Is Columbia a raucous, fun-loving college town or more of a sedate, serious seat of political power? Actually, it's both and so much more.
With a burgeoning restaurant scene that reflects its many personalities, the capital city's dining choices range from exquisite fine dining with locally sourced ingredients and elaborate presentations to burgers and beer and everything in between. Commonly, you will find these restaurants right next to each other in a happy mishmash of great dining that satisfies all tastes and budgets.
Historic and tree-lined Main Street, overlooked by the stunning South Carolina State House, underwent a remarkable revitalization in recent years. Bustling with renewed energy, it is now a well-established hub of global flavors during the year-round Soda City Saturday morning market and home to a slew of great restaurants. Here are some suggestions to get you started on your own Columbia dining adventure:
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.
And the Pan-Asian eatery, Kao Thai Cuisine, not only offers some of the best Thai food you'll ever have - it may well be one of the best Thai meals you've ever had, period. Operating in the historic former Columbia Central Fire Station makes for an extra cool experience.
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.
If you're not stuffed yet, head over to Kaminsky's, a dessert restaurant that will make you regret not eating dessert first.
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 - one of the city's oldest, most beloved eateries.
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.
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.
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. Liberty on the Lake Taproom & Grill in Irmo is one such spot, though you certainly don't have to arrive by boat to enjoy a cold brew and a delicious meal.
A local local chain operating in West Columba and all across the area, it is the undisputed Midlands' champion of the meat-and-three. Choose from 10 meat choices and whopping 26 vegetables. (Mind you, those vegetable choices include Southern delicacies like squash casserole, baby lima beans, and stewed okra and tomatoes. But don't be surprised to see macaroni and cheese and Jell-O in that line-up!) Plates typically come sided with a biscuit or cornbread and sweet tea, to boot. Wherever you are in Columbia, there's a Lizard's Thicket near you.
But don't stop with this list of great places to dine. When visiting South Carolina's vibrant capital, just ask some local residents for their favorite places to eat - most people will be happy to share that info.
After all, Columbia is not just famously hot - it's also famously friendly. And without question, it is famously, fabulously delicious.