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Out on the Town

Posted On December 20, 2015

These are a few of our favorites – consistently good food, attentive service, appealing ambience and that extra something.

By Cecile Holmes and Katherine Pettit

 motor supply co bistro columbia sc

Al’s Upstairs Italian Restaurant

You know you’ve come upon elegance when you enter Al’s, with its white linen, crystal, candlelight and alluring view of the Columbia skyline. Long a fine-dining staple in the Midlands, Al’s has been voted the city’s “Most Romantic” restaurant, explaining its high popularity during Valentine week. The remainder of the year, local Italian food buffs converge at this 100-year-old building on the West Columbia side of the Gervais Street Bridge to satisfy feed their cravings for as lobster bisque or scampi, eggplant parmesan, flame-cooked Saltimbocca, crispy flounder and risotto, or hand-cut filet mignon grilled to perfection. Patrons don’t just come to Al’s for a meal; they come for a relaxing, unhurried dining experience. Especially suitable for special events. Extensive wine list viewable online. Reservations recommended. 794.7404; alsupstairsitalian.com

Alodia's Cucina Italiana 

This small Italian eatery tucked in an Irmo shopping center consistently earns great ratings from customers. As a visitor to the Midlands from Indiana noted: “wonderful Italian restaurant.” The same customer gave high marks to Alodia’s Seafood Risotto. Other dishes include such delectable selections as the appetizer, Calamari Ritti, tender pieces of squid encrusted with Italian herb breading and fried with banana peppers and the entrée, Bowtie Gratinata, comprised of sautéed shrimp and pancetta with bowtie pasta and a creamy sauce. Named after the owner’s great-grandmother, Alodia’s is a cozy, white-tablecloth location serving up authentic homemade pasta, chicken, and fresh seafood dishes prepared from family recipes brought to America. Servers know their menu and its ingredients (mainly local), how food is prepared and the complementary wine for each dish. An open kitchen allows diners to watch chefs at work. Regulars rave about the tuna and the caprese salad. Lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch. They do not accept reservations, and there may be a wait, but it will be worth it. 781.9814; alodias.com

Baan-Sawan

Most days, this lovely Thai restaurant doesn’t take reservations. Come Valentine’s Day – with its patrons’ needs in mind – it does.

Food-lovers delight in the small 15-table restaurant’s somewhat Americanized Thai menu. Dishes are enticing, especially the curries. Worth ordering and sharing: vegetable rolls and the calamari appetizer. Also rated delicious by individual reviewers is duck fat roasted pork with Panang sauce. Entrees may be ordered vegetarian or vegan with animal proteins. The small restaurant has a charming romantic atmosphere with exceptional and knowledgeable wait staff. You may have to wait for a seat, but it’s worth the wait. 252-8992; baansawan.blogspot.com

Blue Marlin

It’s a seafood lover’s paradise. Situated in the ever-growing Vista area, the polished wood and white-linen look ensures an elegant meal in an atmosphere that feels casual. Legend has it that wealthy English, German and French plantation owners along the Carolina and Georgia coasts preferred a blander European cuisine, but the flavors of the Lowcountry still wafted out of their kitchens. Try the Charleston Crab Cakes or the Pecan-Dusted Calamari. For starters, you might check out the Southern Candied Pecan or the She Crab Soup. At lunch, you can save a few dollars and still consume Barbecue Salmon Salad and Fried Green Tomatoes. Also offers private dining and catering. 799-3838; bluemarlincolumbia.com

Bourbon

This Cajun-Creole restaurant and whiskey bar can be found just behind the South Carolina State Capitol and specializes in bourbon, whiskey and craft cocktails and dishes with a Louisiana taste. The classics of Creole cuisine – spicy gumbo, jambalaya and etoufee will tempt your palate. Cajun-Creole classics like gumbo, jambalaya and etoufee, as well as dishes based on locally-sourced ingredients. From brunch to late-night, well-trained servers proffer well-known classics and tasty nightly specials. Open daily with various hours on weekends. Call the restaurant after 5pm to get the latest code word to park in Bourbon’s back lot. 403-1404; bourboncolumbia.com

Mr. Friendly’s

A staple for two decades, this slightly off the beaten track restaurant (actually it’s next to the railroad tracks) draws newcomers and locals with its “New Southern Cuisine.” When friends visit Columbia, residents often recommend this restaurant. Begun in the ‘80s as a sandwich and cookie shop, today, it’s known for its excellent service and changing daily specials. Highly recommended: at lunch, dishes like the Buffalo Fried Shrimp Po’ Boy and the Bourbon-Brown Sugar Grilled Boneless Pork Loin. For dinner, consider starters such as the Pumpkin Bisque with candied pecan gremolata and toasted marshmallows and entrees like Chile Rubbed Buffalo Flank Steak. 252-7828; mrfriendlys.com

Gervais & Vine

A Mediterranean Wine and Tapas Bar, this eatery features dishes including Iberian and Latin ones. Favorites cited by diners include the petit filet, the almond brie and the duck, and the olive plate and the gambas (spicy shrimp with roma tomatoes, sherry, bacon and garlic). Great service is a staple for this Vista location. Takeout is possible, but delivery is not. They do take reservations. Enjoy a small bite or a loaded plate, along with more than 40 wines and an excellent selection of craft beers and top-shelf spirits. Seating varies from outdoor seating and a lively bar to low lighting at small tables. Gervais & Vine also sponsors a wine club and lists special events on its “Happenings” page. 799-8463; gervine.com

Hampton Street Vineyard

For fine dining in Columbia, this one of the top choices. There’s the feel of a real French bistro with authentic food. If the noise level gets too high, tables in the cellar offer quiet. Interesting and varied menu gives a chance to try something different. Delicious possibilities include the lightly battered fried oyster appetizer and dishes such as pork loin, quail, seared ahi tuna and grilled maple soy salmon. Also available for private parties of up to 70. Hosts events including corporate functions and wedding rehearsal dinners. A destination of taste and class. 252-0850; hamptonstreetvineyard.com

Il Giorgione Pizzeria and Wine Bar

Usually called “Gio’s” by regulars, this attractive Devine Street bistro boasts a rustic, old world feel inside with fresh plants on the high-top wood tables. In good weather, consider dining al fresco out on the come-hither patio. The owner makes his own mozzarella fresh daily and seasons many of his dishes with fresh herbs from the courtyard’s garden. Prices are modest, and portions just right.  You might also enjoy Gio’s full bar with its generous seating. Many diners opt for this eatery’s pizza, which are made in the Roman tradition with thin, crisp crust. Beyond the expected toppings, the pizzas also come with ingredients such as basil pesto, capers, sea salt, balsamic drizzle, and artichoke hearts. Authentic Italian desserts are prepared in-house include apple cake, cannoli, and gelato. Maybe best of all in a busy city, easy parking behind the restaurant. 521.5063, ilgiorgione.com

Motor Supply Co. Bistro

From local art to delicious dishes, this restaurant shines. It is a go-to place for artisan cocktails in the Vista with a daily-changing lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. Regulars rave about the great fish and duck and delicious sandwiches at lunch at bargain prices. The bar is a good place to gather your group while waiting to enjoy the intimacy of its small dining room. Lunch features small farm-to-fork salads. For dinner, you’ll find sustainably farmed, house-butchered meats, farm-to-table produce, South Carolina seafood, hand-torn pasta and homemade characterizes. 256-6687; motorsupplycobistro.com

The Oak Table

The location is perfect; the view inspiring. Look out over the State House as you sip your Strawberry Harvest cocktail, created from local ingredients and hand-crafted artisanal spirits. Order a small plate of the in-house made charcuterie, or go all out and order the deep-fried lobster. This is classic American cuisine that features locally sourced, seasonal products. Chef Todd Wood knows whereof he cooks and leans toward local sourcing, too. Their signature cocktails are deceptively smooth, their wine list excellent. Open for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch, where the Bloody Marys are sure to please and the egg dishes comfortingly yummy. 563.5066; theoaktablesc.com

Pearlz

They’re known for much more than their raw bar, which oyster aficionados adore. If you have an aversion to shellfish, don’t let that stop you, because their fresh catch is always delicious, and you choose the sauce. Hint: Chipotle-lime aioli is our house favorite. They’re part of the Sustainable Seafood Initiative, which is a very good thing. Happy hour is always busy, perhaps because the locals know the beer is cold and the cocktails delicious and creative. They also have a late-night menu for after the game or a live performance. And speaking of which, for a great little speakeasy atmosphere, head upstairs to Pearlz Upstairz Lounge. With or without the frequent live entertainment, you’ll enjoy the atmosphere. Remember, sit at the bar to be seen, and at the tables for more privacy. And if you’re in a sweets mood, head next door to Kaminsky’s Dessert café where the cake is matched only by one of their adult milkshakes. 661.7741; pearlzoysterbar.com

Ristorante Divino

Count on an exceptional dining experience when you visit this northern Italian gem. The service is impeccable. The Pappardelle pasta with wild boar and Italian sausage Bolognese is outstanding – but so is the duck breast with potato confit and red wine jus. Opened by Fulvio Valsecchi more than 16 years ago, it’s currently under the new ownership of Chef Mike Deevey, Chef Bertrand Gilli and Chef Henry Griffin. All three are well known and admired in the Columbia food scene. You’ll find old favorites and new creations, inventively concocted, using fresh, local ingredients when possible. Try the daily specials, if you can tear yourself away from your go-to favorites. 799.4550; ristorantedivino.com

Rosso Trattoria

Can you be elegant and casual at the same time? You can at this Italian trattoria that’s been a local favorite for years. Tucked away in Trenholm Plaza, it features local and seasonal ingredients, but it’s not your ordinary Italian. With an emphasis on fresh and local, the food is something special – including the mushroom pizza, for ‘shroom lovers. The calamari appetizer is delish, as is their wood-grilled Berkshire Pork Chop with all the creative extras. Another plus: their featured suppliers are some of our Midlands favorites, including Caw Caw Farms, City Roots, Split Creek Farms, Manchester Farms and Anson Mills. Great wine list, too. 787.3949; rossocolumbia.com

Ruth’s Chris

Most folks know the story of Ruth, a divorced mother of two who mortgaged her home to buy a small restaurant in New Orleans. What she lacked in experience, she made up for in flair, style and a passion for top quality steak. Today, there are 140 restaurants but we’re talking about Columbia, where foodies go for the meat and the attentive, professional service. Anything else (including their delicious lobster bisque, or their scrumptious crème brulee) is simply icing on their sizzling steaks. Filet mignon, ribeye, T-bone, Porterhouse – broiled your way at 1800 degrees with butter. Enough said. 212.6666; ruthschris.net

Saluda’s

The building has history, as a former VFW Officer’s Club built at the end of WWI that attracted the elite to enjoy celebrations and special events. In 1996, it was renovated and re-opened as Saluda’s, once again becoming a destination for those who want to experience something special. Southern cuisine with French and Italian influences, and locally sourced where possible. For some, an after-work drink with friends at the beautiful mahogany bar (salvaged from a fine hotel in Philadelphia), is all that’s needed. Others take family and friends for dinners that are assured to be exquisite and innovative. And, private dining facilities make it a super choice for larger events. Consider the sweet tea pork chop with blackberry gastrique, or the fish of the day. When the weather’s nice, opt for the balcony and a view of the action. 799-9500; saludas.com

Solstice Kitchen

Worth seeking out and consistently near the top of Trip Advisor for our area. (Also, Open Table Winner, Diners’ Choice for 2015). The food is seasonal, employing local sourcing where possible. The wine list is fabulous. The staff, attentive, but not stodgy. Hope that they have the sweet potato apple bisque when you visit – it is divine. It’s a super date night place, but I have a friend whose Grandmother loves it and another friend whose company uses it for private parties. A little bit eclectic, in a good way. Open for lunch and dinner during the week, dinner on weekends. Check for availability before you go. It’s that popular. 788.6966, solsticekitchen.com

Terra

First, if you’re lucky, you’ll have seating options: The patio? Dining room? High tops in the bar? You may grab a view of downtown Columbia, always a plus. Since 2006, Terra and Chef Mike Davis have been delighting the palates of those who appreciate his skills and passion for local, seasonal ingredients. A bit of a celebrity in the area, Chef Davis has cooked for the annual Southern Foodways Alliance benefit at Blackberry Farm, has been featured as a rising star in Restaurant Hospitality, and has appeared on SCETV. He’s cooked his Southern Roots dinner at the esteemed James Beard House in New York City for a sold-out crowd. The reason is the food. What about duck confit pizza with caramelized onions and port-soaked cherries? Or, watermelon salad with lump crab, avocado, shrimp, fried green tomatoes on butter lettuce. Good stuff. 791.3443; terrasc.com

Tombo Grille

Locals love this hidden gem; while visitors reading the great reviews on Yelp and Trip Advisor have discovered it as well. On Monday nights, it’s burger, beer and live music which brings in the crowds. (Is it the certified Angus burger or the great music? A little bit of both, we suggest.) Don’t expect a burger joint, however, because Tombo has fabulous appetizers and entrees that are anything but lowbrow. The seared crab cake makes a nice starter, but even folks who claim to hate brussels sprouts rave about their fried morsels with buttermilk dressing. Entrees include Scottish salmon, Cornish hens and those fabulous burgers, among others. Check their site for live music nights, specials and craft beers. 782.9665; tombogrille.com

Bet this list reminded you of some old favs you haven’t tried in a while. Time for a revisit, for sure.

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