All too often newspaper headlines herald the closing of another restaurant that was a favorite of many local citizens. In January 2011, Columbians followed the story of the closing of S & S Cafeteria in Richland Mall. The restaurant originally was located on Hampton Street, then moved to Gervais Street in the downtown area before finally settling in Richland Mall in 1975. The S & S is just the most recent in a long list of restaurants that are now just memories.
Since its designation as the capital of South Carolina in the late eighteenth century, hundreds of restaurants have come and gone in Columbia. In addition to providing Columbians and visitors with places to eat, many of these restaurants became popular gathering places for social, fraternal and political organizations.
The first eating establishment on record in Columbia was the Richardson Street Tavern located close to the State House and operated by Revolutionary War veteran Timothy Rives. A 1792 advertisement proclaimed the tavern was “for the PRIVATE accommodation of Gentlemen.” Throughout the nineteenth century Columbia was dotted with taverns, hotels, boarding houses and eating establishments but extant records provide us with their names and locations but little about their operations.
Several restaurants that opened in the early years of the 20th century survived into the 21st century. However, none of these are still open. The most recent early 20th century restaurant to close was Jaco’s Tavern located at the corner of Rosewood Drive and Bluff Road. Jaco’s originally opened in 1912 and was a favorite of truck drivers and workers from the local textile mills.
The dining room at the Jefferson Hotel, circa 1915. Photography courtesy of Dave and Marty Sennema.
Another restaurant that opened in 1905 and survived until 2002 was the Capitol Restaurant located in the Brennan Building at 1210 Main Street. Only a short walk from the State House, the Capitol Café, as it was known in its later years, was a popular gathering place for politicians, writers, students and the homeless. Many political deals were consummated while legislators enjoyed the food and beverages. Columbia writer William Price Fox hosted world-renowned authors Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Wolfe and Joseph Heller at the Capitol Café. From 1912 until it closed in 1968 the dining room in the Jefferson Hotel was not only a popular eating place for Columbians and visitors, but was also the location of many formal banquets featuring famous visitors including Billy Graham.
The Capitol Restaurant closed its doors in 2002 after serving Columbia’s downtown for nearly a century. Photo courtesy of Rodger Stroup.
Several restaurants that opened between the two World Wars were popular with Columbians until they closed during the past several years. Originally started as a lunch counter in 1929, the Market Restaurant on the corner of Assembly and Gervais evolved into one of Columbia’s premier restaurants. The Market’s location across from the State House insured it was frequented by state’s movers and shakers until it closed in 1983.
A Yellow Pages ad from 1973 says it all. Courtesy of Richland County Public Library.
Opened in 1932 the Elite Epicurean on the corner of Main and Laurel was across the street from the Columbia City Hall and the Federal Courthouse. The Elite was a favorite meeting place for Columbia’s political leaders until it closed in 1997.
The Fountain Room in Tapp’s Department Store on Main Street opened in 1940 and was popular with both the business lunch crowd as well as shoppers until the restaurant closed in 1995.
Cogburn’s Restaurant at 1317 Sumter Street opened in 1941 and was famous for its steak sandwich and fries. Cogburn’s was a favorite of politicians, lobbyists and USC faculty and students until 1979 when it moved to Sunset Boulevard in West Columbia, where it operated until 1999.
The Seaboard Diner opened in 1944 to provide a quick meal for thousands of soldiers catching trains at the Seaboard Air Line Depot on Gervais Street. When Amtrak began operating passenger service at the depot in 1972 the diner continued to operate adjacent to the Amtrak Station. In 1991 Amtrak moved to its current location at College and Pulaski. In 1993 the depot was purchased and renovated as the Blue Marlin Restaurant and the diner was demolished.
A discussion of Columbia restaurants would not be complete without mentioning barbeque establishments. Over the years many barbeque places have come and gone, but there are two older eateries still operating. In 1955 Maurice Bessinger opened Piggie Park on the Charleston Highway. Since then Piggie Park has added several new locations throughout the Midlands.
Opened in 1963 on Rosewood Drive the Little Bar-B-Que Hut moved to Alpine Road in 1978 and changed its name to Little Pigs Barbeque.
Trying to determine the oldest operating restaurant in Columbia is tricky. Villa Tronco at 1213 Blanding Street opened in 1940 when the Tronco family, after operating a fruit stand since the early 1930s, decided to open an Italian restaurant to cater to the northern soldiers of Italian descent stationed at Ft. Jackson. The fourth generation of the family still welcomes customers to Columbia’s first Italian restaurant located in a renovated 1858 fire station.
A 1950s postcard depicts the location of Drake’s Restaurant at the southwest corner of Forest Drive and N. Millwood Avenue. Courtesy of Dave and Marty Sennema. The menu from Drake’s is circa 1945. Courtesy Richland County Public Library.
On the other hand Drake’s Duck-In at 1544 Main Street can trace its beginning to the family’s first restaurant opened in 1907 on Elmwood Avenue to deliver sandwiches to the city’s textile mills. Subsequently the family operated restaurants on Main Street and Taylor Street.
According to the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau, “Eating in the South is a way of life, and Columbia does it well. From Southern comfort foods to new bistro specialties, Columbia offers over 450 dining options.” Even though some of Columbia’s most historic spots may have closed, the future looks bright for our culinary capital city.