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Columbia bar The Whig open for reservation-only seating and to-go orders

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The Whig (copy)

The Whig, in a pre-pandemic world. 

After a soft re-opening weekend, The Whig is officially back in business, albeit much different.

The typically crowded and eclectic dive bar on the end of Columbia’s Main Street is open for takeout and a small number of reservation-only tables. Its return ends a roughly nine month closure for one of the city’s most beloved and highly regarded spots.

“Very quiet, that’s the way it's going to be,” Whig co-owner Phill Blair said. “We’re going to operate at maybe 25-30 percent capacity, reservation only, no walk-ins for to-go orders, no walk-ins for random tables. Just a very controlled, slow, tiny amount of work.”

The restaurant's lengthy closure makes sense considering the way the virus is transmitted. The space is small, often crowded and in a basement. Opening amid a recent spike in COVID-19 cases isn’t “ideal,” Blair said, but it's necessary for employees who have seen unemployment benefits run thin.

He said they’re operating with no bar seating and a limited number of tables. They are also spacing out their reservations to give ample time to sanitize the space between customers and for finding parking on Main Street.

Blair said employees felt good about the initial return last weekend. They plan on closing the restaurant on Mondays, to adjust their safety plan as needed, he detailed.

“We’re trying to get the ball rolling to see what the viability is, if that’s going to work,” he explained. “We’re going to have to get a few weeks of learning with to-go food and limited tables and (see) how long we think we can operate like that.”

Blair and his business partner opened WECO Bottle & Biergarten in West Columbia amid the pandemic. It’s become a quick hit and developed a reputation as a go-to safe spot with ample outdoor seating. 

There, they dutifully enforce mask rules, which Blair feels have garnered a "strict" reputation. To him, the rules aren’t stringent — just enforced. He said they’re emulating that enforcement at The Whig.

"People are used to the Whig experience, you go in and its not a set process, you’re used to being crowded, none of that is going to be (the same,)" Blair offered. 

He said his Main Street eatery likely doesn't need further government aid to weather the pandemic — not that he wouldn’t take it. Rather, Blair vouched for removing the the state's alcohol sales curfew.

"We have virtually no rules in South Carolina left for safety other than a curfew that does nothing," he said. "We’re basically paying full taxes, full licenses and our hours are being governed for nothing. It would be a lot easier for us to survive if we had (those hours) of our business day back."

Until that happens, Blair’s current stance is to just wait out the virus, as painful as it may be for a business.

“Just realistically, it's a, 'Can we bleed slow enough to survive until things are back to normal?' Everybody is in the same boat,” he concluded.

David Clarey joined Free Times in November 2019 as a food and news writer. He's constantly fighting competing desires to try cooking food at home and spending his entire paycheck on Columbia restaurants.

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