Let's Eat Out!

Posted On November 14, 2014

There was lively discussion, much research, and calorie-enhanced sampling to explore the foodie world’s take on Columbia’s great restaurants. Here’s what we found.

By Kristine Hartvigsen

great restaurants Columbia SC


You could almost imagine Giacomo Puccini sitting in this charming restaurant working on his opera La rondine as he sipped a dry cabernet and snacked on bruschetta. After all, the composer was from Lucca, which is famous for its olive oil. Fresh sauces, homemade pasta, an excellent wine list, candle-lit tables. Named after the proprietor’s great grandmother, Alodia’s serves fine Italian cuisine that’s surprisingly affordable. Proprietors Adam and Betsy Huneau prepare dishes from traditional family recipes. Try the Mushroom Crespelles or perfectly prepared Tuna Carpaccio. Alodia’s is an unlikely diamond tucked in an Irmo shopping center. Who knew? 781.9814

Al’s Upstairs Italian Restaurant

Looking for a dining room with a view? Check out Al’s Upstairs in the West Vista. Cozy tables along the window look out over the Gervais Street Bridge and the shimmering downtown skyline. We all know that food is the best way to the heart, and Al’s was voted the most romantic and best Italian restaurant in Columbia. Elegant ambiance, white linen, quaint 100-year-old building. Melt-in-your-mouth favorite dishes include the lobster bisque topped with puff pastry, calamari flash-fried in fra diavolo sauce, flame-cooked saltimbocca, and the seafood-stuffed filet mignon. And save room for dessert. Celebrating 34 years in business. 794.7404

Al Amir on Main

It’s just fun to say “baba ghanoush.” Really. And Columbia foodies rave over Al Amir’s savory eggplant dish cooked with onions, tomatoes, and olive oil. Specializing in Middle Eastern fare, Al Amir is much larger than it appears from the street. Healthy, vegetarian-friendly, authentic pork-free halal menu. Perfectly seasoned hummus. Signature salad is a delectable combination of cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and mint. And they serve delicious pizza. Yes, pizza! Yummy grilled lamb. Heavenly Damascus bread is fresh and just chewy enough. Try the falafel with yellow rice and grape leaves. Very friendly staff. No alcoholic beverages. Pets are welcome at outdoor tables. Tell them Muhammed (the owner) sent you. 771.0515

Blue Marlin

Blue Marlin, with its lush wood-paneled interior and maritime décor, would be Ernest Hemingway’s type of place. But there’s nary a six-toed cat in sight. That’s OK, because you’re here for the seafood − rich, satisfying “comfort seafood.” Located in a refurbished train station in the historic Vista, Blue Marlin offers both surf and turf dishes, but seafood is the star of the show. Blue Marlin’s signature shrimp and grits homemade with locally milled stone-ground Adluh grits, creek shrimp, andouille sausage are a crowd favorite. Lowcountry specialties, many prepared with a Creole sensibility, include Salmon Ponchartrain, meaty Charleston Crab Cakes, and Tilapia Charleston. Try the fresh-caught Mahi Mahi, lean, hand-cut steaks, even complimentary bacon-infused collard greens. Just ask Hemingway’s Old Man. This place is the catch of the day. 799.3838


Columbia restaurateur Kristian Niemi has done it again. His latest enterprise brings the French Quarter to downtown’s historic Brennen Building. Bourbon is a specialty cocktail bar first, but its Cajun-Creole menu wows drinkers and teetotalers alike. Locally sourced farm-to-table selections are prepared with fresh City Roots and other local farm produce, Santee River crawfish, and andouille and boudin sausages made from local pork. Jambalaya, cornbread-stuffed quail, duck with succotash, gumbo (a veggie version, too), and even a Bayou Burger on a brioche bun (ask for some creole pimento cheese on top). The menu changes seasonally. Expertly mixed cocktails include the Old Fashion, the Manhattan, Whiskey Smash, Sazerac, and the award-winning Knuckleball. 403.1404

Cellar on Greene

Lots of people love to cook with wine, and sometimes they even put it in the food! Cellar on Greene in Five Points offers the best of both worlds. By day, it’s a retail wine store that carries hundreds of wines from around the world. By night, Cellar serves a variety of artfully plated gourmet delights, from tapas options to three-course meals that diners select for themselves from a varied and adventurous menu for just $22. Choices include roasted asparagus bisque, smoked salmon-beet Carpaccio, and duck confit quesadilla. Dessert choices range from roasted Bartlett pear tarts to molten chocolate caramel souffle with sea salt and chocolate sauce. Though the menus change regularly, lobster mac ‘n cheese, tuna tacos, duck and gorgonzola pizza, and truffle parmesan raw fries are consistent favorites. Or pop in and try a wine flight. 343.3303


Betcha didn’t know that Garibaldi’s is just one degree removed from actor Kevin Bacon. Sources say that Bacon and his wife, the actress Kyra Sedgwick, dined at Garibaldi’s while he was in Columbia in 2006 filming “Death Sentence.” The art deco Italian eatery with the signature pink walls looks like a set out of the 1920s, yet the cuisine is timeless. Enjoy expertly prepared meats and fresh seafood selections. Be sure to try the Crispy Flounder. Beef lovers will find the filet mignon tender as butter. Fettuccine topped with fresh parmesan. And patrons swear by the almond basket with vanilla ice cream and fresh berries for dessert. Reservations recommended. 771.8888

Gervais and Vine

The romantic ambience here easily could move couples to tango, making their way seductively between tables and across the floor. In fact, Gervais and Vine has been the site of more than one milonga over the years. It’s fitting, because the tango represents a melting pot of cultures, and the eatery’s tapas menu encourages patrons to sample and share a variety of new foods. More than 40 wines by the glass accompany tapas such as Chorizo Tomato Mussels, Seared Yellow Fin Tuna, Spanish Albondigas (meatballs), and Gambas (spicy shrimp). The Fingerling Potatoes with White Truffle Aioli and Eggplant Fries are popular, and the Ensalada de la Fresa Balsamico (mixed greens with strawberries, almonds, and gorgonzola) is a masterpiece of simplicity, flavor, and texture. Live music on Thursday nights. 803.799.VINE (8463)

Hampton Street Vineyard

You’ll feel as if you’re vacationing in Europe in this quaint, sunken dining room, which is just steps below the busy street. Upscale and inventive seasonal menu. Charming sidewalk tables are perfect for twilight dining. True to its name, Hampton Street Vineyard offers an extensive selection of excellent wines for just about any budget. Recognized by Wine Spectator Magazine five years in a row. The oversized crab cakes have been called the best in Columbia, and the flash-fried oysters also win raves. Entrees from filets to swordfish to duck are prepared with meticulous attention to quality. Impeccable, friendly service. Chef expertly pairs flavors and textures in fresh, inventive dishes. 252.0850


This inconspicuous modern-day urban saloon is nestled between the USC campus and the State House. Décor is a mix of Neanderthal chic and hipster creative. A stuffed hyena is mounted above the entrance. Giant beer vats once owned by Wolfgang Puck make an impressive statement behind the bar. In addition to limited-time seasonal ales, Hunter-Gatherer brews three staples in-house: the ESB, the Pale Ale, and the Wheat. Exposed brick and repurposed wood planks add an informal, communal character. Live jazz is featured on Thursday nights. From the regular menu, try the cheeseburger, a hand-patted, half-pound of juicy deliciousness. A large chalkboard along the wall lists higher-end but reasonable daily specials such as a New York strip or roast duck. 748.0540

Il Giorgione

“Picture it. ... Sicily, 1914.” Those who remember TV’s The Golden Girls will recognize the nostalgic voice of Sophia reminiscing about her Mediterranean birthplace. Sophia would feel right at home at Il Giorgione on Devine Street near Five Points. And she’d give a thumbs up to the authentic Italian, made-from-scratch dishes on the menu at Gio’s. Fresh ingredients go into everything. Mozzarella made in-house daily makes their Caprese Salad with heirloom tomatoes a must. In temperate weather, it’s delightful to dine outside on the quiet brick patio listening to the gently warbling fountain. Attentive owner tries to greet everyone personally. Respectable list of Italian wines. Homemade gelato and sorbetto. Pizzas have thin, crispy, melt-in-your-mouth crusts. Pastas are expertly prepared and seasoned. The real deal. Buon Appetito! 521.5063

Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Cafe

If you’ve ever said “bless your heart” or planned a wedding around college football dates, you might like Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Café. Tucked behind Claussen’s Inn in Five Points, Mr. Friendly’s is quintessential southern cuisine − sophisticated, but you don’t have to wear your church clothes. Come as you are and prepare to be dazzled by a menu that includes Buttermilk Fried Chicken with Tasso Gravy, Fried Green Tomatoes with Pimiento Cheese, Seafood with Alligator Sausage Gumbo, Cornmeal-Fried Catfish, and Bacon-Wrapped Filet Mignon. Pair any of these elegant dishes with a glass from Mr. Friendly’s award-winning wine selection or a glass of small-batch bourbon. Grits, of course, and plenty of sweet tea. Fast, gracious service. And like our weather, the specials can be hot and change frequently. Lick-your-plate good. 254.7828

M Grille

Miyo’s restaurateur Michelle Wang’s establishments, almost like the uber-familiar Starbucks, now can be found in nearly every corner of the Midlands. That’s because the savvy entrepreneur is getting the elusively defined Asian-Fusion concept right and building quite the fan base. At her M Grille in the Vista, which opened last year, you can get a delightfully square-plated meal that’s well-balanced as well as prepared with organic and natural ingredients. Most menu sections are actually good for you. Who doesn’t love the edamame or seaweed salad appetizer? Chic, contemporary ambience. Popular happy hour specials. Great service. Try the Vegetarian Curry with organic brown rice, M Style Peking Duck, Korean BBQ Ribs, or the Seared Tuna Sashimi. And there’s the build-your-own sushi roll. Brilliant! 708-8881

Motor Supply Company Bistro

Located in a renovated 1800s engine supply building, Motor Supply will have all systems purring with delight. A legitimate farm-to-table establishment, Motor Supply changes its menu daily. This chef could be the MacGyver of cuisine because he creates amazing dishes from what is local and fresh. Charming, handwritten menu. Upscale but unpretentious. Funky decor with eclectic local art. Offbeat pairings tease the adventurous diner, but you can more traditional find steak, pork, duck, pasta, and fish options. Dishes are beautifully plated. The best artisan cocktails around. Try the Peach Cucumber Margarita with Siracha. Delightful! Consistently excellent charcuterie. When fresh, you might find osso buco, swordfish, quail, mashed sweet potato chutney, rabbit ravioli, or seared Berkshire pork belly on the menu. Great attention to detail. Worth every penny. 256.6687

The Oak Table

It’s as clear as the magnificent view of the State House through the south-facing picture windows of The Oak Table that this is a capitol place to be. A favorite of lawmakers, downtown professionals, and visiting parents of USC students, you’re welcomed in gym shorts or a seersucker suit. And the food! Unique and different yet still familiar and approachable. Delicious from its namesake burger to entrees like certified angus beef ribeye or squid ink fettuccine. Enjoy locally sourced combinations like the City Roots Tomato Salad with yuzu-watermelon vinaigrette. And there’s no beating Nueske’s Bacon drizzled with maple syrup. Few desserts can top the Oak Table’s Butterscotch Bread Pudding with bourbon-poached peaches, ice cream, and salted caramel corn. Delish. Their excellent Sunday brunch comes with bottomless mimosas. 563.5066

Old Mill Brewpub

Sweet. Potato. Fries. Foodies rave over Old Mill’s crisp and delightful, topped with cinnamon and sugar. This fun and friendly Lexington eatery opened last year in the rear of a refurbished 1890s cotton mill that’s now a neighborhood shopping attraction. Dining room has stained glass lighting and a view of the brewery’s copper vats. Dog-friendly back patio overlooks a small lake stocked with catfish and turtles. Kids love to feed them table scraps. Good variety on menu, but burgers rule as a beer companion. The hand-patted Old Mill Burger comes on a soft brioche bun with Pimento cheese, fried green tomatoes, applewood smoked bacon and pepper gravy. Awesome Reuben, too. Something for everyone. 785-BEER (2337)

Pawley’s Front Porch

Popeye’s burger-loving friend, Wimpy, would have to start getting his mail at Pawley’s Front Porch, because their daily house-ground angus sandwich is considered by many to be heaven on a bun. Garnish your burger with ingredients like jalapeno or applewood smoked bacon, portabella mushrooms, guacamole, Vidalia onions, fried egg, and even pineapple. Burgers are the menu mainstay. However, if you like fried green tomatoes, you will discover that Pawley’s does the popular Southern dish one better by stuffing crab meat between each layer and drizzling the tower with balsamic vinaigrette. Speaking of fried, Pawley’s may make the best fried pickles in the Midlands. Nice selection of local beers on draught. Come hungry, because the portions are huge. College dive feel but in a good way. Dogs welcome dogs on the outside patio. 771-8001


Did you know that a baby oyster is called a spat? You and your companions could spend hours quarreling about which menu item is best at Pearlz in the Congaree Vista. Have your debate while sipping fabulous adult beverages during the chain restaurant’s thriving Happy Hour. Serving nearly a half dozen kinds of oysters on any given night. Diners rave over the mussels − and the broth they come in. Other fare include Oysters Rockefeller, calamari, shrimp and grits, lobster roll, and clam chowder. There are beef options for the landlubber in your party. Conservation-minded seafood lovers will love that Pearlz is part of the Sustainable Seafood Initiative and harvests responsibly. Don’t forget to check out the upstairs bar and live jazz. 661.7741

Restaurante Divino

Per la cena esigenti. (For the discriminating diner.) The new owners of Restorante Divino are staying true to the authentic northern Italian flavor and aesthetic that its longtime patrons have come to know. In business for 16 years, Restorante Divino stays busy, and reservations are recommended. Award-winning cuisine using fresh, local ingredients. Do not fail to treat yourself to the lobster bisque or the veal with porcini cream sauce. Or try the braised short ribs with Congaree Mills polenta and red wine jus. Ask your conversant server for recommendations. Menu items are listed in Italian, but the fare needs no translation. Exceptional wine list. Radically good peach Bellini. 799.4550

Rosso Trattoria

Translated from Italian, Rosso means red. Red as in wine. As in tomatoes. As in prosciutto. As in the warm blush you get when these ingredients are combined in exquisite fashion to woo your senses. Voted the Best Authentic Italian Restaurant by readers in this magazine, Rosso Trattoria in Trenholm Plaza will make you fall in love. Warm, inviting décor and mood lighting make this a date night or anniversary favorite. The menu changes seasonally, and many ingredients come straight from local farms. Sip housemade limoncello as you watch the sunset at Rosso’s outside tables. Pizzas cooked in a wood-burning oven have the perfect thin crust. The grilled lobster dinner special on Mondays is a great value. Try the fried artichoke or risotto ball appetizer, the Burrata caprese, and the insalata de casa. Gustoso! 787.3949


Back around the 1920s, as post-war America became increasingly affluent, the space that is now Saluda’s housed an elite club for veterans of foreign wars. It was designed to host large, elaborate celebrations in the height of the Jazz Age. Completely renovated and opened in 1996, Saluda’s today is similarly poised to make special occasions of any size memorable. If the weather is agreeable, ask to be seated outside on the patio overlooking the Five Points fountain. Southern cuisine with European influences. Creative, exotic menu changes often, so call ahead about the availability of a favorite dish. The Sweet Tea Pork Chop has been a hit this fall. Also look for the decadent Country Fried Duck Breast, scrumptious Shrimp and Grits, an excellent steak, or the splendid Thai-inspired Calamari. Experienced staff. Romantic, white linen-draped tables. 799.9500

Solstice Kitchen

This fabulous neighborhood eatery in Northeast Columbia serves “new American” cuisine. Menu has something for everyone. This is the place to splurge; the calories are well worth it. We’ll start with dessert. For something just a bit different and seriously delicious, try the Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding. Want something rich and gooey and comforting? Be sure to order the Gouda Mac & Cheese. The Crispy Pork Shoulder Confit and the Fried Chicken Breast entrees are delectably satisfying. The Seared Atlantic Salmon served over creamy grits is unbeatable. One of the few places in Columbia that offers amuse-bouche, a petite complimentary appetizer. Something different every day. Unique array of beer and liquor choices. Classy, contemporary atmosphere. Professional staff. Reservations encouraged. 788.6966


First, you’ll notice the tantalizing aromas from Terra’s wood oven and the sound of wine trickling into fine stemware. If you’re seated near the east-facing window, you’ll marvel at the twilight view of the Gervais Street Bridge over the Congaree River and the Columbia skyline beyond. Award-winning restaurant known for its artfully prepared, locally grown, sustainable new South cuisine. Come on Wednesday for the Pizza and Pinot special and try the delightful Duck Confit Pizza with caramelized onions and port-soaked cherries. The servers are quite conversant about the origins and characteristics of the dishes and even about gluten-free options. The Lamb Mac n’ cheese is an unexpectedly robust, flavorful treat. One of six SC restaurants to earn a Distinguished Restaurants of North America label. Flawlessly prepared steaks. Exquisite desserts. 791.3443

Tombo Grille

The kid in you who thought she hated Brussels sprouts and mom’s Monday night meatloaf will be absolutely converted by the imaginative comfort foods on the menu at Tombo Grille in Forest Acres. Seriously, order the habit-forming fried Brussels sprouts appetizer, and you, too, will be hooked. Or the fried chicken livers, served over creamy grits with a mushroom gravy and sriracha. Same result. Try the tasty iceburg (yes, iceburg) wedge salad with house-made bacon. So satisfying. And Tombo’s grilled meatloaf made from house-ground beef and pork is unlike any meatloaf of your past. Mashed potatoes on the side. Got a sweet tooth? Order the salted butterscotch blondie. From the Cornish game hen to the always popular burger, everything is prepared fresh from quality ingredients. Changing minds about reviled childhood foods since 2002. 782.9665

2108 State Street

Gamecock tailgating rituals are legend, and for many, serving creative cuisine is de rigueur. But when it’s not game day and you want to get your nosh on, head to 2108 State Street in West Columbia. You’ll feel right at home amid the Gamecock-themed décor, and the menu is packed with familiar yet uncommon fare. Like the Doritos-Crusted Five-Alarm Cheese Sticks, Collard Eggrolls with Mango Mustard, or the “Critter Fritters” (crawfish- and crab-stuffed hushpuppies) for starters. Entrees include Korean Short Rib or Jerk Pulled Pork Tacos. Regulars swear by the burgers, made from quality meat and precisely cooked to order with unusual toppings like bacon bleu pimiento cheese and pickled fried green tomatoes or jack cheese, pico de gallo, black bean spread and fried jalapeños. Reasonable prices. Friendly bartenders. Cold beer. Go Cocks! 200.2108