Rockaway Athletic Club closed its doors for the last time on Tuesday, four days before initially planned. (Photo by Stephen Enright/Carolina News and Reporter)
“It was the local pub,” said Mark Johnson, a Rosewood neighborhood resident who proposed to his wife at Rockaways, as it’s commonly called, in 1990. “It was family. The same family that owned it then, owns it now: the Whitlarks. Their kids grew up running around there. Our kids grew up running around there.”
The restaurant and bar, which closed last week, has been an institution in the neighborhood for 41 years. The signless brick building hosted trivia nights and presidential candidates and launched Columbia’s first crawfish festival.
Rockaways was founded in 1982 by three brothers: Paul, Forrest and Mark Whitlark. Paul died in 2017, and Mark died in 2022. Since then, Forrest and his wife, Taryn, have been running the restaurant.
Cason Development Group and Baker Commercial Properties announced their purchase of Rockaways and the rest of the strip mall on Jan. 16.
The restaurant initially planned to shut its doors Sunday, but Wednesday night’s outpouring of support led to supplies running out. It announced on Facebook that Wednesday night would be its last.
Rockaways left the same way it operated: a little rough around the edges but with the full support of its community.
The restaurant, hidden in the trees, lacked a sign and front door. Its unassuming presentation kept the restaurant an open secret among downtown residents.
“They’ve always been known as this kind of little, hidden-away gem,” said Fred Delk, former executive director of the Columbia Development Corp. “You could ride by and not know how to get into the restaurant. Good for people who knew about it. And if you didn’t know it, you may never even know it was there.”
Rockaways was known for its pimento cheeseburger, cheap drinks and relaxed atmosphere, where slow service was part of the charm.
“It was (a) fun place to post up for a long time,” said James Alford on the ColaTown Foodie & Fun Facebook group. “Ok food, decent booze specials, and hilariously bad service. But they were an institution. I’ll miss them.”
“It was just kind of a very chill place where you could hang out, and you didn’t feel like you were being rushed off the table by servers or crowds or anything like that,” said Columbia resident Avery Wilks.
“I think it kind of became a little infamous for the lack of service,” Wilks said. “And maybe that hurt it at, you know, around lunchtime, because it wasn’t a place where you could go in and get a quick lunch. And that was part of the charm. I think it was a place that you could go and spend quality time with your friends.”
Before Rockaways was a restaurant, it was a bar. It burned down in a 2002 fire, reopening in 2004. Steve Hait, a Rockaways patron of more than 30 years, said the restaurant was never the same.
“The place just seemed to have an attitude,” Hait said. “The new location just seemed a little more sanitized.”
Cason Development Group owns more than 30 properties in South Carolina, including several Taco Bell franchises, residential buildings and restaurants. Baker Commercial Properties manages Publix, Walgreens and Starbucks properties, among others.
“We plan to make some initial exterior improvements, and are hoping that someone can resurrect either that business or something very similar to it,” Cason said in a statement released Wednesday.
Neither Cason nor Baker have released further details on their plans for the property.
Rockaways was best known for its pimento cheeseburger, named as one of the state’s best burgers by Food & Wine magazine in 2021. (Photo courtesy of The State newspaper)
ABOUT THE JOURNALISTS
Enright is a senior digital journalism major with a minor in political science at the University of South Carolina. He is from Powdersville, South Carolina. He is interested in reporting on how politics and internal policies affect sports teams. He reads political news articles and Southern literature in his free time. His favorite author is William Faulkner.
Martin is a junior multimedia journalism major with a minor in business administration. He is from Columbia, South Carolina, and is interested in sports writing and storytelling.