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Columbia’s Best Restaurants

Posted On November 7, 2017

To be honest, we could’ve easily doubled this list. There’s some darn good food being cooked up in Columbia these days. You’ll find our list includes a few new places in town, and some of the tried and true offer exciting new fare. So dig in!

by Clair DeLune 

Alodia's Cucina Italiana

Saunter into a cozy neighborhood restaurant that prides itself on “doing Italian right.” Lasagna, spaghetti, crab cakes – yes, it’s a twist of the unexpected, and for what will become a special favorite, try the Chicken Tuscany, featuring a chicken breast sautéed with sundried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, red onions, white wine and chicken broth over a bed of al dente angel hair pasta. For game fans, pan-roasted Duck Carbonara is served with a side of pappardelle pasta tossed in a white wine, pancetta, pea, mushroom and egg sauce – “Italian done right” will make your night. (803) 781-9814; alodias.com

Basil Thai

Divine food lies just off Devine Street at Columbia’s tony Cross Hill Market. Basil Thai is best known for their Pad Thai, although their seafood hot sour soup and red curry dishes are also highly recommended. Start with a lychee martini, then learn what puts the yum in their appetizer yum ped (duck), or dare to try volcano shrimp. Don’t forget to push the pedal to the metal and order the spice rake if you can take the heat, but please finish with the fried green tea ice cream ball to help ease your mouth back to normal. Hot and good. 782-0716; www.eatatbasil.com

Blue Marlin

Expect smooth sailing anytime you “dock” at the Blue Marlin in the Vista, whether you choose seafood or something from the turf-based culinary world. The old passenger train station provides echoes of ambience while the vast array of menu items presents your only angst of the evening – how can one choose? Our advice: Farm-to-table options filled with local specialties are a must, and the seafood selections remain a rave. However, if you will allow us to whisper in your ear for a moment about the tenderness of their steak topped with Bleu cheese, you’ll become a lifelong devotee. 799-3838; bluemarlincolumbia.com

Boeshreen

“Authentic Mediterranean” is a trite term, but Boeshreen Mediterranean Café and Bakery stands out as a hole-in-the-wall treasure you want to locate if you enjoy the sweet side of Mediterranean culinary culture. The list of entrees, appetizers and desserts is long, and you will want to try each one on successive visits. Libyan and Greek influences abound. Salads, falafel, babaganoush, hummus and other staples will attract you, but the unusual offerings such as Mediterranean haraimi (red snapper), kofta, and wrapped grape leaves will make you want to return again and again. It is rare to be offered a choice of aromatic basmati rice, kabsa, biryani or couscous. Indulge with a sweet treat: baklava and Turkish coffee. 788-2100; boeshreen.com

Bourbon

Run the gamut at Bourbon – the dark wood and brick bar that features creole and Cajun food mere steps away from the Statehouse Capitol steps in downtown Columbia. Under a huge lighted DRINK sign, the bar boasts endless Bourbon concoctions – but visitors to the South should make it a point to order an Old Fashioned or a Julep. The drinks are great, but the food is not to be missed. For next to nothing, you can order a third of a pound bayou burger or crispy New Orleans Boudin balls and red pepper jelly. However, you might want to make the leap to the top of the food chain for the Turf ‘n’ Surf: a 14-ounce grilled ribeye with barbecued shrimp. 403-1404; bourboncolumbia.com

California Dreaming

The first Columbia restaurant to “station” itself in a refurbished Amtrak building, “Cal Dreaming” – as it is known to its regular patrons – has remained atop the Best Of dining lists since it opened three decades ago. Their unexpected breadth of offerings makes it a perfect destination for lunch, dinner and large celebratory gatherings. The house salad topped with a melt-in-your-mouth croissant dripping with heavenly honey drizzled atop it is central to the mouth mission. Following that with any entrée would be a delight, but the marinated steak draws us in nearly every time with its tangy spark, especially if we can nab some cheesy nachos off our significant other’s plate while they are not paying attention. Stealth takes the day (or wimp out and order your own) – regardless… California dreams do come true. 254-6767; californiadreaming.rest/location/Columbia-SC/

Cola’s

In the scheme of which restaurant best captures the heart of the city, the award goes to… Cola’s! Located in the old Royal Crown Cola building, Cola’s uncovered the original painted name and pared down Columbia’s nickname, ColaTown, for a winning concept. Cola’s bubbles with ambience and allure, while they back up that fizzy freshness with firm footings in fine dining. Columbia might be small, but Cola’s makes our capital city stand out as a sparkly six-ounce glass bottle compared to larger cities’ two-liter plastic bottles, which sometimes taste flat. Tip: Pop your top over their shrimp dumplings or lobster and hearts of palm salad for starters. 451-0051; colasrestaurant.com

DiPrato’s

The “D” must stand for “Dear Heavens, may we please eat at DiPrato’s?” Or perhaps for “divine”… or Devine, because the proprietor is the former owner of Dianne’s on Devine. The culinary excellence we recall there is applied to daylight-hour menus at DiPrato’s that tantalize and tease the taste buds. One of the first area venues to vault Cobb salad from the cobwebs and back to chic status, it remains the very best edition in the city. Sandwiches, salads, a nearly block long ready-made deli section and fern and brick trattoria-style decor complete the experience. Formerly line order, table service now has raised the bar on relaxation. If you choose not to hobnob with the Cobb, you simply must try the pimiento cheese – or carry some home. Tip: Sunday brunch has never been sunnier anywhere. 779-0606; dipratos.com

Gervais & Vine

Take flight with flights of grape beverages at Gervais and Vine, where their main focus is on wonderful wines, but they win with their tapas and small plates of food. Truly one of the first Vista venues that scaled the heights and presented food and drink as larger, more cosmopolitan cities do – but without the haughtiness that can leave a bitter taste, G&V wait staff are friendly, informed and helpful. The spreads are enough to share, and paired with a Greek, Mediterranean or Margherita pizza your night is assured. For the advanced palate, the hot and cold tapas plates can make your wine pairings sing – or possibly you, but we suggest you resist the urge. Fill your bouche with a special offering of jumbo sea scallops seared with white balsamic reduction, lemon caper aioli and chive oil with Cholula and everyone will be happy. 799-8463; gervaisandvine.com

Hampton Street Vineyard

The formula for Hampton Street Vineyard’s success adds the culinary expertise of its three proprietors and their passion for fine wine to its beautiful setting, which is enhanced by a private table in the wine cellar. Its chef/proprietors have worked at Le Petit Chateau, Hudson’s and for Governors Riley and Campbell. Menus rotate quarterly and tempt palates with such mid-day delights as shrimp linguini with olives, roasted red peppers, artichokes, arugula and pistachio basil pesto topped with drunken goat cheese as well as crispy duck thigh confit over sweet potato mashers, arugula, lamb bacon, red onion, blistered tomatoes and a blackberry-thyme gastrique. At dinner, revel in the flavors of seared salmon with pad Thai noodles, red quinoa and Asian vegetable medley, topped with a charred green onion aioli, along with a bottle of Gewurztraminer or Sancerre. 252-0850; hamptonstreetvineyard.com

Hwy 55 Burgers, Shakes and Fries

Hearken back to the soda shops of yore no more – drive 55 or the speed limit over to Hwy 55 Burgers Shakes and Fries in Lexington where the burgers are killa-dilla and the shakes are chilla. Two words about their shakes, people: Hand made. The chocolate syrup swirls are visible in the cup, which tells you it was crafted with care. Yum. But wait, there’s more. We’d forgotten what a real burger should taste like. The soft bun almost melted into our freshly grilled burger. Want some real fun? Take a child or two with you and share the joy of deliciousness. Family friendly, festive and fantastically fast at the walk-in counter. 359-9090; hwy55.com

Little Pigs BBQ

No stranger to “Best Of” lists for barbecue places in the South, Little Pigs Barbecue on Alpine Road near I-77 started off as a humble walk-in shop in the early days of the Rosewood Shopping Center. Handed down from father to son, Champ McGee is an equal proponent of the three types of sauce for pork barbecue: tomato-based, mustard-based or vinegar-pepper as well as something unusual for Carolina ‘cue joints – original Memphis beef barbecue ribs. The menu also includes brisket, pork chops, chicken, wings, fish, rice, hash, collards, macaroni and cheese, beans, heavenly hush puppies, and tomato pie among many other veggies and a multitude of desserts. You’ll need an extra belt hole to survive this level of Carolina ‘cue bliss. Tip: Miz McGee’s pudding dessert. Trust us. 788-8238; littlepigs.biz

Lula Drake

Named for a 19th century woman far ahead of her time who was once a proprietor of a hat shop at this location, Lula Drake brings to Main Street three experts in wine, beer and food. With a light, cozy atmosphere flanked by creamy brick walls, Tim Gardner – a certified sommelier – selects biodiverse wines for you with the same care that he once did for Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. The “Bites Menu” features edible flowers and handmade bread from local purveyors, City Roots and Crust Bakehouse, paired with esoteric goodies such as imported ham from acorn-fed, black-footed Spanish pigs. 608-1968; luladrake.com

Motor Supply Company Bistro

Founded as one of the early harbingers of Columbia’s entry into the ranks of cosmopolitan culinary capital cities, Motor Supply took its name from the signage on the building, heralding the change from a less than glam past while simultaneously paying tribute to it. Menus change daily and the food has been cutting edge from the start, having lost nary a nick on the cutting edge of East Coast food genius in its thirty years. A landmark. A gem. A true treasure. 256-6687; motorsupplycobistro.com

Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Café 

Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Café is where ambitious meets accessible. No gracious Southern Mama Belle ever ascended the heights of Southern cuisine that they regularly reach. The greetings and care from the staff make you feel as warm as Claussen’s bread fresh from the oven – put some red-eye gravy on that concept and you have the formula for this restaurant’s success. While regular visits are a must for Midlands’ residents, the secret power of this place is winning over “outlanders.” Mr. Friendly’s is the essence of Carolina, and never fails to charm. 254-7828; mrfriendlys.com

One Taco Two Taco

The pescado taco, Maui taco and el jefe taco, which ratchets a beef taco up a notch by using beef brisket, put this Lexington hideaway on our Best of Columbia Food list, but along with those “boss” offerings, the side dishes of vegetables, such as cauliflower, take this crowded Mexican eatery to the next level. The fact that they serve a righteous Margarita does not hurt their standing one little bit. Whether you enjoy fish, chicken or beef tacos and burritos, get there early to beat the masses to their door. 520-7715

Pitas 

Originally begun solely as a bakery, the aptly-named Pitas is a Mediterranean restaurant open for lunch and dinner that is based primarily on Greek and Lebanese foodways. Using family recipes going back generations, Pitas has built a dine-in and catering endeavor that focuses on foods that are healthful and delicious. Don’t miss the organic grape leaves, fried falafel, lamb shawarma, Greek chicken, tzatziki and perhaps the yummiest hummus that a cluster of chickpeas ever dreamt of becoming. 343-3454; pitascolumbia.com

Solstice Kitchen and Wine Bar

Put some sparkle in your life! We’ll bet Solstice Kitchen on Sparkleberry Lane is about as far from Humdrum Street as you can get with its focus on New American cuisine. Recent taste-tempting specials include a luscious char-grilled dry aged pork porterhouse (yes, we said pork) steak with Nueske bacon-shallot jam, grain mustard demi-glace, butterscotch-sweet potato puree & duck-fat-roasted Brussels sprouts. Gratify your slow-food needs with a five-hour braised lamb shank navarin with rosemary-red wine jus, horseradish gremolata, roasted red potatoes, turnips, green beans and butternut squash. New American got promoted to whoo-hoo American so we’re not switchin’ from Solstice Kitchen. 788-6966; solsticekitchen.com

Tazza Kitchen

Tazza in the Plaza – Trenholm Plaza, that is – greets you with an inviting décor of wood and cast iron; then the menu catches your eye with cast iron goat cheese and brick oven nachos for starters. Sold! Perhaps adding an order of the citrus shrimp tostadas graced with carrots, zucchini, lime, Calabrese mayo, and cilantro wouldn’t seem too greedy? Save room for pizza, tacos, polenta, crab cakes, garganelli pasta with fennel sausage, or the steak with peppercorn potatoes. Your eyes will be bigger than your tummy at Tazza. No worries. Simply plan a few more visits very soon. 782-0760; tazzakitchen.com/location/trenholmplaza/

Tiffany’s Bakery Eatery 

Now located on Two Notch near Alpine, Tiffany’s is a 30+ year family business that began as a bakery in Shandon. They carved out space for a few tables and served delicious sandwiches on their handmade breads while dishing desserts that dazzle. They moved and grew – earning numerous awards and accolades. Open with the sun, Tiffany’s serves breakfast and lunch, and is a great place to dash for a smashing salad or sandwich to take home for supper before they shut at 6 on weekdays; 3 on Saturdays. Partake of the delight that is Tiffany’s.  736-2253; tiffanysofcolumbia.com

Tombo Grill

Tucked back into a nook in Forest Acres, Tombo has pleased many a palate since opening fifteen years ago. Landmark items include a world-class Angus beef burger; shrimp and grits featuring Tasso ham with peppers and onions, Béchamel sauce and collards. Another rave is salmon with parmesan risotto, asparagus and marinated tomatoes, along with salsa Verde. Tombo migrates “Mom’s” mundane fried chicken livers from unfair fare into a slice of heaven. The flavors meld into an experience unto itself, and your eyes will close as you sigh – oh, you’ll want the recipe, but they are not telling the secret. 782-9665; tombogrille.com

Travinia Italian Kitchen and Wine Bar

One can attest to Travinia’s commitment to their food being “100 percent fresh” when starting with a crisp and juicy Granny Smith apple salad. Entrée choices include chicken and Strauss Free Raised® veal, prepared in your choice of Marsala, scallopine, piccata or Parmesan style. For a meal right out of the Italian countryside, order the saltimbocca alla Romano featuring prosciutto di Parma – a ham that is genuine to a small region in Italy – served with mozzarella, sage and herbed lemon butter over capellini pasta. The seemingly endless choices include varied entrées of lobster, salmon, crab, steak, pork or swordfish. 957-2422; www.traviniaitaliankitchen.com/travinia-lexington-sc.php

Upper Crust Wood-fired Pizza and Grill

“Upper crust” entered the vernacular in Middle Ages England because a guest in one’s home was always held in the highest esteem, thus one offered guests the best part of the bread. Upper Crust Wood-fired Grill emerged in NE Columbia in 2017 but it embodies that ages-old hospitality concept by taking humble offerings and elevating them to “guestworthy.” Some extraordinary twists include salads featuring Brussel sprouts, BBQ chicken or a shrimp Cobb. A visit is not complete without tater tots dusted three ways: sea salt, truffle Parmesan and jalapeño cheddar. Go for the tots, stay for the live music – you’re welcome. 888-6282; uppercrustwoodfiredgrill.com

Villa Tronco

Villa Tronco, Columbia’s oldest restaurant, is authentic Italian that has stood the test of time and stands above the crowd of would-be competitors. Family owned and operated, there is nowhere you will note more care and concern for your appetite to be whetted, then ultimately satisfied. Our most recent visit exceeded expectations in service, taste and satisfaction. Crusty bread and fresh butter followed a salad with spectacular house dressing, which Tronco’s bottles and sells. The chicken piccata over linguine noodles was the perfect blend of tart lemon with perky capers. While we usually end with Carmella’s famous cheesecake, the amaretto bread pudding was a not-too-sweet way to top off another amazing Villa Tronco visit. Tip: Tronco's has again won a prestigious wine award, so ask for a great bottle to go with your delicious meal. Thursday live music features opera, Broadway, standards and jazz. 256-7677; villatronco.com

The War Mouth

A Cottontown warehouse birthed an up-to-the-minute trendsetting restaurant ready to carve itself a place on our city’s menu map. The War Mouth sources food locally and focuses on foodstuffs that either rarely grace a Southern menu or spices up “the expected.” War Mouth makes the usual unusual. Catfish, the humble bottom dweller made into stew on many a home hearth, is a favorite one rarely finds outside one’s own kitchen. Barbecue is served with a pepper sauce so hot you’d better advance your beverage order for mitigation. Housemade pickles and slaw help reduce the burn, while pickled eggs and chicken bog warm your heart.  569-6144; thewarmouth.com

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