Nothing says America like a good hamburger. The classic burger is a compact package of grilled beef patty with all the fixings – fresh lettuce, sliced juicy tomato, sweet onion and condiments of choice. With a molten layer of golden cheese it morphs into the cheeseburger. Don’t forget the pickles! The burger’s delivery system is the bun.
Efficiently engineered, its light, firm texture holds everything in place and properly soaks up the delicious juices of the meat.
Columbia’s quick-service hamburger segment may be as saturated as the Quadruple Bypass Special at the infamous Las Vegas Heart Attack Grill, but new chains continue to pop up, and burger consumption is on the rise. While Columbians enjoy their fast-food burgers, they clamor for the sizzling-hot “better burgers” that can be found on the menus of upscale restaurants. Celebrity restaurateurs like Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse and Thomas Keller have raised the hamburger’s bar of expectations by creating these “better burgers,” a catchphrase coined by Chicago restaurant consultant Technomic, Inc. The focus is on sustainable and local, with premium meats and not-so-traditional toppings, and standard white buns have given way to Kaiser rolls, onion rolls, focaccia, pretzel buns and baguettes.
Some of the best burgers around town are prepared with fresh, regional ingredients that reflect local flavor preferences. Consider pimento cheese, the “pâté of the South.” The pimento cheeseburger is an indulgent symbol of Columbia’s culinary identity, and John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, says, “Columbia is the true citadel of pimento burgers … and every third joint serves one.”
Tracking down that favorite local burger can be an elusive yet pleasurable endeavor. Columbia has become a burger-centric city with a bumper crop of fast-food burger joints, pubs and restaurants that serve them. For whatever type – steamed sliders, chili burgers, pimento burgers, steakhouse burgers, seafood and veggie burgers or a stuffed “Juicy Lucy” – here are some suggestions.
940 Old Barnwell Rd., West Columbia
(803) 951-0405 • www.thebackyardcafe.com
“Fresh food, not fast food” is the motto of the Backyard Café. The cozy restaurant’s menu lists enticing home-style Southern dishes in addition to 10 quality hamburgers. The signature Backyard Burger comes fully loaded. The Pimento Cheese Burger is spread with the warm, pimento-flecked cheese delicacy. A tasty dill sauce comes on the side. The burgers are hand-patted 100 percent Angus beef chuck and arrive on steamed Kaiser buns with a side of house-made ranch dressing.
Burger Tavern 77
2631 Devine St., Columbia
(803) 667-9608 • www.burgertavern77.com
A newcomer to Columbia, this classic American burger tavern features creative burgers made with USDA prime ground beef, tender ground turkey or farm-fresh chicken breast. Seafood lovers will enjoy the fried crab and shrimp cake burgers; there is even a vegetarian option. “Tavern Traditions” include the Charleston Burger with smoked pimento cheese, pecan bacon and dill pickle. The Tahoe is a juicy ground turkey patty with fresh mozzarella, spinach, demi-poached portabella mushrooms and sun-dried tomato pesto. The “Build Your Burger” section offers a customized burger. Select cheese, sauces, condiments, sides and buns from among 77 options.
Cock’n Bull Pub
326 S. Edisto Ave., Columbia
(803) 251-4474 • www.cnbpub.net
Situated in a cozy little house, this English-style pub is located in the heart of Rosewood. Its roots lie in traditional pub fare with dishes like fish and chips. The burgers are a generous size with solid toppings like sautéed mushrooms, red onions and Cheddar cheese. Try the Bull Burger Especiale topped with a fried egg and pecan wood bacon. The Shrimp Burger has a huge fan following and is highly recommended.
711 East Main Street, Lexington
(803) 957-1996 • www.cottongrill.com
Located in Lexington’s historic Old Mill, Cotton Grill features the best of South Carolina’s cuisine. For a change of pace, try the Shrimp Burger, which is lightly breaded and topped with sliced fried green tomato, cole slaw and Cajun remoulade. The Mill Burger features a 1/2 pound of ground sirloin stuffed with pimento cheese, seared and topped with bacon, onion straws, tomato and lettuce and served on Texas toast with BBQ dipping sauce. The Smoke Stack is two house ground sirloin patties with smoked provolone, Cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and shaved red onions on a Kaiser roll.
Desserts & More
4611 Hardscrabble Rd., Suite 101, Columbia
(803) 699-8800 • www.desserts-n-more.com
This popular sweet shop in Northeast Columbia serves a variety of wonderful 1/2 pound burgers topped with all the fixings and prepared your way. They go by names like Flying Solo, Cheesehead and Smothered. The famous Southern Living, topped with house-made pimento cheese that is chock-full of diced green tomatoes and chilies, caught the attention of Southern Living magazine and was featured in the December 2009 issue.
3609 River Dr., North Columbia
Bigger isn’t always better. This tiny place is a local institution, serving burgers to Columbians for decades. They are nothing fancy – just fresh, juicy and packed with flavor. There’s a picnic table for dining while the burgers are warm. Try one with a fried egg on top. It’s amazingly good and is reminiscent of the crazy Loco Moco burger from Hawaii that features fried eggs and gravy on top.
Hunter-Gatherer Brewery & Alehouse
900 Main St., Columbia
(803) 748-0540 • www.huntergathererbrewery.com
This neighborhood pub has been brewing up traditional English-style ales since 1995. The menu of continental fare features entrées, pizzas, salads, appetizers and top-quality burgers. The HG Burger is made from certified Angus beef and is embellished with the traditional fixings. Great cheese can elevate a burger to the nirvana state. From Hunter Gatherer’s cheese line-up, choose horseradish havarti, feta, smoked Gouda, gorgonzola, or ESB pimento cheese. Add bacon too and order crispy hashbrowns for the side.
Judy’s at the Market Restaurant3483 Charleston Hwy., West Columbia
(803) 509- 5641 • www.scstatefarmersmarket.com
Judy’s is a friendly new restaurant located at the South Carolina State Farmers Market. They serve excellent made-from-scratch Southern foods including prime, grass-fed Angus beef burgers and salmon burgers. Choose from a variety of freshly prepared sides featuring produce that comes directly from the market.
Liberty Taproom & Grill
828 Gervais St., Columbia
(803) 461-4677 • www.libertytaproom.com
The Liberty Tap Room is “a celebration of America’s melting pot of rich, ethnic cooking styles and the resurgence of handcrafted-brewing.” Their Freedom Burger is loaded with Cheddar cheese, applewood smoked bacon, a fried egg, pickles, lettuce and tomato. The Red, White and Blue Burger features a Cajun crusted burger, bleu cheese crumbles, bleu cheese dressing, onion straws and pickles. For the truly hungry, try the Cowboy Burger with applewood smoked bacon, ham, onion straws, French fries, BBQ sauce, ranch dressing, Monterey Jack, Cheddar and Swiss.
Maurice’s BBQ Piggy Park
14 locations in Columbia
The first Piggy Park opened in Charleston in 1953. It specializes in old fashioned pit barbecue with mustard-based barbecue sauce, but the large hamburgers are really good too, made from hand-shaped beef. They come with all the trimmings including a soft white bun, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and pickles.
Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Café
2001-A Greene St., Columbia
(803) 254-7828 • www.mrfriendlys.com
This is a wonderful fried green tomato and grits kind of place that also has great burgers. Choices include the French Quarter burger, which is a blackened 1/2 pound burger with roasted, red pepper-blue pimento cheese. The BBQ Burger is a 1/2 pound meat patty with Cheddar cheese, green tomato barbecue sauce and jalapeños. Vegetarians will appreciate the Black Bean Burger with Cheddar cheese, green tomato barbecue sauce and fresh tomato salsa.
Pawley’s Front Porch
827 Harden St., Columbia
(803) 771-8001 • www.pawleysfrontporch.com
This restaurant was featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” and the large burgers are some of the most creative around. Hang out on the pleasant front porch and decide from which of 10 gourmet burger options to choose: the Front Porch, Caw Caw Creek, Isle of Palms, Edisto, Fripp Island, Kiawah, Wadmalaw, Sullivan’s, Rockville and Beaufort. There’s a chicken version for each of these and a vegetarian option. The 8-ounce patties are made in-house daily from double-ground, certified Angus beef.
Pita’s of Columbia
1800 Taylor St., Columbia
(803) 343-3454 • www.pitasofcolumbiasc.com
The long yellow building may look unassuming, but don’t be fooled. This spacious restaurant serves Lebanese/Mediterranean entrees, plus lamb, beef and salmon burgers. The Tzatziki Burger is a beef patty on a bun with tomato, red onion, lettuce and tzatziki, an addictive sauce of rich yogurt, chopped cucumber, seasonings and fresh mint or dill. The Kofta Burger is a blend of ground lamb and beef, seasoned with onions, parsley and garlic; be sure to order a serving of tzatziki on the side.
Rockaway Athletic Club
2719 Rosewood Dr., Columbia
Rockaway is a top burger stop for locals and is featured in George Motz’s 2011 travel guide, Hamburger America – 150 Great Burger Joints. When George W. Bush swept through town in 2005, he stopped for burgers and pimento cheese smothered fries. Eight-ounce chuck beef patties are hand-shaped, cooked on a flattop and served on thick grill-warmed buns, with all the trimmings. The most talked about menu item is the Rockaway Burger, which comes with a big scoop of luscious, house-made pimento cheese melted over the top. Or, instead of pimento cheese, substitute blue cheese, Cheddar, Swiss, Gouda or a combination.
9 locations in the Midlands
“Fabulous food – fast!” This local, family-owned chain has been a Columbia icon since the 1940s. Rush’s consistently wins newspaper and magazine Reader’s Choice Polls for being the best fast-food restaurant and serving the best hamburgers, prepared 10 ways. Fans say this isn’t typical fast food fare; it tastes like homemade. The menu features hamburgers, cheeseburgers, fried chicken, pork barbecue, ice cream and shakes.
Stonefire American Grill
566 Spears Creek Church Rd., Columbia
Creative American classics are dished up at this northeast area restaurant. The $20 Burger (steakhouse-style) might be the largest in the area with a gigantic one-pound ground beef patty, plus 1/4 pound of thick, crisp bacon, double cheese, lettuce, onion, tomato and red pepper mayo. The Fried Green Garden Burger is loaded with fried green tomatoes, lettuce, onion, boursin cheese and sweet pepper mayonnaise. Hearth Oven Flatbread comes in a chili cheeseburger version with chili-seasoned ground beef, mustard, diced tomatoes, Cheddar, lettuce and red onion.
Solstice Kitchen & Wine Bar
841-4 Sparkleberry Lane, Columbia
(803) 788-6966 • www.solsticekitchen.com
Burgers are never an afterthought at this upscale dining establishment. The luxurious steakhouse-style burgers are freshly ground from the trimmings of prime, aged beef cuts like the rib eye and tenderloin. Plain, toasted white buns help show off the steak-like quality and primo flavor of the meat. The Fried Green Pimento Burger includes fried green tomatoes, roasted red bell pepper and house-made smoked pimento cheese. Little Piggy Burger comes with smoked applewood bacon, smoked Cheddar and house-made honey mustard barbecue sauce. Different burger specials are offered at lunch, or order a burger at dinner even if it’s not on the menu.
The Kingsman Restaurant
936 Axtell Dr., Cayce
A long-time Cayce favorite, The Kingsman Restaurant is known for serving succulent rib eye steaks and burgers. The impressive burger line-up includes the Kingsman Pizza Burger and a Bacon Mushroom Cheeseburger. Their Famous Pimento Burger was named one of the “100 Southern Foods You Absolutely, Positively Must Try Before You Die,” by Charleston-based Garden and Gun magazine. Burger specials include a variety of appealing toppings. One customer said, “The meat was cooked just right and the cheese was really perfect – gooey, dripping and flavorful.”
1200 Main St., Columbia
(803) 931-8852 • thewhig.org
This eclectic basement bar across from the Statehouse offers up a cozy vintage feel. Try the Chipotle BBQ Burger topped with Cheddar, bacon and house-made chipotle barbecue sauce. The Berger Burger comes with chipotle cheese, grilled onions, bacon, mustard and ketchup. The Whig Burger has Gouda cheese, bacon, poutine (beef gravy) and Sriracha aioli. Poutine is a French-Canadian specialty of brown gravy poured over fries and cheese curds. The Whig offers a similar version of the fries with melting cheese and gravy.
4517 Forest Dr., Columbia
(803) 782-9665 • www.tombogrille.com
The eclectic menu at this trendy Forest Acres eatery includes a 10-ounce house ground certified Angus beef burger with house-made bacon, Cheddar cheese or gorgonzola, smoked tomato aioli, lettuce, tomato, pickled onions and bistro fries on the side. A burger and craft beer special is offered every Monday night.
1213 Blanding St., Columbia
(803) 256-7677 • www.villatronco.com
In the 1930s, Sadie and Jim Tronco opened The Iodine Fruit Store, so named because of South Carolina’s iodine-laced soil. It evolved into Villa Tronco, now housed in a historic building that was once a 19th century firehouse. In addition to classic Italian cuisine, several fully-loaded burgers are on the menu. Try the juicy burgers stuffed with Pesto Mozzarella or Worcestershire Garlic Boursin. The stuffed Spinach and Pecorino Romano version is topped with Fontina Cheese. Burgers come with fresh greens, red onion and sliced tomatoes.
Yesterday’s Restaurant and Tavern
2030 Devine St., Columbia
(803) 799-0196 • www.yesterdayssc.com
This local landmark features an extensive menu with made-from-scratch, seasonal American comfort food. There are several satisfying burger variations featuring 100 percent certified Angus beef that is freshly ground each day and hand-pressed. Burgers are served on soft Kaiser buns with lettuce, sliced tomato and onion and fries on the side. Options include a Mushroom Cheese Burger, a Pimento Cheese and Jalapeno Burger and a veggie burger, which can be ordered with mushrooms or cheese.
Editor’s Note: Nearly every local restaurant and fast-food location in town has a burger on the menu. It was impossible to list all of them in this article, but check out our website for few more worth visiting. Did we miss your favorite? Let us know on our Facebook page or in the comments section that follows this article on our website.