as a high-end Downtown Charleston bar that specializes in craft cocktails like The Hemingway for washing down caviar and oysters, the Victor Social Club recently reemerged as Victor’s Seafood & Steak with a full-service dining concept. And why have a one-hit dining room when you can have two under one roof? With the former Michael’s on the Alley space, the Holy City Hospitality sister properties now offer dual dining experiences—each with its own unique vibe. One upscale and casual, the other an intimate, classic steakhouse, they are linked by a shared entryway, menu and vision.
For owner Michael Bennett, a 40-plus-year hospitality veteran and Charleston native, the endeavor is all about the guest, offering options and welcoming all like family. The son of self-made Irish immigrants, Bennett’s entrepreneurial bent grew from his family’s strong work ethic. As a teen, he began a business at the City Market renting out bicycles and mopeds to visitors. By the time he was 21, he’d purchased his first of several downtown fixer-uppers, jump-starting a lifetime of thoughtful development.
“I was a foot soldier in Joe Riley’s army,” says Bennett. “The mayor was a visionary … and very motivating. He’d say, ‘We’re gonna build the best waterfront park—the best of everything.’ There weren’t many young developers at that time; we saw it happening and loved it.”
He says Riley’s progressiveness helped people like him—hardworking but unconnected—to participate in the city’s redevelopment.
Bennett’s real estate ventures expanded from those early first steps in the 1980s under the brand of Bennett Hospitality—one of Charleston’s largest locally owned development companies. Today, the entrepreneur’s portfolio includes event venues, multiple restaurants, hotels and resort properties around the country—last year, his recently opened Hotel Bennett was named the No. 1 luxury hotel in the country by USA Today.
“It’s a classic little jewel box—my love letter to the city,” notes Bennett, saying his recipe for success is to look at guests as friends of the family.
Bennett’s affection for the Holy City mirrors his strong family ties. Victor’s Seafood & Steak pays homage to his father, Virginia’s on King to his mother—both of whom, he says, built their lives from nothing. Throughout the organization, staff execute on a daily basis Bennett’s vision of hospitality—one that is family-forward and adheres to high standards. I met with Tony Cuajunco, Victor’s Seafood & Steak director of operations, for a chat and found his enthusiasm for the reimagined concept palpable.
“What’s so special about this project is it’s more accessible for guests,” notes Cuajunco, who joined Holy City Hospitality in 2018 after a 20-year career at Outback Steakhouse. “I call it upscale casual. There are a lot of fine dining restaurants in Charleston. Michael wanted to create a space that offered an upscale experience and a little lower price point.”
Cuajunco says Bennett also wanted everything “down my alley” to feel comfortable, a reference to Hutson Alley, where Victor’s, Michael’s and two other sister eateries—Coast Bar & Grill and Vincent Chicco—were carved out of a block-long strip of former warehouses.
The property was part of a parcel Bennett purchased from the heirs of Vincent Chicco, a local businessman who’d operated Charleston’s first “blind tigers,” which offered liquor during the Prohibition years. The eponymous restaurant Bennett opened on the property honors Chicco’s memory and his close relationship with the family.
“We’re a restaurant group but it’s all about family,” Cuajunco says. “I try to maintain that sensibility throughout my organization. The most important piece is to be genuine, put the right team together—staff that love food and love people—you can’t fake hospitality. We genuinely care about every guest who comes in. We want the guest to be so impressed that they’re already thinking about when they can come in again.”
The interior of the former Victor Social Club side of the restaurant still impresses with its soaring ceilings and a centerpiece marble bar that serves signature cocktails as well as barrel-aged spirits, beer and wine. Artwork depicting vivid sports fishing scenes painted by renowned Charleston artist John C. Doyle flank the elegant dining space.
A few steps away is a more intimate and slightly more elevated dining space that offers live piano on weekend evenings. Rich woodwork, plush banquettes and Bennett family antiques embrace the guest in a warm hug. Generations of family history unfold in framed photos of parents and siblings—hunting, fishing, playing baseball—on surrounding walls.
“You’re sitting down to a dinner with the Bennetts,” says Cuajunco with a smile. “They’re a very active, outdoor family. And very welcoming.”
Dinner service unfolds in the dual dining rooms overseen by Dalton Fischer, executive chef for both Victor’s Seafood & Steak and Vincent Chicco. His approachable menu pairs local seafood with steakhouse classics—offering shareable appetizers, like a seafood tower and oysters Rockefeller; hearty entrées, such as ribeye, filets, bone-in chops and surf and turf; loaded potatoes and more—all with his own special spin. An inspired self-starter, the Tennessee native earned his credentials on the job, landing his first restaurant gig as a teen who knew nothing about grilling but gamely knocked out steaks on a busy Friday night.
“I’m constantly studying anything I can get my hands on,” he says. “I owe a lot to Harold McGee, a James Beard Foundation award-winning author. He’s best known for his seminal work, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. The book is used in most culinary schools.”
Fischer’s tenure with Holy City Hospitality spans almost a decade, with time spent in the kitchens of 39 Rue de Jean, Vincent Chicco and both iterations of Victor’s. He says he learned early in his career to stop thinking about what you can add to the dish, but rather what you can take away and still maintain its integrity.
“Vincent Chicco has always been my passion. I love the simplicity of Italian cuisine,” says Fischer, adding that he’s parlayed that respect for ingredients and Lowcountry sources into a plan to make Bennett’s vision of Victor’s come to life.
I visited Victor’s prior to the official reopening with a guest in tow, and we were plied with a steady stream of the aforementioned steakhouse classics. For starters: oysters Rockefeller—embellished with a parmesan crema—the chef’s spin on the half-shell classic.
Toasted pancetta replaced the customary bacon in the clams casino, which showcased cherrystones, which Fischer says pack more of a wow factor than littleneck clams. A velvety lobster bisque came embellished with thick bites of lump crab.
Lightly toasted flatbread arrived for slathering with a super-elevated spinach dip—savory local greens were blended into a sauce enriched with white wine, alliums and herbs and thickened with a bit of cream cheese.
Tender prime rib—a whole rib loin—was generously rubbed with Victor’s house seasoning blend, reverse seared, then paired with a signature twice-baked potato served in deep-fried skins, a technique Fischer says helps Victor’s stand out a bit.
We finished with a refreshing slice of key lime pie the kitchen spices up with a citrusy seasoning blend called Tajin.
Our experience at Victor’s Seafood & Steak was easily a standout for us and a testimony to the vision of Michael Bennett and his passion for Charleston and hospitality. He says with a smile: “I love renting bicycles, renting rooms, serving people. From our family to yours, welcome to Charleston.” *
Wendy Swat Snyder is a Charleston-based freelance writer (sweetgrassandgrits.com).