A large influx of eating establishments has opened in the Columbia area during the past two years. In part, it is the result of a seismic shift in the culinary landscape caused by the revitalization of Main Street and downtown, as well as the exponential growth of the surrounding areas.
Restaurateur Edson Munekata says there were many doubters about the Main Street location of his Cowboy Brazilian Steakhouse when it opened in 2011. He says, “I was asked, ‘Why would you open a fancy restaurant in the middle of a ghost town?’ Well, it is definitely not a ghost town anymore. In fact, lease rates have gone up with the opening of other new, prosperous businesses.”
The heightened interest in food and the increasingly adventurous palates of Columbia diners can also be attributed to the vast number of blogs and television programming devoted to food. Gourmet shops and specialty grocery chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s also play an important role in expanding our palates, and multiethnic societies in the United States, increased global travel, food magazines, cooking classes and social media are also influencers.
In the 1950s, Columbia was known as the “The Shopping Capital of South Carolina.” Then it became a “University Town.” Will the Capital City’s future moniker be “Culinary Mecca?” It seems to be heading in that direction as the Midlands fully embraces local businesses, organizations, restaurateurs and visionary chefs who promote preservation and sustainability, value organics and local sourcing and who support craft family farms. Sister city Charleston may be a world-class culinary destination, but there’s a whole lot going on now in Columbia’s own backyard.
Located in Trenholm Plaza, Café Caturra is a hip neighborhood café and wine bar with a warm inviting atmosphere, enhanced by a medley of textures that includes reclaimed wood, rustic tiles and a burnished tin ceiling. The expansive glass doors can be opened to the outside during pleasant weather. Visit the attractive wine tasting bar for a sample of any by-the-glass selection. Café Caturra is a great place to hang out with friends and enjoy a glass of wine and a Caturra (small) plate. At lunch, try the Curry Chicken Salad Sandwich or the Crab and Corn Taco, or choose from among the soups, pizzas and lunch combos. Dinner features pastas, meats and fish entrees, like the popular Lump Crab Cakes with Buttermilk Drizzle and Zesty Slaw. Ingredients are all-local, fresh and seasonal. Fish arrives daily; bread is baked each day. Manager James Foley recommends the Pancakes with Frangelico Maple Syrup for brunch. A different fresh warm quiche is served every day.
Taziki’s Mediterranean Café
Taziki’s Mediterranean Café, located in Crosshill Market, is a fresh casual restaurant that puts a fresh spin on Mediterranean-inspired cuisine. Owner Joe Norton says, “Everything here is made from scratch one or two times a day, using small batch recipes. That’s what sets us apart from similar restaurants.” The diverse menu includes daily specials and “feasts” of fresh-grilled chicken, meats (including lamb) and fish, with tempting sides. Try one of the gyros with a side of Taziki’s signature sauce, a Greek salad or the Lemon Chicken Soup, which is made in-house daily using fresh chicken. The moist Dark Chocolate Cake is also baked twice daily and worth a splurge.
South meets East at Rue 77, a trendy American bistro serving Southern food with a flavorful twist. Owner Arif Ashfaq, a native of Pakistan, operates the eatery where he skillfully blends Southern food with the lively, addictive flavors of Pakistan and India. Special dishes include Curry Chicken with Waffles, Shrimp with Masala Grits and Rue Butter Chicken. Rue 77 offers a full bar, craft beers and a well-balanced selection of affordable wines.
For a world-class cup of coffee, visit Drip on Saluda Street, a welcome addition to the Five Points area. Named in a February Zagat blog post as one of America’s 50 Must-Try Coffee Shops, the independent coffee shop makes handcrafted coffee using high-quality beans and the pour-over method. It’s a low-tech way to make coffee, but its devotees love it that way. The creative breakfast and lunch fare receive the same attention to detail as the coffee. Owner Shawn McCressin says, “We sell as much food as we do coffee. Everything is made in-house, even the biscuits and condiments.” Ingredients are purchased from local sustainable farmers and food producers: dairy products from Wil-Moore Farms; bread from Heather’s Artisan Bread; baby greens from City Roots. Breakfast options include Biscuit with Egg, Mozzarella and Sun-Dried Tomato Tapenade, and for lunch, try the Turkey and Brie with Raspberry Preserves on Sourdough.
Cowboy Brazilian Steakhouse
A visit to Cowboy Brazilian Steakhouse on Main Street is a unique dining experience that won’t soon be forgotten. For a set price, diners can feast on 16 types of skewered, succulent fire-roasted meats, including lamb chops, filet mignon, ribs, Brazilian linguica (sausage) and Picanha – a specialty cut top sirloin that is one of the stars at the Brazilian churrascaria. Freshly cooked meats are continuously served tableside. The hot and cold bars feature more than 35 salads, cheeses, seafoods and hot vegetables. Appetizers include fried sweet bananas and pao de queijo, bites of savory cheese bread. Desserts are luscious and eye catching. Edson says, “We will feed you until you can’t eat anymore.”
Forbes called Smashburger the most promising company in America last year. Burgers are made from fresh 100 percent Angus beef, shaped into plump meatballs and smashed on the grill for caramelization and a good sear. The fresh toppings make any burger smashing. The menu also includes veggie frites, sweet potato fries, Harvest Salad and Häagen-Dazs root beer floats and shakes.
Crêpes & Croissants
Laurent Prescelti, owner of Crêpes & Croissants, has been pleased with his first year of business in downtown Columbia. A native of Marseille, France, he always had the desire to open his own restaurant. He worked in restaurants in France to gain experience, then chose the Midlands as the location to open his dream restaurant in 2012.
When he makes his delicious crêpes, Laurent has the deft touch of, well, a French chef. Try the “Italy,” crepes with basil-marinated chicken, or the “Provence,” crêpes with homemade ratatouille from his mother’s own recipe. The charming café also serves sweet crêpes, croissants, salads, macaroons, meringues and crème brûlée.
Dickey’s Barbecue Pit
Columbia diners will always love their barbecue, butterbeans and biscuits. Dickey’s Barbecue Pit in Northeast Columbia serves excellent Texas style barbecue meats and poultry, seasoned and slow-smoked on site in the restaurant. Choose from 12 Southern sides. There are weekly specials and on Sundays, kids eat free.
Columbia is often called “The Capital of Southern Hospitality,” and there’s plenty to go around at The Diner on Ft. Jackson Boulevard. The family-owned “mom and pop” operation serves traditional Southern food, according to manager Jamison Putnal. He says, “We offer down-home cooking with an upscale twist. We hang our hat on the fact that our food is freshly made. We pound the cube steak, snap the fresh green beans, cut the fish and bake the cakes and pies from scratch.” Most meals are under $10. Sunday brunch is served. Note the attractive art, inside and outside, by local artists.
George “Giorgione” and Monica Kessler recently opened Il Giorgione, an authentic Italian pizzeria and wine bar and Columbia’s only restaurant with an exclusively Italian wine list. George, a career restaurateur/chef, travels yearly to Italy to visit his family and to study the country’s regional cuisines. Many of Il Giorgione’s dishes are found only in the restaurants of Italy. Whether dining indoors or al fresco on the patio, patrons will appreciate the quality, authenticity and attention to detail in every serving of pizza, pasta or salad. It’s the little things that count – like the fresh mozzarella George makes daily, the San Marzano tomatoes from Campania or the nuance of Sicilian sea salt paired with fresh, local ingredients. The restaurant’s garden provides fresh herbs as well as lemon trees and pepper plants. Don’t miss the Antipasti, the classic Neapolitan Margherita pizza (honoring Italy’s first queen), the Praianese salad with fresh mozzarella, arugula and tomatoes or the country-style spinach and cheese pie, Erbazzone, a specialty of Reggio Emilia in northern Italy.
The British pub is still a relatively new phenomenon to the United States, but the Kraken Gastropub joins the options here in Columbia. Along with familiar pub favorites, Kraken serves gastronomic delights like Lobster Grilled Cheese with Brie and Cream cheese and Pork Belly Cubes with Brandy Au Jus. Owner Aaron Klugh says, “Our ingredients are always fresh, seasonal and local. Beef is certified hormone–antibiotic free. Garden-fresh veggies are from farmers’ markets.” Thirty craft brews are featured on-tap; 26 are American-made.
The namesake Kraken is a mythical monster squid that has been immortalized in a sonnet by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and in the film Clash of the Titans.
American Roadside Burger
American Roadside Burger salutes roadside burger stands of days past. The nostalgia is enhanced by the reclaimed barn siding on the walls, floors and chairs of the restaurant. Burgers are made with Sterling Silver Premium Beef. Turkey burgers, black bean burgers, East Carolina pulled pork sandwiches with slaw feature on the menu as well, plus hot dogs, salads and wings. Diners can build their own burgers with free condiments and toppings, and sides include house-made slaw, onion rings, fries and salads. Ten milkshake flavors and lugnuts – warm tasty doughnuts – help round out the menu. Patio dining is available with beer and wine service.
Basil Thai Restaurant
Basil Thai Restaurant at Cross Hill Market is a sleek, elegant, contemporary restaurant featuring an open kitchen concept with a signature chef’s bar, allowing diners to watch the kitchen staff at work through a glass partition. It is the fourth restaurant for brothers Chai and Henry Eang, who also own locations in Charleston, Mt. Pleasant and Charlotte. Chai says Columbia diners have been known to make special trips to these locations to enjoy the food, so it just made sense to open a restaurant here.
The menu offers traditional dishes characterized by fresh seasonal ingredients, complex spice and herb blends, rich flavors and tantalizing aromas, and the food isn’t spicy-hot. Dishes are prepared from the family recipes of executive chef Suntom “Sunny” Cherdchoogarm. Try the Basil Spring Rolls, Crispy Red Curry Duck and Pad Thai noodles, the national dish of Thailand. There are vegetarian options, a creative cocktail menu and a comprehensive wine list. Indoor seating accommodates around 100 people, plus an extra 45 in the courtyard patio.