Everyone has those moments where they are ready to enjoy good food and drink, but they just can’t come to an agreement with their friends on where to go. Jeff Balish, known in Columbia as the owner of the famed Garibaldi Café on Greene Street, set out to solve that problem when he bought the brick building at the corner of Assembly and Gervais streets that once housed John Paul Armadillo Oil Company.
“The vision was to have something for everyone,” says Thomas Risha, manager of what is now Cola’s Restaurant. “You can have a burger and a beer or enjoy a filet mignon and a $100 bottle of wine in the same place.”
Jeff and his family are the proprietors of Dining Group South, which oversees a group of restaurants that includes Anson’s in Charleston, Garibaldi Café in Columbia and Savannah and The Old Pink House in Savannah. The family has seemingly become experts on fine Southern dining, and with Cola’s they have added a new twist that is fun and stylish.
In order to achieve his new, more relaxed vision, Jeff enlisted the help of Columbia interior designer Tim McLendon. Tim’s touch is known throughout the Capital City, thanks to his work with Capitol Places, Cohn Construction and the South Carolina Philharmonic Orchestra. As Jeff honed his vision, a new kind of restaurant began to evolve. Its name, Cola’s, has a double meaning – in addition to being a well-known nickname for the city, the name is also a throwback to the 1930s when the site was a bottling plant for RC Cola. All around the restaurant are signs of nostalgia for that bygone era. The front windows are actually retro-looking garage doors that can be opened on warm evenings to broaden the laid back conviviality that the place exudes. In the restrooms are photographs of historic buildings from around the city, including the old firehouse in the Vista. To add to the nostalgia, painter David Boatwright from Charleston created a vintage-looking mural on the side of the building that entices passerby to come in for a great cocktail and satisfying meal.
A high-tech edge is mixed in with the retro theme in the form of flat screen televisions over the bar. But don’t begin to think that technology and open air mean the restaurant’s focus is on atmosphere alone. “The TVs are really more of a convenience than a draw,” says Thomas Risha. “If you want to stop in after work for a glass of wine or cocktail, you can also catch the score of the game.”
The range of cocktails available is wide and thoughtful. It isn’t unusual to find a St. Germain champagne cocktail listed with the drink specials on the chalkboard above the wood-paneled bar. Seasonal cocktails are also the norm, but if guests ask for them enough, they can be incorporated into the regular menu, as was the case with the strawberry-lime mojito. “We keep the staples. The mojitos were specialty drinks we introduced this past summer, but we kept them because we got so many Facebook messages telling us to never get rid of them,” Thomas laughs.
A finely-crafted cocktail plays a festive precursor to a unique meal, such as the top-selling cedar plank grilled salmon. Its slight sweetness is offset by roasted golden potatoes and butter poached leeks. A dish that became popular almost the moment the restaurant opened its doors is the beef short ribs, which Thomas calls the “ultimate comfort meal.” It is accompanied by organic grits, glazed carrots and wine sauce, reminiscent of a home-cooked beef stew.
“The cuisine is sort of a New American fusion,” Thomas says. “It has influences from all different regions … French, Italian and even Asian.” The Asian influence is loud and clear in the pulled pork BBQ eggrolls, a top-selling appetizer that features mustard barbeque sauce and coleslaw.
Since the restaurant opened in June 2012, Chef Thomas Barry, who has been with the Garibaldi restaurant group for more than 10 years, has kept an eye on what guests favor. Slight adjustments have been made over the past several months in anticipation of adding more seasonal foods to the mix. The menu already boasts heavy use of organic foods and high-quality meats, such as the popular 28-day aged New York Strip.
Garibaldi’s die-hards need not worry. Cola’s fully understands the popularity of its sister restaurant’s Whole Crispy Flounder, and therefore has added it to the regular menu. Jeff and Thomas were also sensitive to the fact that Columbians are hungry for high-quality dining option on Monday evenings, when many restaurants traditionally take the day off. Eventually the restaurant plans to open for brunch, as well, which will be a welcome option for those looking for a relaxed spot to sip and graze on a Sunday.
The 7,000-square-foot restaurant seats 200 diners comfortably and has two private dining options – one room that holds 30 people and another for 50. These spaces follow the decorative theme of the restaurant and provide intimate spots for birthday parties and corporate functions.
Cola’s is a spot for anything a hungry Columbian might be in the mood for. Whether it’s for a special date out with a loved one, a night on the town with the girls or just to catch the latest sports talk, everyone will find an atmosphere that will leave them feeling cheerful and their stomachs feeling happily full. Few restaurants can satisfy so many different needs in a single space.