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When his restaurant expanded to allow an area for smokers before the practice was banned in Beaufort, Tommy Winburn bought a bar off the internet.
He flew to Wisconsin where the 30-foot piece had been sitting in storage, rented the largest truck he could drive without a CDL and returned to Beaufort with his find. The bar was topped with Honduran mahogany and also made from walnut, zebrawood and birch and, when hauled back to Beaufort and refinished, became part of the charm of Emily’s Restaurant and Tapas Bar.
The neighborhood staple recently closed after almost three decades downtown on Port Republic Street. Winburn, who with his wife, Mary, had owned the restaurant since 1999, sold to new owners in October who are renovating the space with plans for a Greek culinary concept.
“It was a mainstay for a long time,” Winburn said. “I think it was just a good, relaxing local atmosphere.”
Now the recognizable awnings have been taken down and brown paper fills the windows while electrical contractors work inside this week.
The restaurant’s staying power was built in part by an early happy hour-type crowd where regulars claimed their favorite stool.
Many came for an Emily’s favorite, steak au poivre — a filet mignon in pepper cream sauce. Winburn believes the French dish could survive the new owners amid plans for a Greek menu.
For several years, entertainers performed for patrons on the piano that was long part of the restaurant. The pattern on the floor under the bar stools was modeled after piano keys.
Peter Nilsson, working with Bud Marchant, then director of the local chamber of commerce, opened Emily’s in what was previously a T-shirt shop in 1989. Nilsson was living aboard his 60-foot boat at the marina at the time, said John Feeser, owner of Lowcountry Bicycles shop that occupied the space next door for 14 years.
On sleepy days, Feeser could leave the door of the bike shop open while sitting in Emily’s and keeping watch for customers.
“All you had to do was step out the door and step into there,” Feeser said. “Friday afternoon came around, that’s where we were.”
Feeser’s son and daughter crawled the floor of the bike shop growing up and often strayed into Emily’s to play with the manager’s children.
Feeser moved his shop to Lady’s Island in 2001, allowing Winburn to expand Emily’s with the bar in the vacated space. But the restaurant remains a family tradition, with Feeser making reservations for dinner after a Christmas Eve church service each year.
“Emily’s was always first-name basis, almost like (the television series) ‘Cheers,’” Feeser said. “You could walk in and always had your favorite bar stool, knew the people there.”
Winburn said his lease on the building would have been up in May and that he sold after his offer to buy the building was declined. Finding new owners allowed restaurant staff to remain employed, he said.
While owning Emily’s, Winburn also bought and later sold a seafood restaurant on Lady’s Island that is Dockside.
“I’m just waiting to see what the future holds,” Winburn said. “I’m looking for another opportunity.”