Steps from the busy arena, 1801 Grille offers warm ambience, tantalizing food – and plenty of garnet and black
By Linda H. Lamb
Vista eateries are nearby, but it hasn’t been possible to walk just a few steps from the Colonial Life Arena and step into the warm welcome of a restaurant that’s perfect for sports fans, old friends, college students or “ladies who lunch.”
That’s about to change.
At the 1801 Grille on Lincoln Street, you’ll find an imaginative menu built around fresh ingredients and a brick oven that can turn out hearty, smoky meats or crispy flatbread entrees. Expect the unexpected … jalapeno sauerkraut on the Reuben sandwich, meat loaf made with wild boar and bison, a side slaw with julienned apple, a crispy Brussels sprouts dish with a mysterious tinge of sweetness (spoiler alert: it’s sorghum).
The something-for-everyone approach might remind you of Harper’s, a longtime favorite dining spot in Five Points. In fact, 1801 Grille is the newest project of the Harper’s Restaurant Group, which now has seven restaurants in South and North Carolina.
“You come into the place and you get a timeless feel,” said Tom Sasser, the company’s president and founder. “We call it ‘polished casual’ dining, and we’ve always emphasized fresh, local ingredients.”
For Gamecocks of all ages
You can tell by the spelling of its name that the place aims for an olde-worlde ambience. There’s lots of burnished wood, handsome dark red leather seating, and an approachable configuration of pub tables, a long bar, regular tables and booths. Round iron chandeliers bring to mind a country tavern that might have sheltered travelers of another time – in 1801, perhaps.
Aficionados of all things Gamecock might spot the significance of that number. The University of South Carolina was founded in 1801, as South Carolina College. And it was current USC President Harris Pastides who approached Sasser about opening a restaurant near the arena, as part of the Foundation Square development on land the university controls.
“He said he wanted a place like Harper’s,” said Sasser, who has been intimately involved with every detail from the light fixtures to the sushi-making equipment.
1801 Grille is tucked behind the sleek, modern Darla Moore School of Business and adjacent to an area that’s envisioned as an events venue and retail hub. The floors above the restaurant are filled with housing for USC students. They’ll feel right at home at 1801, which has plenty of garnet and black.
Sasser personally went through university archive materials to select the vintage campus photos framed on the restaurant walls. A sports-themed dining room at one end can seat 12 people who want to be surrounded by Gamecock memorabilia – Sasser can imagine a young athlete basking in that atmosphere and pondering his or her future at the university.
Also with the college crowd in mind, “We’ll have reasonable prices, but still offer ample portions,” Sasser said.
Hearty tastes to share
One evening in January, Sasser and his chefs were busy training their brand-new wait staff on the fine points of their still-developing menu. There was a lot to learn about ingredients, techniques and the restaurant’s approach to dining.
Sections of the menu labeled “social” and “table food” reflect a particular emphasis on a communal dining experience, Sasser said.
“We’ll encourage guests to pick from any part of the menu and share … people like to try things,” he said.
“Social” starters include a black-eyed pea hummus, short rib sliders, sweet and smoky calamari, and a baked smoked gouda served in a cute little cast iron pot with a tomato-y sauce and delectable zeppoli (Italian fried bread chunks) for dipping.
Salads include Southern chopped greens highlighted by bacon and pecans, a classic Caesar with pretzel croutons, and a baby spinach salad with almonds, farro, raisins and feta cheese.
From the blazing brick oven comes that hearty meat loaf as well as blackened salmon or mahi mahi; spices are seared into the fish to give it an additional crispy heat. Savory sides will not be left behind on your plate – try a creamy cauliflower dish, Szechuan green beans Napa cabbage-peanut slaw or those tasty shredded Brussels sprouts.
The smoky chicken is topped with Southern white sauce, also called Alabama white sauce. Not mustard-based, not tomato-based, not vinegar-based … it’s mayonnaise-based with a peppery tang. (Sounds strange. Just go with it.) If you’re craving beef or “the other white meat,” there are steaks, Kansas City-style spare ribs and a cider-spiked pork chop.
Neapolitan style flatbreads
Now, about the flatbreads and “pizza” crusts. “We have a crust we’ve developed that we think is really great,” Sasser said. “I don’t like a doughy crust. This is Neapolitan style.”
That means you shouldn’t look for a pillowy, chewy dough. These flatbreads are thin and crispy – almost delicate in texture, but sturdy enough to support toppings like house-made duck sausage with gorgonzola, arugula and pickled onion, or smoked chicken with white sauce, pepperoncini and tabasco onions. Another tasty topping has Benton’s country ham, watercress, creamy robiola cheese and a couple of fried eggs. Cure for a hangover, possibly?
“Farm to table” might be a culinary cliché, but Sasser said the company’s restaurants always strive to use local ingredients or high-quality substitutes. For example, in the winter, when no one’s growing tomatoes here, a greenhouse in Tennessee provides tomatoes to top a fried oyster po’ boy sandwich. And a fisherman who works off the Carolinas’ coast “literally calls us from the boat” with word on his latest catch.
Farm to table definitely is a priority for 1801 Grille’s executive chef, Jason Bruner, and it’s one he has experienced all over the world. Though just 34, he’s cooked with products from the fields and waters of his native Louisiana, in Florida, with Wolfgang Puck in Maui, at the Beijing Olympics, in Australia, Italy and Spain. He has created ice carvings, brewed beer and manned a tandoori oven.
“A French chef I worked for told me I should travel,” Bruner said. “And it kind of just snowballed.”
Not a stranger to Columbia, either – he once worked in a Japanese restaurant off Clemson Road – Bruner has the eclectic vision as well as the people skills Sasser said he wanted for this new restaurant.
“He’s a talented chef – and he’s a good person,” Sasser said.
“We’re looking for that kind of hospitality in our servers, too – you either have it or you don’t. We want to be a place where people come and enjoy their meal and experience the best that Columbia has to offer.”
700 Lincoln St., Suite 200, Columbia
Facebook: 1801 Grille