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Downtown Charleston restaurant owners grateful for any kind of normalcy as 2020 nears end

Outdoor dining

Renee Hettinger eats at a table outside of Chasing Sage with her dog Clementine on Tuesday, October 20, 2020. Hettinger, who has ordered from the restaurant during each pop-up concept, says she only eats outdoors at restaurants because she has friends that are high-risk for complications from COVID-19 and it isn’t worth the risk. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

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.

Butcher & Bee: Much-needed laughs

Hey, did you hear the one about the high-priced avocado?

It’s not really a joke, Butcher & Bee owner Michael Shemtov admits: Maybe more of a wry line. But when he stopped by a guest’s table last Wednesday evening, and the guest started reminiscing about picking avocados on an Israeli kibbutz in the 1970s, Shemtov’s interest was piqued. His restaurants have sold enough orders of avocado toast for Shemtov to have a tight grasp on the trendiness of avocados.

“Was avocado a trash fruit back then, or did it cost $2 at Whole Foods?” he asked.

Laughs all around.

Again, the crack wasn’t the height of comedy. But it represented something more important to Shemtov and his customer: A return to the pre-pandemic rhythm of making small talk in a restaurant. That wasn’t a possibility at Butcher & Bee prior to the restaurant last week reinstating full service indoors.

“It felt normal,” Shemtov said. “It’s the first time that things have felt relaxed and fun: It was really a special feeling to see people ordering desserts and laughing and lingering over wine. Just to be able to interact with a table was really nice.”

Shemtov stressed that the Butcher & Bee dining experience isn’t exactly the same as it was before restaurants closed in March: Patrons have their temperatures taken when they enter, and they’re required to be masked when not seated at their spaced-out tables.

Yet the restaurant didn’t make as many modifications as Shemtov originally thought would be necessary. For example, when the restaurant first reopened for outdoor dining, its team talked at length about the propriety of admitting customers to use the bathroom. They discussed using floor tape to delineate a pathway from the side door.

“Then you saw 20 people used the bathroom today, and it’s OK; staff isn’t getting sick,” Shemtov said. “So we got comfortable with it. There’s the science and there’s the zeitgeist, and they’re not always the same.”

As Shemtov sees it, the greatest infection risk to a diner is posed by his or her companions.

“People should be very mindful of who they’re going out to eat with,” he said.

Still, he stressed he wouldn’t have returned to full service inside if employees weren’t lobbying for it.

“It was nice to have some energy in the room,” said executive chef Rick Ohlemacher, who was half of a two-person kitchen crew on Wednesday night, during which the dining room edged toward the brink of a wait. “When you can hear the words to the music in the kitchen, something doesn’t feel right.”

Up until last week, that quiet prevailed even when cooks were hustling to package up to-go food. But with full service restored, Shemtov said, the “symphony and dance” of front-of-house and back-of-house working at the same pace brought a familiar buzz back to the room.

He added, “It might only last for a week, but we’ll take it.”

Vintage Lounge: Breaking with tradition 

Vintage Lounge has decked its street-facing windows with boughs of holly, but owner Nathan Wheeler said “festive” has a different meaning for his team this year.

Typically, Vintage shuts down on Christmas so employees who celebrate the holiday can spend it with friends and family. But another quirk of 2020 is Christmas falls on a Friday, so the Upper King Street wine bar would have to sacrifice two of its biggest nights if it went dark on Christmas Eve. Wheeler said that wasn’t a viable choice.

“The accumulation and combination of this year's events, as well as team members volunteering to work, made our decision for us,” he said.

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Still, Wheeler said he’s determined to make the mood celebratory. Beyond the holly up front, Vintage is planning a wine bottle promotion.

And he added, “There will also be plenty of servings of our secret recipe eggnog for everyone.”

Harold's Cabin: Pie for Christmas

If cookies have a season, it’s December (unless it’s February, when most Girl Scout troops are selling Thin Mints and Samoas.)

For Harold’s Cabin owner John Schumacher, though, the holidays are no reason to deviate from pie.

“I’ve found the pandemic has taken my pie baking enthusiasm to a new level,” he said.

Schumacher tried to push pie when Harold’s Cabin was open by mounting a lighthearted “Pie for Breakfast” campaign, but he said he’s moved closer to pie monsterdom since the restaurant’s been closed to the public. Not counting quiche, he estimated he’s baked nearly one pie each week this fall.

Thus far, Schumacher has made blueberry pie, peach pie, buttermilk pie and fig pie. His brother-in-law recently brought back apples from North Carolina, which Schumacher plans to work into a pie this month.

But he’s been thinking more and more about mincemeat. While Schumacher doesn’t generally take his cues from Crusaders, he can’t help but wonder if a pie filled with beef suet could be the perfect pastry for this Christmas.

Chasing Sage: Reckoning with loss

Charleston has so far been spared the rash of restaurant closures spreading across cities where the weather and state law are at odds with indoor dining: When Blossom last week shut down, citing the pressures of the pandemic, it emerged as a downtown outlier.

But in Seattle, which on Feb. 29 recorded the nation’s first COVID death, established restaurants have closed at a startling rate. Among the casualties is Tilth, the pioneering organic restaurant where Chasing Sage co-owners Walter Edward and Forrest Brunton in 2009 met as cooks.

“The little green Craftsman house represented a movement in Seattle dining: talented, independent chefs expressing creativity and supporting local farmers in a city that, in turn, supported them. People loved the ethos, loved the care and loved the all-organic Pacific Northwest food that (chef Maria) Hines served,” the Seattle Times’ Bethany Jean Clement wrote in a tribute column after Hines in October announced she was forced out of business by a 70 percent drop in customer traffic.

Edward and Brunton signed an email from former employees, thanking Hines for her 14 years of staying true to her vision of connecting eaters to the land. But when they saw Tilth’s name on a long list of restaurant closures compiled by the Independent Restaurant Coalition, the loss sobered them anew.

“That was an established, well-loved place in town,” Edward said. “Places that have a lot more behind them than we do are closing. Places with more notoriety; more support. Who’s heard of Chasing Sage? A few people around town, because we’re in the paper every week, but we’re not Tilth.”

Co-owner Cindy Edward shares her husband’s apprehension. Since Chasing Sage hadn’t opened before the pandemic, it didn’t qualify for a Paycheck Protection Program loan: It’s trying to stay afloat without government money; an established customer base or track record.

“To me, it’s super terrifying,” Edward said.

Yet she can’t help but take heart in not seeing her restaurant’s name on the Independent Restaurant Coalition’s list.

She continued, “It’s terrifying, but it makes me grateful. It’s both things. It’s a roller coaster.”

Every restaurant opening is a roller coaster, Walter Edward pointed out.

Cindy Edward agreed, except that it’s not like any roller coaster she’s ever seen. This ride is very, very long, with loops that just keep coming.

And now the train is pointed toward January, traditionally the roughest month for Charleston restaurants.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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