South Carolina is a hive of lively dives, hip libation hubs and classy cocktail lounges. A deeper look at bar aesthetics can help distinguish the good from the great. While there’s some truth to the adage that it’s not so much what you drink, but where you drink it, consistently hitting all the marks—appealing atmosphere, creative cocktails, attentive service, top-notch bar snacks—is required to maintain a stellar reputation. Savvy bar managers will attest to the fact that elevating a good bar program to greatness is no small feat and never, ever accidental. Landing in a great bar shouldn’t be accidental either.
In the capital city, you’ll find a seemingly endless number of establishments where amazing cocktails are served up in unforgettable surroundings. Many of them are housed in historic buildings just a stone’s throw away from the State House. Some of them cater to the college crowd. Here is a sampling of the best of the best, where the drinks are inventive, the vibe is inspired and the little touches are designed to make you feel festive, relaxed and oh-so-special.
No list of Soda City bars would be complete without the legendary Art Bar, a favorite of the college crowd. Funky, weird, hip, artsy and just plain fun are all fitting adjectives for this experience. Live music sets the stage for a memorable, vibrant nightlife. The casual camaraderie draws a free-spirited crowd looking for conversation, hearty eats and cold drinks to wash it all down. You won’t find bow-tied bartenders adorning dainty glasses with curls of orange peel and pretty sprigs of herbs. But you will find all your favorites from cold craft beer to wine to mixed drinks. Grab a cold one, toast old friends, make some new ones and chow down on a Psycho Burger, piled with pepper jack, bacon, egg, onion rings, lettuce, mayo and mustard. Crazy.
Bourbon meets Bourbon Street at this whiskey bar with a New Orleans-inspired menu. Tucked inside the circa 1869 Brennen Building, Bourbon is where the capital crowd goes for neat sips or classic cocktails created from an extensive list of whiskeys and bourbons. Intimate surroundings invite conversation and relaxation—perfect for unwinding after work. Pair your bourbon with crispy boudin balls or a gumbo bowl to complete the experience. Feel free to wear your beads.
This Vista tapas-style bar is not only exotic and warm but a wellspring of some of the most delicious craft cocktails around. Mezcal is the name of the game here—snag a cozy seat and indulge yourself. Fine Mexican appointments help create a beautiful space with a Cantera stone bar, chandeliers made from replicas of Mezcal vessels, and Oaxaca art from local artists. The cocktails are gorgeous to look at and just as exciting to sip, with several “spicy” offerings on the menu. Try the Pepino Endamentado for a cool cocktail with a cucumber-jalapeño twist. Pair it with a delicious order of taquitos de tinga with chipotle pulled chicken, crema and queso fresco. Wow.
The Joint at 1710 Main
If you love the tradition of jazz bars, just follow the saxophone to The Joint. This Main Street darling, operating in the historic Walker Building, offers a slow, relaxing night out. Dim lighting and dark wood invite patrons to cozy up for cocktails and more. Live musicians routinely grace the small stage to create an ambiance that is easy to settle into. Cocktails are largely classic, and the kitchen doesn’t slouch with a menu that answers to the seasons. Pair a Dirty Main Martini (Stoli, slices of fresh orange, pineapple and lime, and sparkling water) with a beautiful dish of house-made hummus topped with feta, Kalamatas, roasted red peppers, tomato, fresh herbs and pistachio dust. Oh, yeah …
If you lean toward the darkly eclectic, this self-described dive is your spot. The cozy basement bar is housed in a century-old building just steps from the South Carolina State House. The decor is a bit macabre, with a saber-toothed tiger skull holding court near the bar and a variety of taxidermic appointments throughout. The beer-centric menu is comprehensive, and the eats have a reputation for tastiness. Pair a draught with an order of gravy fries with mozzarella or the Whig chicken sandwich with pimento cheese. Vampires and werewolves welcome.