View From Upstairs: Owner of closing West Columbia Italian restaurant reflects on 44 years

Posted 12/14/23

Al Loftis shed a couple tears as he talked about saying goodbye to the restaurant he’s run for nearly a half-century. But he mostly seemed satisfied with the impact he’s had on the community.

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View From Upstairs: Owner of closing West Columbia Italian restaurant reflects on 44 years


Al Loftis shed a couple tears as he talked about saying goodbye to the restaurant he’s run for nearly a half-century. But he mostly seemed satisfied with the impact he’s had on the community.

The upscale West Columbia Italian restaurant that bears his name at 300 Meeting St., Al’s Upstairs, will close Dec. 19 after a 44-year run. Through those years, it’s become a go-to spot for people in the area to celebrate anniversaries, birthdays and other special occasions.

The restaurant has taken what Loftis called a “victory lap” the past few weeks since announcing its departure in mid-November, with the owner looking forward to connecting with many cherished regulars before closing the doors for good. He singled out a couple that comes back annually from Florida, hoping he gets to see them again.

Those hoping for a table at this point are likely out of luck. Loftis said the restaurant’s last few weeks booked up pretty much instantly after the closure was announced.

The Chronicle sat down with Loftis in the restaurant’s upstairs dining room, looking out from its spacious windows at the Columbia skyline, to ask him why now is the time to retire. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Chronicle: Tell me about the thought process that went into retiring and deciding to stop doing this.

Al Loftis: It's gotta end sometime, right? I had an opportunity, someone wanted to purchase the property. So that kind of got it going. The property next door, Eggroll Station, they came after that first because it's part of that renovation for that whole [Capital Shopping Center] there and they wanted this, too. So that kinda got it going. 

I'm 63, and, you know, there's a couple ways to go out of business. I could sell it, actually sell the business, and I could play landlord if I wanted to. And I strongly considered that, and then unfortunately, I just really didn't have anybody that expressed any interest.

What would it have taken for you to have been sold on somebody taking over the business? Is that something you seriously considered?

Over the years, yeah, I've really considered it. You know, the thought process, “I really need to seek out someone.” And in hindsight, I kind of wish I'd done that. But I was always kind of scared that talk would get out. For 35 years, I heard I was going out of business anyhow. [laughs]

But if I had found someone, most definitely. I could just play landlord. And I love the building. I've been here 44 years. It was built in 1906. So very sentimentally attached to it. My mother decorated it, she passed away a year and a half ago.

Escalating prices and inflation, did that play a role in the decision to close?

Not at all. Chef and I are on the same page, we’re not cutting corners. And we do our best to hold it down as best as we can.

Now, private dining room rentals got hurt really bad by COVID-19 because people didn’t want to get together in groups, even after the reopening. And that’s just now coming back. There’s two sides of private dining, the corporate side and the social side. The social side came back first — rehearsal dinners were our bread and butter. And then on the corporate side, we do a lot of board dinners, pharmaceutical dinners, medical meeting dinners and stuff. Those lagged in later, but they’ve just now sort of hit their stride again.

Your entire staff stayed with you through COVID. That’s pretty remarkable. How did you manage that?

We took care of them a little bit initially. Kind of rounded things up for them. We used a couple of them around here on some maintenance we were doing. But a lot of the waitstaff generally have two or three jobs anyhow. But my kitchen guys were fantastic and stayed with me. We’re just really fortunate to get them all back.

Every part of Columbia has changed over the time you’ve been open, but nowhere more so than the part of West Columbia where your restaurant sits. What’s it been like to watch the neighborhood change around you?

Well, it's been evolving, obviously, like a lot of Columbia. And it seems like I'm leaving right when everything's popping. I love the foot traffic. I mean, we have so much foot traffic. We never had foot traffic like this ever. People park and they're walking from many restaurants around here and the [Savage Craft] brewery is a big draw for the area. The riverwalk is packed, and this future Meeting Street streetscaping that's going on, I think that's gonna be fantastic. West Columbia is a great and safe place to work and live. The law enforcement do a wonderful job of keeping things straight. Fire department, city government, they're easy to work with. And I think that's a big distinction between other parts of our metropolitan area. 

Has that development around you been all positive? Are there any negatives you’d point to?

I've been concerned about the parking, but so far, we have two parking lots and we have 60 spots between the two, and we haven't had too much problem. We thought we'd have that problem, people taking parking that are not our customers, but it hasn't been a problem so far. So no, I haven't seen any negative sides to it.

Crime is still nil right here. I mean, there's crime in every city, but I've been broken into one time in 44 years. Some amateurs, you know, they cut themselves on the glass and stole some mini bottles back in the day. I think it was kids. I guess we’re so busy right here people are scared to break in and be seen.

Why was it important to give everyone who could get a table these last few weeks a chance to come in, get a last meal and say goodbye?

Put the key in the door and lock it, that’s the easy way. Believe me, I thought about everything. That is really easy to do. Because you just walk away. I’ve seen that done, in this market especially, and they just always hit me the wrong way. I want to be there to take the heat if it’s necessary, to take the glory if it’s necessary, but I just want to be a stand-up guy about it.

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