Gwen Fowler



Challenge: Can you eat on $40 a day vacationing in Columbia?

Posted 1/11/2011 6:17:00 PM

Food Insider Gwen Fowler took that challenge and set out on a statewide pilgrimage. Third stop: Columbia

Almost everyone visits South Carolina’s capital city, Columbia. Whether you go to visit a state agency, the University of South Carolina or Fort Jackson, or for shopping or sightseeing, you won’t have trouble finding a great place to eat.


There’s one restaurant with an unusual name that you’ll find all around Columbia: Lizard’s Thicket. With about 15 locations, the restaurant is known for its reasonable prices and very Southern menu offerings. How many places offer liver pudding or onion sausage on the breakfast menu? Regular lunch and dinner specials include chicken and dumplings and fried chicken livers, and there always are a lot of vegetable choices.
For breakfast, I ordered the onion sausage breakfast, served with eggs, grits and a biscuit. My husband had liver pudding with his grits.

What I spent: $6.34 (including tax and tip)


For lunch, we headed to the Blue Marlin in the Congaree Vista, an area of old mills and warehouses that have been converted into a dining and shopping district.

The restaurant is in the city’s old train station, and it is attractive, with rich, warm woods and low lighting. On a recent Monday, the restaurant was full. Executive Chef Brian Dukes serves Lowcountry dishes, as well as some with a Cajun twist. I ordered a Cajun tilapia filet with creole sauce, served with creamy grits and collards. The grits are from the Adluh Flour mill, just down the street. It was all delicious, and the collards were outstanding.

What I spent: $11.25 (including tax and tip)


Mr. Friendly’s is obviously a locals’ favorite, and it’s easy to see why. The chefs here are creative, offering daily specials based on what’s available, and it just has the comfortable feel of a neighborhood restaurant. It’s housed in part of the old Claussen’s Bakery, which operated from 1928 to 1963. Most of the building is occupied by the The Inn at Claussen’s, which opened in 1986.

The restaurant has high ceilings, exposed brick walls, huge old factory windows and is decorated with local art. It’s in Columbia’s Five Points section, an area of shops, restaurants and nightclubs, many of which cater to students at nearby USC.

For dinner, I chose a regular Monday special, Mr. Friendly’s meatloaf. It’s made from ground beef tenderloin and ribeye and topped with a blue cheese barbecue sauce. It was served with garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed vegetables, topped by a few big onion rings.

At Mr. Friendly’s and at its sister restaurant, Solstice Kitchen & Wine Bar, a good dining bargain is the prix fixe menu, which allows you to choose a three-course meal for $25 for dinner on Monday through Thursday. Solstice also offers a $30 four-course dinner.

What I spent: $22.20 (including tax and tip)

My total for the day: $39.79

Other places to check out: One place cupcake-lovers will want to stop for a snack is Cupcake in the Vista. The bakery also has locations in Mount Pleasant and Charleston. I couldn’t swing it on my budget for the day, but I did stop in to buy a red velvet cupcake for my husband. He said it was delicious, especially the cream cheese frosting.

If you ever tailgate at a USC game, you’re bound to get a lovely whiff of some fried chicken from Zesto’s and Zesto's West Columbia or the Rosewood Dairy Bar on Rosewood Drive. There are several Zesto’s around Columbia, all independently owned, but all serve the same incredible chicken.

Lots of folks say Pizza Man on Rosewood Drive near the USC campus has the best pizza in town. It’s a popular spot for college students, thanks to great pizza, cold beer and two-for-one pizza on Thursdays.

For a barbecue lunch, try Hudson’s Smokehouse or Doc’s Barbeque & Southern Buffet (

The pimento cheese burger at Rockaways on Rosewood Drive is practically legendary. The Mediterranean Tea Room on Devine is a good stop for grilled chicken with salad and rice or a grilled chicken salad. Yesterdays has been a popular Five Points spot since the mid-1970s and has a daily blue plate lunch special. Also long-time favorites are two Five Points delis, Groucho's Deli, which now has other locations in the Columbia area as well as in Charleston, Clemson, Pawleys Island, Florence, Rock Hill and Spartanburg as well as Delaware and North Carolina; and Andy's Deli on Greene Street, where Andy still greets customers as “My dear” or “My friend.”

Stop by Pawleys Front Porch in Five Points for a burger. It was a Guy Fieri choice for a segment on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives” in early 2010.
For fine dining, try Garibaldi Café or Terra.

We set out to prove that we can eat well without busting our $40-a-day budget. Read Gwen's account of eating on Hilton Head Island here and Charleston here. Look for upcoming features on Myrtle Beach and Greenville.