Featured photo: Finnigan’s Wake opened in 2006. It’s last day was Saturday. All photos by James Douglas.
The line forms around 3:30 p.m.
Potential guests wait for the place to open at 4, hoping to grab a table, a seat at the bar or a spot on the patio out back. They’ve been doing this every day since the announcement. This final day is no different.
“With lots of gratitude and of course, a little bit of anxiety, I am announcing that Finnigan’s Wake will be permanently closing on Saturday, October 30th, 2021,” owner Philip “Opie” Kirby wrote to Facebook on Oct. 18.
In downtown Winston-Salem, this is a loss as sudden and shocking as the loss of an old friend. Many people have crossed its threshold.
Finnigan’s was the introduction for many to a burgeoning downtown area that was slowly being revitalized. They were there when downtown was still a well-kept secret, privy mostly to the eccentric types who were interested in what a metropolitan Winston could look like.
“Opie,” Philip Kirby’s nickname since time out of mind, opened Finnigan’s in 2006 with then-partner John Cahoon on Trade Street. It, alongside 6th and Vine and Sweet Potatoes, quickly became a starting point for people visiting the Arts District and beyond. A quintessential Irish pub, food options include Guinness on draft, fish & chips, shepherd’s pie and Scotch eggs (a rare delicacy in this area). It was also one of the first downtown restaurants to be open until 2 a.m., which enticed late-night drinkers who needed sustenance before heading home for the night. It caught on.
People would grab food at Finnigan’s before seeing a show at Elliot’s Revue or The Garage a block away. Wake Forest students began to bar hop through the area, and the area solidified into a bar scene when Single Brothers Bar opened in 2008. People suddenly had options that didn’t require repeated transport all night to a new place.
On its final day, the line slowly moves inside, the people taking seats, sidling up to the bar and tables one last time. Old regulars, old employees (yours truly being one) pepper the crowd, hugging and reminiscing with long-lost friends, faces shiny with tears.
There’s Seth, one of the old kitchen managers; he’s come down from Maine, where he now lives. Craig Harris, one of the best door guys in the business, sits with his family by the front window. Regulars who haven’t been seen in years have popped up to pay their respects. The previous week has been a Who‘s Who of Finnigan’s family appearing on Trade Street, not to mention the multiple posts and pictures that have filled social media feeds, reminding people what this place means to them.
The wall in the back of the bar bears a multitude of names, subjects of the “Ninety Day Club” and their place of honor at completing the task of coming in every day for three months straight. It’s more than you’d think. A man steps back and takes a picture of it, pointing out a name like he’s at the Vietnam Memorial.
Despite the circumstances, this doesn’t feel like a dirge. Longtime manager Karamy hugs a patron as she rounds a corner. Ashley Stansfield tends bar like she has for years. Her familiar laugh echoes down the bar, but her eyes are damp, as are a lot of old familiar faces milling around. Previous employees have returned to work a last shift or two, some coming from across the country. A random assortment of Halloween costumes roam around — a glittered up wood nymph chases a shot of Jameson with a pint of Smithwicks, while an 8-year-old cowboy looks for candy that a host might be passing out to intrepid gunslingers. Perry Smith, a customer since the oughts, sits at his barstool and consumes his last Guinness, one of probably hundreds he’s had over the years in that same seat. His eyes are a little shiny too.
Opie is talking to customers, running food, popping behind the bar. At a glance, this looks like just another busy day at the restaurant, not the last.
As one of the first businesses in the newly revitalized area, Finnigan’s helped create the feeling of camaraderie amongst the establishments on Trade Street. The early businesses would send employees to their neighbors to borrow things like a cup of sugar, leftover pickle juice or even at times a staff member. They planned events together. They worked together to create the downtown Winston-Salem that exists today.
From the start, Finnigan’s has been known for its charitable contributions. The St. Baldricks event has been a staple of downtown for years, shaving hundreds of heads and raising thousands of dollars for cancer research. The community outreach with the homeless population, the various work with Cities with Dwellings, even their policy of inviting a homeless individual to eat with the person buying them a meal was progressive for the area. They walked the walk.
Outside, the patio tables are full. A larger group of employees and friends from days past sit and reminisce. Chris Goubeaux, who currently lives in Charleston, sits with them and shares stories of when they worked door and every night was an adventure. Craig Harris joins, and for once, the solemnity of the day seems more tangible.
“I don’t think a lot of people know what this place is,” Craig says. “You’re not going to find a place like this again, places like this don’t exist.” He gestures at the tables behind him, most everyone a familiar face. “This was special.”
Finnigan’s Wake was located at 620 Trade Street in Winston-Salem from 2006 to Oct. 20, 2021.
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