The Post and Courier Food section is checking in weekly with four downtown Charleston restaurants coping with the coronavirus pandemic and recovering from restrictions designed to contain it. For previous installments of the series, as well as more information about the four featured restaurants and their chosen strategies for success, click here.
Vintage Lounge: Recovery achieved
Let’s start at the end.
Vintage Lounge owner Nathan Wheeler last week didn’t have much news to share about how his Upper King Street wine bar was progressing toward recovery because, as it turns out, the venue didn’t have much progress left to make.
“We have generated a sense of stability,” Wheeler said, naming one gauge of coming through the coronavirus crisis.
For Wheeler, there were two other indicators that Vintage had fully recovered from a government-imposed shutdown and consumer anxiety about going out: He wanted to be sure his employees didn’t have to worry about paying their bills and he wanted his customers to feel safe.
At this point, Wheeler said, Vintage has achieved all three benchmarks.
Although bars across South Carolina still have to contend with an 11 p.m. curfew on alcohol sales and a statewide ban on to-go cocktails, Wheeler has downgraded those circumstances from potential business killers to serious aggravations.
In other words, like many Charleston area restaurant owners, particularly since the second round of Paycheck Protection Program loan applications opened, Wheeler feels like he can see a future that doesn’t involve closing up shop.
“Navigating everything that was thrown at us and being able to maintain a unique experience at Vintage has been a challenge, but we see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
And with that, Vintage becomes the first establishment to graduate out of The Post and Courier’s weekly Next Round series, devoted to charting four restaurants’ different paths toward recovery.
Even though potential patrons might still feel uneasy about the local food-and-beverage industry and its fate, recovery isn’t in the eye of the beholder; it’s up to the patient to say when he’s well. In the hospitality sector, wellness is of course relative since complaints about low margins, staff shortages, rental prices and government regulations long predate the nation’s first COVID-19 case.
But Wheeler and his team are ready to shift their focus back from getting better to making sure their guests are having a great time. Valentine’s Day is just over one week away.
Butcher & Bee: Sweet without meat
Back when Butcher & Bee was in its original location, and still considered primarily a sandwich shop, the restaurant wasn’t an obvious Valentine’s Day destination. So to draw customers on an evening when most restaurants are promoting porterhouse steaks for two, Butcher & Bee came up with an all-vegetable menu.
Now that Butcher & Bee has a space worthy of Cupid’s bow, the restaurant is still serving a meatless Valentine’s Day menu, but this year’s rendition has twice as many courses. Reasoning that if any meal is consistent with small party sizes and in-pod socializing, it’s Valentine’s Day dinner, and Butcher & Bee is hoping to book every table in its limited-capacity dining room.
The holiday menu includes a fennel endive salad, saffron-marinated feta, pull-apart sweet potato sliders on milk bread, mushroom kebabs and sourdough tagliatelle with butterbean carbonara.
“I love incorporating our sourdough whenever we can,” pastry chef Jessica Olin says.
Plus, she envisions couples finding themselves on opposite sides of the same noodle, a la “Lady and the Tramp.” Even COVID-19 can’t stamp out (safe and responsible) romance.
Harold’s Cabin: Word on the street
If the downside of the current political, economic and public health situation is the surfeit of news to follow, the upside for many keen on keeping up with current events is they have more time to hunt and harvest information.
That’s the case for John Schumacher, owner of Harold’s Cabin. As he weighs what to do with his Westside restaurant, he regularly checks in with reporting from NPR, The Atlantic, CNN, The Post and Courier, and various podcasts, in addition to keeping an eye on social media.
Still, the most important newshound in his life might be his dog, Homer.
When Schumacher takes Homer for walks, he invariably runs into neighbors who ask after his health and reopening plans. Then they say something along the lines of, “None of our friends or family are going out to eat. Any suggestions on where we can get to-go food?”
As long as that question keeps coming up, he said, he won’t have to consult a newspaper to know whether it’s time to invite customers back to the Cabin.
Chasing Sage: Good neighbors
According to a recent headline in The Atlantic, which Schumacher might have seen, “the pandemic has erased entire categories of friendship.”
Stuck at home, the magazine contends, people have had to surrender their valuable “weak ties,” which is the fancy sociology term for the barista who knows your coffee order, the guy who works out on the treadmill next to yours and the co-worker who shares the elevator on your ride up to the office each morning.
Prior to the pandemic, most restaurants had similar networks. If a restaurant kitchen ran out of an ingredient, for example, its cooks knew which nearby restaurant could help. If a restaurant dining room couldn’t accommodate a four-top that arrived without a reservation, its hostess knew which nearby restaurant had an available table.
Chasing Sage has struck up that kind of relationship with its closest neighbor, craft beer bar Guilded Horn. The restaurant recently started making uncommonly good mochi doughnuts, which tend to sell out every night. But when there are doughnuts remaining at the end of service, the Chasing Sage crew gifts them to Guilded Horn.
“There are multiple layers of partnership, and this is the first step of that,” owner Walter Edward said.
Another step involves sending guests to Guilded Horn while they’re waiting for their ramen, or don’t want to eat soup in the rain, since Chasing Sage’s dining room remains closed to the public.
At least, that works during evening hours. But starting this week, Chasing Sage is shifting its schedule: In addition to serving dinner, Chasing Sage is experimenting with offering lunch from noon-1:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. The idea is to generate more revenue while Edward and co-owner Forrest Brunton are in the kitchen, making noodles and broth.
While the added hours shouldn’t disrupt their current prep schedule, Edward can’t help but hope that the demand is so intense that they’ll wish Guilded Horn was open for overflow traffic.