South Carolina is famous for its signature dishes. But sometimes the most celebrated eats are not widely known outside of the communities where they are served. Spend a little time in any of the state’s many regions, and you’ll find foods that are treasured by the people living there, be it a legendary burger or a barbecue sandwich prepared in a specific tradition.
Before a food can be considered iconic, it should be distinguished by both staying power and a solid, unwavering fan base. It also helps to be offered in a historic setting, though that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. Some local culinary traditions have a definitive quirkiness, while others are more no-nonsense. Deliciousness and personality—the ability of a dish to shine on its own merits—are givens. With that said, if you want to truly eat like the locals, read on. Here are some iconic foods to try when visiting the capital city of Columbia.
Iconic eat: California Dreaming Salad
You'll almost forget to breathe when this majestic salad lands in front of you. It truly is a masterpiece. On a foundation of mixed greens, shredded ham and turkey, cheddar, Monterey Jack, chopped hard-boiled eggs, fresh tomatoes and toasted almonds are layered. For a finishing touch, there’s a mix of warm ham and bacon bits—you could call it the cherry on top. Always paired with a warm, honeyed croissant, it’s all some Columbians need for lunch or dinner.
History: A favorite of visitors and college students, California Dreaming wowed the first fans of its signature salad in 1984. That’s when the restaurant opened in Columbia’s carefully restored, circa 1902 Union Station Terminal, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While you’ll find locations across South Carolina and Georgia, and one in Alabama, this address is where the salad madness all started.
Iconic eat: STP Dipper
The STP Dipper is a two-fisted hunger slayer made with juicy roast beef, turkey, melted Swiss and crumbled bacon stuffed into a large sub roll. This signature sandwich is served with a side of Groucho’s famous Formula 45 sauce for your dipping pleasure.
History: Groucho’s Deli is one of the oldest eating establishments in South Carolina. It was founded in 1941 by Harold “Groucho” Miller, who was so nicknamed for his trademark cigar and mustache. With locations across the state, the popularity of this beloved sandwich shop only seems to grow with time. Up the iconic nature of your STP Dipper experience by dining at the deli’s original location in Five Points.
Iconic eat: Cheese salad
Crisp iceberg lettuce hidden by an eye-popping mound of mozzarella cheese—that pretty much sums up this cheese lover’s dream come true. Oh, there’s also a slice of tomato on top and Italian dressing to drizzle over the whole thing. While there are those who don’t get the allure of this unusual salad, there are far more folks who admit they were hooked at the word “cheese.”
History: This restaurant began earning a loyal following from the time it served its first pie in 1966. The only pizza-pause occurred when 2015’s historic flood ruined the building and equipment. But LaBrasca’s clientele wasn’t going to take the closing of their favorite restaurant lying down. Not only did they show up to help with cleanup, they donated more than $10,000 to get the pizzeria back on its feet. Now, that’s what you call a fan base.
Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Cafe
Iconic dish: Mr. Friendly’s Famous Lunar Pie
Once a Monday-night special, you can get this dynamite dessert anytime now. Think of it as a highfalutin’ Moon Pie: white chocolate mousse is delicately sandwiched between homemade praline wafers and drizzled with a raspberry and chocolate sauce.
History: Mr. Friendly’s, a hotspot for creative, new Southern cuisine, opened in the 1980s as a sandwich and cookie shop. In 1995, it got a major makeover and has been one of the most popular restaurants in the historic Five Points district ever since. Their meatloaf—topped with blue cheese and a tower of onion rings—is a strong contender for future icon status.
Maurice’s Piggie Park
Iconic eat: Pulled pork sandwich
Specializing in pork cooked slowly over wood-fired pits, Piggie Park is the preferred go-to of countless Columbians seeking traditional SC barbecue. The mustard-based sauce is one of their signatures and sets off the smokiness of the meat just right.
History: Piggie Park, established in 1939, is ingrained in the Midland’s culinary culture. Devotees love the drive-up concept offered at some of its 10 locations—pull up, place your order, take your bag of tantalizing smoked meat and dig in. Others prefer to patronize the sit-down locales so they can enjoy the buffet. Whichever you choose, don’t forget a little extra mustard sauce on the side. And napkins. Lots of napkins.
Rockaway’s Athletic Club
Iconic eat: Rockaway Pimento Cheeseburger
This burger is constructed of a generous, juicy, grilled ground beef patty, lettuce and onion crowned with creamy, homemade pimento cheese. It’s a dreamy match born in the capital city. While there are plenty of area restaurants serving pimento cheeseburgers, most everyone agrees nobody does it better than Rockaway’s.
History: Established in 1982, this restaurant/tavern served happy locals for two decades before a fire destroyed the building. But when you have a thing this good, it’s always prudent to rebuild and Rockaway’s did just that. Lock the address into your GPS to get there—lack of outdoor signage makes this Columbia institution a literal hidden gem.
Sandy’s Famous Hot Dogs
Iconic eat: Super Slaw Dog
Hot diggity dog! If you’re a hot dog lover, you’ll say (or think) just that when you get a grip on one of Sandy’s Super Slaw Dogs. This is a true representation of how Columbian’s prefer to eat their dogs: smothered in chili and slaw with a nice stripe of mustard and sweet, crunchy onion. With a wiener weighing in at a quarter-pound, you can make a meal off just one. They taste so good, though, most folks want another one anyway.
History: Sandy’s is a Columbia success story and one of the reasons is a commitment to serving the finest ingredients, from the Certified Black Angus wieners to the homemade chili and slaw. Founded in 1979, the hot-doggery has four locations where you can get dogs just about every which way. For a real old-fashioned treat, order up a banana split or sundae for dessert. Everything on Sandy’s menu is top-notch, including the ice cream.