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 better, 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 fine dining at Soby's, Larkin's on the River and others, food choices run the gamut from pub food, pizza and burgers to a wide variety of ethnic restaurants. Greenville also has a bustling downtown farmers' market on Saturdays 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 are the recent openings of HUSK and Hall's Chophouse, two 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 are now more than ever aware of Greenville and its culinary tourism."
Sobocinski's Table 301 is a large part of that. Besides the original Soby's, there's The Lazy Goat (Mediterranean), Passerelle Bistro (riverfront bistro), Nose Dive (gastropub), Papi's Tacos (lunch and takeaway) and Southern Pressed Juicery.
And Table 301 restaurants are hardly the city's only options. For steaks, Chophouse 47 and Rick Erwin's West End Grille draw rave reviews. Equally as popular is Rick Erwin's Nantucket Seafood. Barbecue offerings include Smoke on the Water and Henry's Smokehouse. Ristorante Bergamo is highly regarded for its Italian food, Pomegranate (along with Lazy Goat) for its Mediterranean dishes, Gringo's Cantina for Mexican food, and Lemon Grass Thai and Sushi Murasaki for Asian cuisine.
If you're into fresh-from-the-field fare, you'll love Oak Hill Café, a unique combination of restaurant, farm and market on 2.4 acres just north of downtown Greenville. Dishes on their brunch and dinner menus feature produce from their organic permaculture no-till farm.
For more casual meals, there are Barley's and Trio (pizza), the gourmet cafe Caviar & Bananas (another Charleston favorite), Roost and The Bohemian (for great burgers), Blue Ridge Brewing (pub grub), Tommy's Country Ham House (meat and three), and Chicora Alley and Papi's (taco hotspots). For desserts and coffee, try Luna Rosa (espresso drinks and gelato), Coffee Underground (artsy vibe) or Spill The Beans (java, baked goods and gourmet ice cream). Maple Street Biscuit Company and Crepe du Jour cater to the breakfast crowd.
And if you're on the move and hungry, no worries: Sobocinski has his 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."