COLUMBIA — Saturday was a night of reminiscing and farewells for the patrons and staff of Grill One 5. The restaurant and bar’s owner, Mike Reilly, has reluctantly decided to close its doors after nine years of business. But the bar didn’t close quietly.
The relatively small but cozy bar was filled to the brim; no table stayed empty for more than a minute. Some described the crowd as the “who’s who of Columbia small business.” Staff from Booches, Chris McD’s, Cool Stuff and many other local businesses came to pay their respects to the bar that was known for its laid-back environment and a manager that was known for being a friend.
Since opening his business in 1999, Reilly had a goal to make his bar a family-friendly, neighborhood restaurant and tavern. He worked at Booches while studying at MU, which exposed him to the bar business. Three years after graduation, Reilly leased the establishment at 15 S. Sixth St., which was a cigar bar at the time, and transformed it into his dream bar.
Since then, to everyone who has stepped into his bar, Reilly has been known as a friend first and owner second.
“He has a gift of remembering someone’s name and face,” said Stacia Reilly, Mike Reilly’s wife. “If they’ve been here, he’ll remember them, and if they haven’t, he’ll make them feel welcome.”
Throughout the years, Reilly made it a point to donate to many charities on behalf of his restaurant. He hosted a charity golf tournament every summer for eight years. In recent years, proceeds were donated to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation because he knew some families that were affected by the disease and, after doing some research, he wanted to help. Overall, Reilly estimates that he donated about $75,000 to charities over the years.
Reilly has also been involved with the PedNet coalition, Bike, Walk and Wheel Week and other community events. He donates wine, food and gift certificates to whoever asks for support. Every year he donates food to the unveiling of the Columbia Festival of the Arts poster contest. He has at home a copy of the winning poster from each year since 2000, all framed and signed by the artist. In his restaurant hung the winning poster from 2002.
“We never say no, we try to be as neighborhood and family oriented as possible,” Reilly said. “Because, after all, we live here and these are our neighbors.”
Reilly doesn’t blame any one factor for the closing of his business, and he even recognized the possibility of flaws in his own management. He also suggested the growing rate of restaurants opening in Columbia and the franchise chains that can afford lower prices. The economy was another factor that he considered, as many of his regulars aren’t spending as much money on eating out as they once had.
In the end, Grill One 5 was just not pulling in enough money to sustain itself. For the last two years, Reilly had refused to concede while subsidizing his restaurant with money from out-of-pocket. But in late March, he called his wife and told her that he would not be renewing his liquor license, which would have expired Tuesday.
“I came in and told my staff that we all did the best we can do,” Reilly said. “I wouldn’t blame them if they immediately went elsewhere, but every one of them has ridden it out till the end with us. Stacia and I are really blessed by the people who work for us.”
The staff of 10 or so describe themselves more as a family than a bar staff. Julia Godfrey was 15 when her parents told Reilly that she needed a job. Because of her age she couldn’t legally do much in a bar besides bus tables and help servers, but Reilly hired her anyway. Now she is 18 and will be soon be leaving for college.
“I kind of saw it coming but I didn’t think it was really going to happen,” Godfrey said. “I was going to look forward to coming back here and visiting everybody here, but now that I can’t come back to this place, it’s really sad.”
John Otts is a regular of Grill One 5 who has lunchat the bar at least a couple times a week and comes for dinner about twice a month. He will miss the flatbread and thin-crust pizza.
“It’s one of our favorite spots and so we’re disappointed,” Otts said. “But one door closes and another door opens up. (Mike’s) going to be successful, whatever he does.”
Other dishes that people said they would miss are the chicken philly sandwich and the gorg fries.
On the last night of business, Reilly went about his usual routine as though it was no different. He donned a big smile and shook hands. As he threw a rag over his shoulder and removed tin buckets of beer from tables, he never missed a chance to greet a customer.
The dimly lit bar featured dark wood almost everywhere — the floors, beams and a border half way up the walls. White Christmas lights were streamed along the boards, which gave an almost magical effect for the last night. Men in khaki shorts and polo shirts gave each other firm pats on the back. Women in dresses and high heels laughed loudly together. Shouts were heard as bittersweet feelings of companionship and closure swirled the air and everyone soaked up their last visit.
“This place is the traditional, old-fashioned neighborhood bar,” said Rich Trippler, who has bartended at Grill One 5 for almost five years. “It’s like ‘Cheers’ — you walk in and you know everybody at the bar and they know you.”
The walls were covered with dozens of 4X6 wood-framed pictures of staff, friends and customers. Former staff who had worked there in college and patrons who had moved away came back to say goodbye. The current staff have promised each other to stay in touch, wherever they end up. This is all an indication of the type of bar that Reilly had wanted from the beginning, and the kind of bar he had in the end. “People come here as much for him and the people that work here as for the atomsphere and the bar itself,” Trippler said. “I’ve worked at a lot of bars and he’s the only guy I’ve ever met that’s good at being a boss and good at being a friend at the same time.”