Motor Supply Company Bistro
You never know exactly what you’ll find here, but you can always count on freshness, top quality and great taste.
By Amy rogers Photos by Sally Taylor
The restaurant business is rife with fickleness and failure, but for twenty-five years Motor Supply Company Bistro has defied the odds to become one of Columbia's longest-running restaurant success stories.
Located in an old commercial building in the Vista, and with thoughtful and inventive cuisine deeply rooted in Southern tradition, it strikes the perfect balance of tastes as it continues to evolve.
It all began in 1989. Back then, Spartanburg native Eddie Wales had come to Columbia to attend USC, during which time he worked at Motor Supply as a waiter. Then, in the ultimate climbing-the-ladder story, Wales purchased the restaurant in 2000.
The handwritten menus on heavy paper that change daily may look old-fashioned, but the dishes they announce are modern, with seven entrees to choose from each night. Some are fresh takes on favorite dishes, such as North Carolina, grass-fed short ribs, served with a seasonal risotto and a gremolata of chopped herbs. Vegetarian and fish options, such as a cornmeal fried trout with roasted red-pepper aioli and creamy rice, are always available.
Executive chef Wesley Fulmer joined the staff in February 2014 and brings both depth and breadth of experience to his role. The South Carolina native grew up in Prosperity and attended culinary school in Boulder, Colorado. Fulmer then spent more than a dozen years honing his restaurant skills in the demanding markets of Charleston, New Orleans, and Philadelphia, where he practiced what he learned from mentor and chef John Besh: “how to prep with your mind and cook with your heart.”
Fulmer describes his charcuterie board that's as appealing to the eye as to the palate. “Everything is house-made: the cured coppa, lonza, duck liver mousse, country-style pork pâté, and pork rillettes.”
A stand-out menu item is the Watsonia Farms kale salad, wilted with bacon fat and vin cotto, topped imaginatively with pickled local persimmons, toasted pecans, and olive-oil fried croutons. Seasonal soups can include cauliflower and truffle, Portuguese fish stew, and house-made sausage with greens.
Even guests who’ve dined for many years at Motor Supply may not know one of its quirkiest secrets: The tiny kitchen does not have a freezer. This little detail does not deter Chef Fulmer. “We make some really good whipped creams,” he says. That’s also a bit of a challenge for Sarah Baugher, who is working on developing some modern twists on dessert classics. One of these is a carrot cake recipe she revamped into “cake pops,” dipped into cream cheese frosting and rolled in orange-crystal sugar.
When you order artisanal apple or sweet potato pie, “We can’t make ice cream or gelato,” she explains.
That’s not necessarily a hindrance. “A kitchen is as big as you make it,” Fulmer likes to say, as he acknowledges his talented crew that works at a steady rhythm in the space.
The lunch menu is a bit smaller in scope but no less creative. Veteran chef Gloria Hopkins has been with Motor Supply for seventeen years and presides over the fast-paced daytime service.
In keeping with the growing craft beer movement, Motor Supply doesn’t serve imported beers but offers a selection of local choices such as Thomas Creek, Holy City, Palmetto, Westbook, and the hyper-local River Rat that’s brewed in Columbia. Wines are a different story, though, with an expansive list that continues to garner the restaurant the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, year after year. If several hundred selections – including thirty pinot noirs alone – don't entice an oenophile, off-list selections are often available as well.
Craft cocktails, too, have become increasingly popular. Bar staff won't divulge the “secret ingredient” in their Owner's Choice Bloody Mary that contains vodka infused with flavors of bacon, pepper and tamarind. Bourbons from Old Van Winkle are in high demand and may cause some actual clamoring when the long-awaited twenty-three-year reserve is released. (And if patrons happen to glance under their drinks, they'll notice their square coasters have been cut from old menus.)
The room that can accommodate about a hundred guests is rustic, with tables made from reclaimed barn wood. The massive bar is a relic from a “Germania Hotel,” although its origin isn't clear. What is clear, literally, is the sparkling collection of antique barware that adds style to cocktail service. Rough plaster walls are a warm backdrop for a collection of local artworks curated by Anastasia Chernoff. The changing selections give energy and a sense of expansiveness to the cozy space.
A recent renovation to the stone patio that seats about thirty-five means guests can dine in comfort year-round, thanks to new, industrial-style windows. Like garage doors, they can open during pleasant weather and still showcase the Vista streetscape view when closed.
Motor Supply Company Bistro is one of the few fine dining restaurants open for dinner on Sundays evenings, which business travelers and local residents alike appreciate, especially the out-of-town visitors and concert-goers seeking an early meal as memorable as the performances they’ll be attending.
The restaurant is still a hands-on endeavor for Wales; in fact, he often pens those hand-written menus that still continue to change daily. Motor Supply Company Bistro is also deeply personal, says Chef Fulmer. “Food is about memories,” he explains. Then he adds a statement that's simple, one that continues to stand the test of time: “We cook for Columbia.”
Motor Supply Company Bistro
920 Gervais St. 256-6687
Lunch Tuesday - Saturday: 11:30 - 2:30
Dinner Tuesday - Thursday: 5:30 - 9:30 Friday - Saturday: 5:30 - 10:30 Sunday: 5:30 - 9:00
Brunch Sunday: 10:30 - 2:30