What's worth eating in Columbia? For many Charlestonians, the stock response is "nothing." But that's not precisely right: 131,000 people aren't living off instant ramen and canned beans.
Although a few exceptions spring to mind - notably, Austin, Texas, and Providence, R.I., - state capitals and university towns are very rarely culinary destinations, unless it's steak or sliced pizza you're seeking. And with apologies to Boise, Idaho; Lansing, Mich.; and Tallahassee, Fla., cities forced to do double-duty are usually too busy legislating and educating to pay much mind to restaurants. In other words, Columbia isn't Charleston.
With that in mind, I didn't necessarily gravitate toward the finest dining restaurants on a recent exploratory trip.
Instead, I focused on eating experiences that a Lowcountry visitor would most likely find rewarding. It's not a "best of" list so much as a round-up of recommended restaurants for the next time you get hungry 100 miles from home.
Because local grumbles aside, Columbia offers plenty of worthwhile culinary diversions, no matter what you feel like eating.
2 Fat 2 Fly Stuffed Chicken Wings
Saving wing lovers the trouble of ordering side dishes, Ramone Dickerson and Corey Simmons tuck jambalaya, mac-and-cheese and Thanksgiving dressing into their remarkably grease-free wings (Not all at once, of course: Even novelty frying has its limits.)
The neatly packed wings are dusted with seasonings that taste as though they came from the advanced salt-and-pepper section of the supermarket. I thought I detected garlic salt and lemon pepper on the crisp outer skin of my Sucka Punch wings. But I mostly focused on the tender meat and inner layer of melted Cheddar cheese, bits of bacon and jalapenos with their seeds still attached.
With every wing impresario trying to translate various flavors into powders and marinades, it's a nice switch to encounter a full-fledged ingredient. The JamRock wings, for example, aren't just spritzed with pineapple juice: They're filled with coconut-and-pineapple rice. Wing fans would do well to chase down the 4-year-old truck.
Marisqueria 7 Mares
4360 Augusta Road, Lexington
Although it's counterintuitive to head inland for quality seafood, Columbia isn't an all-meat town. Palmetto Seafood (2200 Gervais St.) does a famously great job of frying shrimp, gator and conch.
But for fish that doesn't take its final swim in oil, 7 Mares is the restaurant of choice. Set aside the laminated menu of Mexican-American standards, and focus on the roster of Veracruz-style seafood: 7 Mares serves seafood soups, seafood cocktails, ceviches and lavish entrees, including the region's iconic huachinango a la Veracruzana, a baked whole red snapper that takes 40 minutes to prepare.
If you're short on time or appetite, a tomato-topped fillet sauteed with jalapenos and lime juice provides a delicious introduction to Veracruzian kitchen habits. A sweet stew of shrimp, octopus, peppers and onions also recalls the cuisine's strong Spanish influences and beachy orientation. Still, the very best order at this lively restaurant might be a michelada and plateful of oysters, served with a bottle of Valentina hot sauce.
(Columbia also has its share of straight-up taquerias: I'm partial to Tienda Jasmine, 103-C N.12th St., based on the strength of its cabeza and homemade tortillas. On weekends, they grill chicken out front.)
Rockaway Athletic Club
2719 Rosewood Drive
Perhaps a Columbia restaurant could get a business license without hanging at least one television, but it wouldn't need it for very long. Because of the city's Gamecock devotion, even classy wine bars have a screen or two.
Spectating is the main attraction at Rockaway, a cavernous, unsigned Columbia institution. The first Rockaway burned down in 2002, which may explain why the current building, a dark-wooden warren of viewing areas, feels sturdy and permanent. The Rockaway appears situated to serve pimiento cheese burgers forever.
Locals like to debate whether those burgers are excellent, outstanding or life-changing. Based on my mid-afternoon sample, I'd probably side with the excellent camp: The quality patty was beautifully crusted, but the meat was a salt shake short of burger perfection.
Still, having watched World Cup matches in at least four different restaurants over the course of the day, I can vouch for Rockaway as an unbeatable sports bar. (Also, I may be naive about seafood-based arcade games, but I'd never before seen a live lobster tank with a pay-to-play lobster claw suspended above it. "You catch it, we cook it," the contraption promises.)
Mack's Cash Grocery
1809 Laurel St.
A few Columbians winced when I told them I went to Mack's, perhaps fearing I thought the scruffy counter-service joint represented the pinnacle of city dining. Granted, Mack's isn't fancy: There's a sign near the napkins warning customers to consider the cost of taking one too many. But the 41-year-old restaurant, which draws eaters from a wide range of backgrounds, ought to be a point of municipal pride.
Mack's is so popular that most patrons use the back door, rather than fight their way to the end of the line from the front. Almost everyone orders a burger, usually topped with chili or pimiento cheese. The pimiento cheese is mild, but the man who works the condiment station supplements it with a generous swipe of plain mayonnaise on the bottom bun.
The bun is squishy, the meat's salty, and it's nearly impossible to discern the burger's component parts, which meld into a handful of something that tastes appealing like every burger you ate as a kid.
1627 Main St.
Half of the cooler at Paradise Ice is devoted to frozen custards, but the counter clerk quickly dismissed them when I asked for a recommendation. "They're good, but when it's hot, sorbet is more refreshing," he explained.
The selection of homemade sorbets includes cantaloupe, coconut and two flavors made with herbs plucked from City Roots, an urban farm inspired by the Growing Power program. The lemon basil was as refreshing as promised, with a clear citrus tang.
But if freshly grown ingredients and artisan techniques make you itchy, there's a pretty fantastic artificial alternative: At Pelican's SnoBalls, the topping choices include three different kinds of gummi shapes. And if you want your ice doused in toothpaste-flavored syrup, Pelican's is happy to oblige.
Unlike Paradise, Pelican's isn't a local enterprise: The North Carolina-based company has 26 stores across the Southeast. But the Columbia location is the New Orleans-style shaved ice purveyor closest to Charleston.
The Southern Belly BBQ
1332 Rosewood Drive
The Midlands is home to a number of traditional pits. Since I haven't visited all of them, I'm not weighing in on any of them. If you have a favorite pit, my best advice is to keep enjoying it.
But if you're looking for contemporary barbecue, or just a stellar sandwich, I'd urge you to check out The Southern Belly, a restaurant that's somehow hovered under the radar since opening last year. It's the rare spot that manages to indulge in hipsterisms, such as canned domestic beer, without losing a lick of likability: If I lived in Columbia, I'd spend a good amount of time on the quirkily furnished patio.
There aren't any barbecue plates at The Southern Belly: The slow-cooked, pulled pork is served up in eight sandwiches. More than half of them feature cheese, which I don't usually associate with barbecue. But The Southern Belly's smoke-drenched meat is lean, and blessed with heaps of crispy bits. Cheese would have worked just fine, as did the roasted red pepper, grilled onion and grilled pineapple on the sandwich I tried.
Eaters also can opt for a plain pork sandwich with their pick of a globally inspired sauce. It may not be true to Columbia's yesteryear, but the meeting of pork and spices with Latin or Asian pedigrees is a smart representation of the city today.
Soda City Market
1500 Main St.
On Saturday mornings, a portion of Main Street is dedicated to the Soda City Market, a good mix of farmers, craftspeople and artisan food producers. A few Charleston companies are represented in the exhibitors' row, including Cannonborough Beverage Company and Charleston Artisan Cheesehouse, but most of the vendors are unique to Columbia.
Of the produce dealers, Eufren Ninancuro is a favorite among chefs for his willingness to experiment with different crops. He giggled mischievously when telling me about the many kinds of corn he's growing. But for travelers who don't want to fuss with butterbeans or freshly foraged chanterelles, there's The Wurst Wagen, featuring grilled sausages from a German-trained butcher; Mamie's African Cuisine, pouring spicy ginger drinks; and my favorite seller in the sweets column, K & K Gourmet Sweets, offering Peruvian shortbread cookies.
2001 Greene St.
Most sizeable Southern cities have at least one restaurant that jumped out ahead of the farm-to-table craze, saluting producers and resurrecting old recipes long before most eaters were familiar with the concept. Mr. Friendly's, which got its start as a sandwich-and-cookie shop, in 1995 became one of Columbia's locavore leaders.
Judging from the decor (which entails heavy curtains and lots of flowery art) and menu (which makes hay of salmon, tuna and a few dated sauces), the restaurant hasn't changed much since. But for scrupulously sourced, thoughtful versions of regional classics, Mr. Friendly's doesn't have too much competition.
The 25-year-old Motor Supply Co. Bistro has a similar look and kitchen philosophy, but the food I sampled there was far less assured. Executive chef Wesley Fulmer joined the restaurant in February, though, and if he had anything to do with the dirty creamed corn on my quail plate, Motor Supply could be on the brink of a major quality leap.
100 State St.
I'm pretty sure I was the only patron at the Terra bar who didn't know the bartender. That's a partly a function of the bartender's outgoingness, but also a result of folks returning to Terra again and again and again.
Of all of the restaurants I visited in Columbia, Terra is probably the one that suffers most from Charleston comparisons. It's tempting to hold it up against Charleston's better restaurants because it's in the ballpark: Chef Mike Davis trained at Johnson & Wales' Charleston campus, and worked at Magnolias while in school. He later cooked under Susan Spicer and Frank Stitt before opening Terra in 2006.
Still, the exercise is pointless. It's far better to enjoy Davis' fluency with fresh ingredients: Now's the time for a sprightly salad of fava bean hummus, sweet corn and squash blossoms gracefully stuffed with ricotta cheese. Davis is also adept at the finishing touch: Delicate radish micro greens brought the right bitter note to a slab of smoked mountain trout, and a quail egg yolk, cracked atop a crackery wood-fired pizza populated with green vegetables, raised the pie's richness to what tasted like the correct degree.
1214 Main St.
Judging from the looks of the crowd at Bourbon, and its proximity to the Capitol, many of the brand-new bar's patrons aren't compelled to cocktail because it's stylish. They just really need stiff drinks.
Fortunately, Bourbon is doing much more than merely filling glasses with booze. Although my Old Fashioned was slightly too sweet, the restaurant's dedication to bettering Columbia's cocktail culture is admirable. And, even better, the Creole-Cajun food's pretty good. The menu is enormous and ambitious, but the jaggedy boudin balls and peppery gumbo, spliced with okra, were excellent bar snacks.
Good Life Cafe
1614 Main St.
Pimiento cheese is so important to Columbia that even a restaurant that's foresworn animal products, cheese and mayonnaise included, has to offer a version. At Good Life Cafe, the "pimento cheese" is made with cashews, spices and lemon juice.
Raw, vegan, organic cuisine tends to be nutty. Oftentimes, it's pretty repetitive too. But I really enjoyed the prism of clean flavors present on my plate of "sushi rolls," with minced cauliflower standing in for rice. The rolls were stuffed with avocado, pickled cabbage, red peppers, kale and marinated mushrooms, which I could have eaten by the bowlful.
Other menu items include cashew "crab cakes"; eggplant bacon; kelp noodles; and zucchini noodle lasagna. If you like that kind of thing, you'll love Good Life Cafe, which boasts a sharp dining room with black tablecloths and a well-developed bar program.
Honestly, Good Life Cafe is one of the first restaurants I'd mention to Charlestonians looking for a Columbia meal. We don't have anything like it here. I'm sure Good Life's loyal customers wonder what we ever find to eat.