Between the University of South Carolina’s flagship campus and the towering stature of the State House, Columbia, South Carolina, doesn’t spring to the minds of most as a food-and-drink mecca. Still, the riverside city has shown up in big ways, proving it doesn’t just cater to co-eds and the political elite. Old stalwarts dish out gourmet plates and expertly crafted cocktails while a new guard of eclectic eateries have sprung up at the city’s farthest reaches (and beyond). Driven by the ever-changing population, new entertainment centers and a rash of vegan cafes have taken up residence, making Cola a destination in its own right.
Where to Eat
Several happenin’ neighborhoods have staked their claim to the dining scene in Columbia. There’s the Vista, a former railway hub turned lively arts and entertainment district just a short jaunt from USC’s campus. Along this stretch of Gervais Street, you’ll find spots like Menkoi Ramen House, for warming noodle bowls topped with marinated pork and piles of veggies, and Motor Supply Company Bistro, a fine-dining mainstay known for its ever-rotating menu crafted from locally sourced ingredients and one of the most acclaimed cocktail programs in the city. And then there’s Coa Agaveria y Cocina, an upscale Mexican joint with twenty-plus craft cocktails and an impressive selection of tequila and mezcal.
In contrast to the Vista’s reclaimed-warehouse vibe, Columbia’s Main Street District is the buttoned-up older sibling, its high-rises abutting the State House grounds. Still, it’s home to some of the city’s top eateries, like Cajun-Creole restaurant Bourbon, which recently expanded into the neighboring space for more seating.
Nearby Market on Main is the place to go for a gussied-up sandwich. Think, duck club with plum chutney and pickle-brined grilled chicken—and to shop the market, which has everything from local beer and specialty items to pantry staples. But as locals in the know will tell you, there’s perhaps no greater Main Street icon than the Whig. It’s commonplace here for metal bandmates, attorneys, and college students to descend below the street for next-level bar food. Don’t skip the tots with habanero ketchup and malt vinegar mayo.
Another old Cola favorite reborn, Goat’s came of owner Olando Patterson’s well-loved Goatfeathers. The old establishment shuttered in 2014 after eighteen years in the city’s Five Points bar district. The dim interior, accented with Christmas lights and exposed brick, and top-notch wine and bar programs make this a prime date-night spot.
Columbia’s Vegan Scene
Columbia is home to a bustling vegan food scene, starting with Main Street’s Good Life Cafe. Along with an extensive menu of breakfast and lunch dishes made from local, organic produce, it also features a grab-and-go selection of dips, salads, and desserts, as well as a coffee bar and fresh-pressed juices. A Peace of Soul—which grew from owner Folami Geter’s father’s erstwhile vegan eatery, Lamb’s Bread—is an entirely contactless carry-out restaurant serving Nashville hot “chicken,” mac and “cheese,” and some half-dozen daily veggie options.
But for real meats, venture across the Congaree River. West Columbia is also home to some standout food spots. Terra is an institution in the area for ultra-fresh ingredients whipped into dishes like Heritage Farms pork chops served with ‘nduja-poached new potatoes and tempura-fried squash blossoms. Also in the fine dining camp, Black Rooster—a new spot from the owners of Bourbon—translates French-inspired cuisine into inventive-yet-accessible plates.
Where to Grab a Drink in Columbia, South Carolina
For an early start or afternoon pick-me-up, Columbia has plenty of superb coffee houses to choose from. Tiny Immaculate Consumption has catered to studying students and casual passers-by in the heart of downtown Columbia for some two decades. With locations on Sumter Street and Main Street, ethically sourced, small-batch brew is always within reach at Indah Coffee Co. For a more eclectic option, there’s Curiosity Coffee Bar, whose menu includes a rainbow of lattes made from matcha, golden milk, and beetroot. (Pro tip: You can add a dash of CBD to any of their beverages for an extra three bucks.)
Out in neighboring Cayce, Piecewise anchors the Avenues neighborhood with a community-focused mindset. Sip on a smoked maple bourbon latte or mint lavender lemonade over a chai morning bun.
But for the Beer-Hounds…
If an afternoon beer is more your speed, you have your pick of local breweries. Since it opened in 2013, River Rat Brewery has become a fixture in Columbia for its easy-drinking flagships like a hazelnut brown ale, Broad River Red, and tropical, hoppy Astronaut Sauce. While Hunter Gatherer has a longstanding restaurant downtown, its newer location is worth the drive. Set in a revamped airplane hangar, the new taproom is a great place to grab a pint and watch the planes taking off from nearby Owens Field Airport.
Across the river in Cayce, Steel Hands Brewing is a short trip away for live music Thursdays through Sundays, monthly events like oyster roasts and Lowcountry boils, and a sprawling, dog-friendly outdoor space. It’s also the largest production brewery in the Midlands, cranking out everything from mango iced tea ale to a smoked amber lager. A newcomer to Columbia’s craft beer scene, Hazelwood Brewing Company in Lexington is the place for fruity sours, flavor-packed IPAs, and higher-ABV brews than most spots can claim.
What to Do in Columbia, South Carolina
Weekends from August to November are devoted to Gamecock football. Catch a game at Williams-Brice Stadium—or head to one of the dozens of area bars that broadcast coverage on game days. On Saturday mornings throughout the year, flock to Soda City Market for more than a hundred vendors peddling fresh produce and handcrafted wares. Vendors must make or grow the products they’re selling, so you know you’re getting goods straight from the source.
To beat the “famously hot” Columbia weather—even in the fall—Riverwalk Park in West Columbia is your hub for outdoorsy activities on the water. Walk the eight miles of boardwalk trails, rent a tube and float the river, or drop by for an event at the Amphitheater.
- by Erin Byers Murray