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Our Cravings

The dine-in experiences Free Times’ food writers have missed during COVID-19

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Bodhi Thai

At this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, Columbians are not without good options for takeout. Indeed, I for one have subsisted (more than my wallet would like) on delectable bowls from Freshe Poke, gratifying pizzas from Village Idiot and Il Focolare, baleadas from Cabañas and Chinese feasts from Tea Pot and Jin Jin, along with offerings from several other staple local restaurants.

But grabbing food, coming home, plopping on your couch and throwing on your binge watch of choice can’t replace the experience of eating out. From the plating to the experience to the knowledge and personality of the servers and bartenders, taking your meals home just isn’t the same.

In that spirit, Free Times‘ food writers are here to recommend some dine-in experiences they’re hungry to get back out and enjoy — whenever they feel comfortable doing so.

Some of these restaurants have already reopened for on-premise dining. Some have not. We hope these picks whet your appetite — and inspire you to keep supporting local restaurants, so that as many of them as possible are still around whenever things finally get back to normal. JORDAN LAWRENCE

Open Now: Finally Eating at Bodhi Thai

(126 E Main St, Lexington. bodhithaidining.com.)

It was on the calendar. Pinned as the next big dinner my partner and I were going to tackle before the pandemic crashed on our plans like a tidal wave. After talking to chef Nivit Tipvaree about his restaurant in prior months and learning about his story, along with hearing from countless locals — chefs and foodies alike — I was eager for the opportunity to try his artfully plated dishes.

There have been countless times during the pandemic where I’ve scrolled through the restaurant’s Instagram, dreaming about the plates of scallops with a parsnip puree and tamarind gastrique or the elegant chicken roulade with potatoes two ways and alluring droplets of Massaman curry.

Fine dining isn’t something I did on a regular basis by any means, but there is something beautiful about making a plan to eat at a place like Bodhi where you know you’ll have a special meal.

While the pandemic has put my own plans aside, it surely hasn’t stopped Tipvaree in any way. Swapping to takeout in March, he and his family have worked hard to keep the business afloat, getting much needed help from his Lexington community until the time came to reopen dine-in over the summer. BACH PHAM

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Lula Drake Wine Parlour

Not Open Yet: Whatever the Hell Tim Gardner Tells Me to Drink at Lula Drake

(1635 Main St. luladrake.com.)

A common awkward aspect of my work involves the offer of free food or drink. Typically my response includes a somewhat anxious laugh and I explain how, in most cases, I can’t ethically accept their gift and thank them kindly. This also dispels a common notion of my work — free food for life, baby. Unfortunately not.

However, in some instances, when offered an item, I’ll accept with the condition they allow me to pay for it (which then includes its own awkward explanation of why I must do so). In my first conversation with Lula Drake Wine Parlour owner Tim Gardner, this was the case and his next question was, “What do you drink?”

At risk of stating the obvious, the world of wine is vast and, frankly, quite intimidating for someone who has only been able to legally drink for about four years. Here’s what I know: I prefer white wines and for them to be on the dryer side, yet still drinkable. “A viognier” I told him, mispronouncing its name, and, after a few other quick questions, he produced a Lebanese wine. While not a viognier, he told me he thought I’d like it.

It turns out a Gardner, a sommelier, may know what he’s talking about. It was a lovely glass of wine, sweet enough to be drinkable yet not overwhelming. It was spot on. There’s few things better than asking Gardner about the wine he’s offering. There’s a gleam in his eyes and he raves about wine X, Y and Z. I miss drawing on Gardner’s expertise, and that of other masters of libation, when going out. It’s an affable experience, closer to one sharing a passion, compared to one doing their assigned duty.

Gardner often refers to running his Main Street wine parlour as his dream and it’s times like these where that shines through. Throughout the pandemic he’s held fast, staying closed and refusing to put customers or his staff at risk. I can’t knock him for it, I can only miss it and wish this pandemic was over. DAVID CLAREY

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The Whig

Not Open Yet: Fries and a Cold Beer at the Whig

(1200 Main St. thewhig.org.)

There hasn’t been a week that’s gone by since March where I haven’t thought about crashing into the second booth from the back of the Whig with a cold beer in hand. I think about the quiet glow of the bar’s basement and the cast of regulars and legendary staff who always make The Whig so consistently good.

Then there’s the fries. Those damn fries that are always perfectly crisp on the outside and soft and creamy in the center. The thing about fries in general is that they are a universally perfect food that anyone can get behind. Whether it’s when you dip in for an early snack or late night for a quick beer, whether you’re alone or with friends, a basket of The Whig’s fries is always fundamentally the right call.

For me, being at The Whig also is about the feeling that things are alright. The last time The Whig was open, the world was a different place. Not perfect, and we know now more than ever that it was far from that, but it was one in which we could meet and be together. That’s a feeling I crave, and for me and I’m sure other longtime locals, The Whig plays a big part in finding that feeling. BACH PHAM

Open Now: Spotted Salamander Cafe’s Oatmeal Cream Pie

(1531 Richland St. spottedsalamandercatering.com.)

There’s things I learned while preparing for this write up.

Like this: Little Debbie, the namesake of the sort-of-baked goods brand that stocks supermarket shelves, is a real person. Debbie McKee-Fowler is her name, and she, in fact, is now an executive vice president for the company that her family founded.

This brief trivia interlude is a segue into discussing oatmeal cream pies, a favorite treat of mine when I was younger and one of the most popular sellers for the brand, per its website. The dessert combines oatmeal cookies, which I adore in almost all variations, and sweet cream, which all should love. It wasn’t until I was in my late teen years, maybe embarrassingly late, that I realized that Little Debbie was not in fact the only purveyor of these delectable treats. Bakers near and far have riffs on this and they all tend to surpass the ones of my youth. Apologies to Ms. McKee-Fowler.

In Columbia’s Spotted Salamander Cafe and Catering, I found the oatmeal cream pie to be a revelation. Chef-owner Jessica Shillato sandwiches a rich cream filling between two oatmeal cookies. It’s salty, sweet and gigantic. The sandwich readily could serve as a fulfilling dessert for two. However, I’ve been prone to consuming one all on my own.

The dessert also fits nicely into Shillato’s food philosophy. I’ve never sat down with her and asked her what exactly she strives for, but it seems apparent enough — darn good, local fare that brings you a sense of home. Ever the champion of the area’s farmers, she whips out tomato pies, pot pies, pimento cheese, deviled eggs and more that are as at home at Sunday dinner as they are in her eatery. One can envision her oatmeal cream pie, in all its rich and rustic glory, being snagged ahead of that meal, too good to wait on. DAVID CLAREY

Open Now: Give Into Crab Shack Fever

Just before the pandemic hit, the local chapter of my college alumni group gathered around a big table at Wild Crab Seafood (275 Park Terrace Dr., Suite 200) to tell yarns of yesteryear while dipping ribbons of sweet and juicy crab flesh in golden drawn butter.

I miss the crush and cacophony of packed-to-the-gills crab shacks pre-COVID. Frenetic servers would scurry about depositing heaping plates of Dungeness, king and snow crab limbs with a queue of salivating diners out the door.

Feasting on crustacean gams is a hands-on, tactile eating experience that requires legwork. First, you roll up your sleeves, bib up and brandish an exoskeleton breaching tool before the cracking odyssey can begin in earnest. All the work and dedication you have to put in to extract those tender morsels of meat makes each buttery bite feel like a hard-won triumph.

There are plenty of spots around the capital city to get your fill including Yummi Crab (150 Forum Dr.), The Krab Hut (280 Harbison Blvd)., The Juicy Crab (1304 Bower Pkwy.) and The Crab Shak III (655 St. Andrews Rd.). MIKE DOJC

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Bourbon Columbia

Open Now: Summer Cocktails at Bourbon

(1214 Main St. bourboncolumbia.com.)

Ca-chink, ca-chink.

There’s something special about sitting in the plush darkness at the bar at Bourbon, at one of the end seats where you can listen to and watch the bartenders perform their cocktail-making dance once more. From listening to the ice shake to cool the ingredients to watching each pour being added, and finally, breathing in the scents of the floral, herbal or fruity touches added in your personal drink, there’s nothing like the craft cocktail experience. Home bartenders try but often lack the obscure bar ingredients and deftness of hand like those behind the divide at Bourbon.

We’ve missed an entire season — and dare I say, the best season — for fun cocktails in this waning summer. Brightly colored concoctions, frozen drinks from the blender, and long toothpicks full of diced fruit are all hallmarks of the summer cocktail menu that will have to wait another year. But as with most people who are sick of humidity and heat combined, we’ll gladly turn our eyes to autumn and the spectrum of autumnal drinks to come on the sidewalk seating. Or, if you feel safe enough to do it, you’ll be able to sit at the bar, at those end seats, and watch your favorite cocktail artists shake, pour, and lovingly place hand-chosen garnishes atop your cocktail, the kind you can only get at a well-stocked bar. APRIL BLAKE

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The War Mouth

Open Now: Drinking outside at The War Mouth

(1209 Franklin St. thewarmouth.com.)

Of course, for those who do not require deep-hued interiors as part of their bar experience, The War Mouth has been shaking up cocktails all summer long. With their generous patio space, it’s been a safer haven for people who want food and drinks they didn’t make, in a place they haven’t been all day. {span}Plus, during such a strained time for restaurants of all types, it’s nice to see a spot continue to give its staff new opportunities — as The War Mouth has done by making David Adedokun the main man behind the bar. Adedokun has been adding his own twist to the recent cocktail offerings, like the Red Foxx, a combination of Pampero Extra Añejo and Hamilton Black Rum with notes of tangy raspberry and sugar. Or perhaps a lighter gin drink sounds better in this still humid September weather: Jocassee gin mixed with red currant cider wine, limoncello made in-house, local honey, and a hint of lavender.

To keep their numbers manageable, The War Mouth is requiring reservations, which can be obtained by emailing them at thewarmouth@gmail.com. Unfortunately this means spur of the moment trips there are curtailed, but in the name of safety, it’s worth it. Enjoy the patio experience while the weather is still palatable for the next few months. APRIL BLAKE

Not Open Yet: Unagi Donburi at Saki

(4963 Fort Jackson Blvd. 803-787-5307)

I have a recurring nightmare where I’m haunted by a house full of apparitions of every animal I’ve ever ingested. The farm animals are no sweat. Ghosts of clucking chickens, mooing cows and bleating goats trudging through my living room don’t exactly give me the heebie-jeebies. But then I’ll go into the bathroom and the tub will be spilling over with a writhing tangle of slimy, dead-eyed, and ectoplasm-spewing freshwater eels. Next thing I know I’m awake and shrieking for a couple seconds before the relief that it was all just a dream sets in.

Sure, I could ease my subconscious by cutting back on my unagi consumption, but fat chance of that ever happening. Especially, the Unagi Donburi at Saki, hands down the most exquisite eel over rice bowl in town. The theater of the dine-in experience is hard to replicate. There’s a palpable wow-factor when you open the bento box and waft the tantalizing caramelized soy-glaze scented steam. The soft and crispy barbecued eel fillets are pure heaven and the kabayaki flavors seep into the rice below lending the starch a layer of sweet and salty sophistication. They also sprinkle the dish with toasted sesame seeds, imparting a nutty flavor, and carve avocado into artful petals to add a rich creaminess to the dish which is a tasty touch. MIKE DOJC

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