This story is part of a weekly series chronicling downtown Charleston restaurants coping with the coronavirus pandemic and recovering from restrictions designed to contain it. To read more about the series, click here.
As a certified sommelier who split close to a decade between downtown Charleston wine institutions Charleston Grill and Bin 152 before opening Vintage Lounge, Nathan Wheeler is more than qualified to parse Chenin Blanc for customers. He can suggest what to pair with duck rillettes and explain why certain wines look kind of orange.
This summer, though, guests haven’t been asking about grape skins and charcuterie. They have a different set of questions:
“Why do I have to wear a mask?”
“Why do we have to leave when we just got here?”
“Why can’t I move this table over there?”
Wheeler, who co-owns the unabashedly snazzy bar with hospitality veteran Mike Shuler, can’t remember the last time he hand-sold a bottle of wine. Instead, he spends his evenings reeling off a “Rolodex of responses” to guests whose notion of living it up doesn’t square with city and state mandates.
Come 9 p.m., he’s stationed by the front door, issuing preemptive last call warnings based on Gov. Henry McMaster’s order suspending bar service at 11 p.m.
“I channel my inner Mickey Bakst,” Wheeler said, referring to the Charleston Grill general manager who’s pictured in Explore Charleston’s glossy magazine ads touting local hospitality. “I say, ‘Hey guys, I hate to do this ...’ And 99 percent people are respectful.”
The remainder “are frustrated with other aspects of COVID environment,” he continued. “I just try to remember that anger is a manifestation of anxiety.”
If Wheeler is anxious, he doesn’t show it. He’s aggravated by the bar curfew and concerned about local musicians, who are prohibited from performing anything but unmiked acoustic sets in bars and restaurants after 9 p.m.
He’s also still irked that Upper King Street restaurant owners on May 30 received no official warning that armed looters were about to converge on their businesses; Wheeler hustled workers and guests out Vintage’s back door while vandals were smashing the one up front.
“Everyone wants to be in charge and be a leader, but there are people in charge that should not be in charge,” he said.
Anxious, though? Would an anxious owner say this when asked whether the 3-year-old bar can hold out for another three years, considering it can only admit 80 people rather than the 160 that the Fire Marshal Division OK’d after inspecting the bar’s mohair seats and brass tabletops in healthier times?
“We’re going to be around. We’re the only thing like this in Charleston. And we’re just better than everybody.”
Wheeler’s confidence is so complete that when indoor dining was closed across the state, he assumed Vintage would be back online in a few weeks.
“Thinking back about that, it’s mind-blowing,” he said. “If you were like, ‘Shut down for your spring ...' ” He shakes his head, suggesting he might not have been as eager to comply.
But the Vintage team did exactly as told. Wheeler had a punch list with hundreds of tasks set aside when the bar was packed so reliably that patrons paid $100 apiece for a membership card which allowed them to cut to the front of the line.
During the closure, Wheeler and Tim Logan painted. They cleaned. They watched YouTube videos about espresso machine upkeep.
Unlike many bars, Vintage Lounge has an expansive patio, so as soon as McMaster lifted the ban on outdoor dining, Vintage rehired its staff and reopened.
“Everyone wanted to come back,” Wheeler said. “We were really worried about being slow, but we were doing OK.”
Then, when indoor dining was allowed again, Vintage reinstated that, too.
One of the few changes that Vintage has made in deference to the pandemic is it now offers a happy hour from 5 p.m.-7 p.m. Wheeler doesn’t like the idea of happy hour, but half-price drinks were a concession to employees who need the buyers’ tips to pay down mounting bills.
At Vintage, the goal is to create “as normal an experience as possible given the current environment,” Wheeler said.
Having to reprimand guests who wander over to the bar barefaced after a late dinner down the street is not advancing that goal, as Wheeler sees it. But he’s counting on the city to “pivot” soon. He has wine to discuss.
To be continued.