A little over eight years ago, I drove down to Columbia from North Carolina to look for a house. I checked into a hotel and started exploring what would become my new home.
Since I’d be spending the night by myself in a hotel room, I thought it would be a good idea to pick up a bottle of wine. That way I could read and enjoy a glass of wine, while not getting burned by over-priced, mediocre, room service-provided wine.
A quick scan of the phone book (remember those?) turned up a wine shop right down the street. The place was tiny, but had a really cool selection of interesting wines. I found a white Burgundy, paid and on my way out noticed there was a wine and tapas bar attached to the shop.
I ended finding a house that weekend, only a couple miles away from that little wine shop. On subsequent visits, I discovered the wine shop wasn’t the real attraction–the wine and tapas bar was.
It quickly became my local hangout. Even when I was pretty broke, I’d scrape together enough money for a glass of wine and a couple of tapas. The food was great, and the wine selection was–like the store's–small but always quirky and really good.
Over the years, that place figured prominently in my life here. I met several ex-girlfriends directly or indirectly through my frequent visits. The owner actually once vouched for me via mobile phone while he was touring a winery in Oregon.
I’m not sure if I would have met E if it wasn’t for meeting someone there who introduced me to someone else who introduced me to my future wife.
Back in those days, the owner was also the chef and could be found every night simultaneously cooking, chatting up customers and pouring a sample of whatever was especially good.
But, time changes everything. I know all too well what spending 12 or 14 hours a day at a business will do to your sanity, not to mention your marriage. The owner hired an executive chef and a manager, and started spending less time there. The wine shop was replaced by additional seating.
Although I missed the atmosphere of the old days, I was still a frequent customer. Business was booming, even to the point of not being able to find a seat. Even when the quality of the food and service fluctuated, I continued to give it second (and third) chances. There were always far more good experiences than bad.
The last couple times we've visited, it's just been bad. The food is still great, but the service and overall atmosphere is terrible. It’s funny how the person in charge dictates the atmosphere at an establishment. A manager with a bad attitude can ruin an entire staff.
We stopped in Saturday night, a little wary but willing to give it another try. After standing at the host station a little too long while a couple servers gave us – and the people in front of us – disinterested looks, we walked out.
On our way up the street to another place, I looked at E and said, “We’ll never go back.”
I may live to eat those words. I really hope I do. Places change; things get better.
But right now, it’s like losing a friend.