Carl Sobocinski might not tell you it was his Soby's New South Cuisine and other new-wave restaurants that single-handedly spurred a 20-year revitalization of downtown Greenville. But he probably would suggest that the two went hand in hand - or perhaps more apt, fork in hand.
As a new Clemson graduate and self-described entrepreneur in the early 1990s, Sobocinski recalls a "tremendous energy and enthusiasm from business leaders and elected officials" at the time to make Greenville's Main Street corridor a cultural and social center in the Upstate. As new hotels, entertainment and cultural attractions sprang up, he recognized a missing piece of the puzzle.
"There weren't any fine dining options downtown," he says. "I knew if a couple was going to come into town to see a show at the just-opened Peace Center, they'd enjoy having dinner before the show." That led the young businessman in 1997 to open Soby's New South Cuisine - the first of what has grown to seven dining establishments under his Table 301 umbrella.
"Which comes first, the food or the tourists?" Sobocinski says. "The restaurant explosion over the past decade has certainly contributed to the rise of tourism, and helped make Greenville a foodie destination."
Today, that vision by Sobocinski and others has blossomed into an all-encompassing reality. Besides a treasure trove of fine dining options, food choices run the gamut from pub food, pizza and burgers to a wide variety of ethnic restaurants.
Greenville also is home to a bustling downtown farmers' market, the TD Saturday Market, and an an annual food, wine and music festival, Euphoria, both of which enhance its food-centric reputation. Perhaps the best evidence that downtown has achieved "food destination" status was the opening Hall's Chophouse, one of Charleston's most lauded superstars.
And while chain restaurants are part of the mix, Greenville's emphasis on local ownership has given the city an only-here vibe. "Greenville is seeing record numbers of people traveling to the area for both business and leisure," Sobocinski says. "And people are now more than ever aware of Greenville and its culinary tourism."
There are plenty of global flavors to savor, too: Ristorante Bergamo is highly regarded for its Italian food, Pomegranate (along with Lazy Goat) for its Mediterranean dishes, and Sushi Murasaki for Asian cuisine. Offering a modern Italian menu, Jianna is situated across from Falls River Park. Limoncello serves up traditional Italian fare, along with unique pizzas. Just outside of the downtown corridor is Davani's Restaurant, also offering a menu of traditional Italian dishes, served in an upscale dining room.
If you're into fresh-from-the-field fare, head to Travelers Rest and experience Topsoil Kitchen & Market, which has its own farm providing inspiration for Chef Adam Cooke's innovative dishes. Fork and Plough in Greenville, owned by two farmers and chef, sources ingredients from nearby Greenbrier Farms. If you like fast food but prefer locally grown produce and more, check out the novel approach of Farm Fast Fresh, which delivers on both accounts.
And if you're on the move and hungry, no worries: Greenville is a food truck hub, including Sobocinski's Highway 301 Food Truck. Indeed, if you can't find food you like in Greenville, it's probably your own fault.
"I always like to tell people that Greenville is such an easy town to enjoy," Sobocinski says. Out-of-town visitors "can park the car at the hotel and have all the parks, theaters, shopping, dining and entertainment they need, all in walking distance."
Further out, Greenville has "lakes, mountains, hiking, whitewater rafting, cycling and other outdoor activities," he says. "Greenville is more than just Main Street, but it's a great place to start your exploration of all we have to offer."
And what better way, Sobocinski says, than with a great meal? A favorite moment, he says, is when a tourist/customer at one of his establishments tells him they dined there before, while visiting or on business, and are back again - this time, with their entire family.
"Once you discover Greenville," he says, "it's hard not to fall in love."