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How Lula Drake, Columbia's eccentric downtown wine bar, became a James Beard semifinalist

When Rachael Harrison, the executive chef of Lula Drake Wine Parlour, first started at the wine bar on Main Street in 2017, she was just the dishwasher. 

Since 2017, she has worked her way up in the kitchen — from cook to sous chef to executive chef. And now, the kitchen that she oversees has been nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award. 

"This is bonkers, like just thinking about (being nominated), I went from being a barista to a dishwasher to a cook to a chef at a restaurant that now has a James Beard nomination," Harrison said.

"It's like, wake up and pinch myself. Like, 'This can't be real,' but somehow it is."

The classy watering hole became one of three restaurants in the city — joining Spotted Salamander Café and Catering's chef-owner Jessica Shillato and the City Grit Hospitality Group — to be nominated for this year's James Beard awards. Lula Drake is a semifinalist in the category of Outstanding Hospitality.

But prominent award nomination aside, the restaurant and wine bar is anything but your traditionally stuffy wine parlor. 

"It's not typical, like you're going to find anywhere else around town," said Pierce Bowers, owner of Dorsia Pasta Company and former chef of Lula Drake. "That's the beauty of it, it's different. Wines and food, there's no shrimp-and-grits or outdated dishes."

Lula Drake sells quirky, typically unheard of by-the-glass wines from small vineyards across the world, with a staff made up of former baristas and bartenders from cheap, college bars. 

"Food and wine don't need to be intimidating and that's kind of our goal," said G. Scott Wild, the general manager of Lula Drake. 

The unpretentious, approachable atmosphere is one that owner Tim Gardner has worked, alongside his staff, to cultivate — by avoiding pompous, flowery language that's typically used to describe wine. 

"The tightrope that we walk of making what could be intimidating dinner service, we make it absolutely approachable," Wild said. "It's an informal formality that you can sit down and have a phenomenal meal experience without all the pretense." 

In practice, this means wait staff and bartenders focus on asking questions and creating conversation to help people find the wines they'll enjoy. 

"I don't want anyone to be intimidated because I'm still learning a lot ...," said Caitlin Britt, head bartender at the wine bar. "I (believe in) asking questions rather than just assuming or just pouring something for someone, like 'Oh, you'll like this' — taking time and patience."

Britt, who's spent nearly six years at Lula Drake, had only worked as a hostess for a year in the early 2010s before eventually getting back into the service industry to work at the wine bar. Wild, the wine bar's general manager, had worked at Delaney's Speakeasy in Five Points. And Harrison, the executive chef, worked as a barista at Drip before taking the job as Lula's dishwasher. 

The ragtag group of seemingly modest folks received the call from Gardner, the day James Beard announced award nominations online. 

The wine bar has a staff of 11, both front- and back-of-house workers who mesh well and enjoy each other's company, according to Wild. 

"I wanted to create a place where (there are) people like this, who don't have all of the garbage and the luggage that they bring with them after having worked in some of these higher-end restaurants," Gardner said.

"There's a lot to be said for people (who) are passionate and ... open to learning. To me, that's more important than experience."

Gardner, one of the city's only advanced sommeliers, started Lula Drake Wine Parlour in late 2016, opening a low-lit, intimate space at 1635 Main St.

At the time, he questioned whether the city was ready for something like this. The Camden native had spent years in Napa Valley, a detour from his time spent at UCLA, where he studied film and theater. 

While preparing to open the wine bar in the historic space, Gardner discovered a trunk belonging to a woman named Lula Drake. Piecing together artifacts from the trunk, Gardner decided to use her name as inspiration for the wine bar — including details like her portrait hanging on the wall behind the bar and the wine bar's logo coming from her stationery. 

"There's a natural intimacy to their space ... a small space that's designed meticulously with a warmth and coziness that is then matched by Tim and their whole staff," said Scott Shor, co-owner of Charleston's Edmund's Oast and a friend of Gardner's. 

Impressive cheese and charcuterie plates, along with small plates and pasta dishes, line the menu of the wine bar. 

"(Gardner's) original intent was to have really, really good wines and then cheese plates and paninis and I said 'Let me help you do better than cheese plates and paninis,'" said Bowers, of Dorsia Pasta Company. 

The wine bar hosts Wednesday Night Pasta Specials — each week, a new handcrafted pasta dish that's a collaboration between Harrison and Bowers hits the menu. 

The inclusion of pasta on the menu mostly started out of necessity, according to Bowers. For more than five years, back-of-house staff ran the kitchen without the use of a range or exhaust hood — forcing them to be creative with what they could create. 

From the inconvenience, dishes like the pillowy cacio e pepe were born.

"That, to me, is a testament to not only who (Harrison) is, but just (proof) that you don't have to have a perfect setup or a million-dollar kitchen," Gardner said. "What you need is passion and this will to do great things." 

In October 2022, Lula Drake finally got a six-top range. 

The kitchen set-up wasn't the only obstacle the wine bar has faced over its nearly seven-year run. Like many restaurants and bars across the country, Lula Drake closed its doors at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Unlike most places around the state, Gardner chose to keep his wine bar closed for much longer than others — from March 2020 until July 2021, not a single glass of wine was poured. And for the bottles, well, Gardner got rid of most of them. 

It's a pivot caused by the pandemic. Gardner once pulled wine bottles from the cellar each night, but now by-the-glass options are the majority of what Gardner does. 

But the eclectic staff, unconventional methods and unpretentious approach clearly have only made the wine bar more successful. On March 29, Gardner and his staff will find out whether they've advanced as nominees with the potential to win in the Outstanding Hospitality category.

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