Is Columbia a raucous, fun-loving college town? Or is it really more of a sedate, serious seat of political power? Actually, it's both at the same time and so many other things, too.
Happily, Columbia's burgeoning restaurant scene reflects its many personalities. Dining choices range from exquisite fine dining with locally sourced ingredients and elaborate presentations to burgers and beer, and everything in between. Often, these places are right next door to each other in a happy mishmash of great food.
Historic and tree-lined Main Street, overlooked by the lovely South Carolina State House, has seen a remarkable revitalization over the past few years. Along with the new energy and the terrific Soda City Saturday morning market have come a slew of great restaurants.
Bourbon prides itself on its huge selection of fine whiskeys, artisanal cocktails, great Creole cuisine and fun vibe. Hendrix offers chef-inspired, locally sourced cuisine in a hip, uptown setting. For a more classic dining experience, make a reservation at the acclaimed Halls Chophouse, known for its attentive hospitality, elegant atmosphere and, of course, mouthwatering steaks.
Looking for something really different? Check out Good Life Cafe, a raw food restaurant. None of the food is heated above 115 degrees yet is so delicious that you might not even realize it.
Motor Supply Co. Bistro was the first restaurant to open in the Congaree Vista, back in 1989, when the area between the State House and the Broad and Saluda rivers was still the domain of warehouses and supply depots. Today the Vista is Columbia's primary nightlife district, and Motor Supply still pulls in huge crowds of students, legislators, visitors and families to its old brick dining room decorated with local art. The menu changes every day and is focused on hyper-local ingredients.
Blue Marlin, a seafood and steak restaurant housed in one of the Vista's old train stations, has award-winning shrimp and grits, along with aged steaks.
Want to feel like a college kid again? Head down to Five Points, where you can take your pick from dozens of bars, pubs and coffee shops. It's a fitting location for what many say is the very best burger in town -- Pawleys Front Porch (though Henry's, just down Devine Street, gives Pawleys quite a run for its money for that title). It also has a food truck that dishes out burgers and sandwiches at events and popular spots around town. And if you're looking for tradition, check out Groucho's Deli.
Drip, a funky little coffee shop with a record store tucked in the back, serves coffees made with a pour-over method, along with pastries and delicious sandwiches (perfect for that hangover you got at Pawleys).
But Five Points is more than just those college staples of suds, pub grub and coffee. Some of the best fine dining in Columbia can be found here, too. Mr. Friendly's elevates Southern classics -- food that's already delicious -- into something sublime, while Saluda's, with its antique mahogany bar stretching through the dining room and crystal glasses on white linen tablecloths, is a picture of Southern charm. Baan Sawan is not just some of the best Thai food you'll ever have; it's one of the best meals you'll have, period.
While Main Street, the Vista and Five Points might be centers for Columbia's restaurant scene, they are by no means the only places to find a great meal in town.
Terrific one-of-a-kind restaurants are tucked throughout the city, to say nothing of some of the great spots across the river in West Columbia. Don't miss Terra for one of the most creative farm-to-table meals in town and Cafe Strudel for great breakfast and lunch dishes.
Lizard's Thicket has perfected the South Carolina art of the "meat and three." "What in the world is a meat and three?" you might be thinking if you're not from the South. It's a restaurant specializing in traditional southern cooking that lets guests order one meat (for example, meatloaf or fried chicken) and three vegetables. Lizard's Thicket, a local Columbia chain, is the undisputed Midlands champion of the meat and three. At Lizard's Thicket, you can choose from 10 meat choices and a whopping 26 vegetables. (Mind you, those vegetable choices include things like squash casserole, baby lima beans, and stewed okra and tomatoes. But it also includes macaroni and cheese, and jello.)
If you're spending the day on nearby Lake Murray, make sure you try one of the many waterfront restaurants that let you eat while taking in the beautiful views. Even more fun, many are accessible by boat. Try Liberty Taproom & Grill in Irmo.
While visiting, just ask some local residents for their favorite places to eat -- most people will be happy to share. After all, Columbia is not just famously hot. It's also famously friendly. And without question, famously delicious.