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Food scene thrives in Columbia with niche for affordable restaurants, international eats

Niemi at Black Rooster

Kristian Niemi on the rooftop deck of his new restaurant across the Congaree River from Columbia, Black Rooster. Mike Fitts/Staff

WEST COLUMBIA — Black Rooster, the latest venture from Columbia's Kristian Niemi, describes its style as "French-ish." The phrase is meant to evoke an approachable — not intimidating — take on French fine dining.

In launching the French restaurant, Niemi is filling a niche in the Midlands market that has been open for decades. For his best chance to succeed, Niemi said he wants Black Rooster to be welcoming and affordable in a city of government workers, college students and families.  

“It’s a mid-priced restaurant, because that’s what works in Columbia, but also works best for me, because that’s what I would like," Niemi said.

Niemi and others say Columbia has become a strong market for restaurants that are moderately priced and not too fancy, with an abundance of solid options for different international cuisines. Its real estate cost can make the Midlands more affordable than higher-profile dining destinations such as Asheville or Charleston, but for white-tablecloth or high-concept dining, Columbia has relatively few outposts.

Niemi has been a mainstay of the Columbia restaurant scene for more than two decades. In that time, he has launched several restaurants that continue to do well, including Mr. Friendly's and Bourbon, the bar and restaurant that he launched successfully on Main Street in 2014.

The concept for Black Rooster first came to Niemi in 1997, and in all that time, no one has opened a French bistro in Columbia. Niemi sees the restaurant as the kind of brasserie that is found in many cities in France, where he spent a month last year. Everyone in town feels welcome at such a place and can find something at the right price on the menu.

Niemi decided he had to use the West Columbia site with a view of the city skyline to finally give the city the restaurant he thought it lacked. 

“These have all been very selfish endeavors, for lack of better words," Niemi said. “They were where I wanted to eat.”

The view puts the restaurant across the river from many of the area's major hotels, which help provide the lifeblood of a restaurant. It's important for a dinner location to be either walkable or only a quick Uber ride away for guests, Niemi said.

Winning over locals

This growing number of hotel guests helps a restaurant survive, but Columbia doesn't have the huge flow of visitors as a city such as Charleston. A Columbia restaurant has to be able to win over locals and be affordable enough to keep them coming back, Niemi said.

That flow of customers doing business or visiting the city center has been key to keeping Motor Supply Co. viable as a high-end Columbia restaurant for 30 years, said Eddie Wales, the owner who has been a part of the business for almost all its existence. 

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In the past two decades, Wales said, the downtown Columbia area has become much more of a destination for visitors, with event spaces such as the convention center and Colonial Life Arena becoming major attractions. To Wales, restaurants benefit from being in the Congaree Vista, the area near downtown that has grown into a popular nightlife district. Having the area thought of as a dining destination helps everyone in business there, even if it means competition is right down the street, Wales said. "If you are worth your salt, they're going to come to you," he said. 

Sean Kim launched his restaurant 929 Kitchen & Bar on Gervais Street near the Statehouse in 2018, looking to serve traditional Korean food in a modern atmosphere with high-end service. The site in the Vista has helped build a steady clientele, he said. He's even seen regular customers come by from their offices for lunch, then return with friends for dinner. 

Kim, who owns a series of small retail stores across the Midlands, has found that the restaurant business brings work demands of a different magnitude. The workload of one restaurant equals keeping 10 stores running, Kim said.

Columbia has been a strong city for ethnic restaurants, in general, said Vanessa Bialobreski, managing partner of F2T, which creates farm-to-table pop-up dinner events. The city's ethnic restaurants have been helped by the city's own cultural diversity as home to several universities and an Army base, she said.

Another thing Columbia loves in a restaurant is the newest, latest thing to open. "Columbia loves a brand-new place, that's for sure," Bialobreski said.

Niemi launched Rosso's Trattoria in suburban Forest Acres in 2009, but the location never worked as well as a downtown restaurant, he said. Being away from downtown meant less traffic for happy hour or after 8:30 p.m., Niemi said. The current owners closed the restaurant in February. 

Others see opportunity across Columbia's breadth. Shuckin' Shack Oyster Bar has plans to open three restaurants in the Columbia market, believing that good seafood is an under-served niche in the Midlands, according to CEO Jonathan Weathington. The North Carolina-based chain has 15 restaurants currently, including locations in Greenville and Summerville. 

Columbia has enough residents spread across the area that several suburban restaurants can make sense, Weathington said. As an inland market, it has customers who think that good, fresh seafood is something that only can be enjoyed during a special trip. "It's our goal to eliminate that pilgrimage," Weathington said.

A better appetite

Wales has seen Columbia become more sophisticated about fresh food in his decades at Motor Supply. The restaurant began to move its emphasis to fresh, local food around 2008 and might have been ahead of the audience's taste at that time. "We just thought it tasted better," Wales said. 

Now customers understand what they are getting when they get fresh shrimp from the Atlantic instead of from a farm in Asia, Wales said. "They want fresher, better food," Wales said. 

Niemi sees delivering that better level of food at an affordable price as key to long-term success for restaurants in a city of steady but not spectacular incomes. 

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