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Best of Columbia 2020: Clubs and Bars

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Phill Blair behind bar at The Whig

Phill Blair, 2020’s Best Local Business Leader, runs The Whig, which wins Best Bar or Club, Best Happy Hour, Best Neighborhood Bar: Downtown/The Vista and Honorable Mention for Best Beer Selection.

Best Bar or Club — The Whig

Second Place: Jake’s

The Whig is a fixture on Columbia’s nightlife scene. The subterranean watering hole proudly states how often it cleans its taps, and those taps offer up some of the best craft beer varieties in town. The efficient and amiable bar staff make sure you’re welcome, too.

Honorable Mentions: Art Bar, Tin Roof

Best Bar Service — Bourbon

Second Place: The Whig

Helmed by well-regarded bartender Kat Hunter, Main Street’s Bourbon is a whiskey-drinker’s delight. Depending on what you’re asking for, Hunter’s knowledgeable staff is as likely to break down their numerous whiskeys as they are to detail their numerous house-crafted cocktails.

Honorable Mention: Art Bar, Lula Drake Wine Parlour

Best Bar Trivia – River Rat Brewery

Second Place: Art Bar/Useless Trivia

Do you know random things? Do you have some friends who also know random things? Then get them together and take your asses to River Rat Brewery on Shop Road on Thursday nights for the best trivia night in town. Have a cold one or two (or three) while you’re at it. The Bohemian Pilsner pairs particularly well with imparting esoteric knowledge.

Honorable Mentions: Columbia Craft Brewing Company, The Grand on Main

Best Bartender — Nate Stephens (Henry’s - Devine Street)

Second Place: Kat Hunter (Bourbon)

Columba is a worker’s town, and Henry’s is the kind of no-frills, classic bar/restaurant that is emblematic of that. One person who was emblematic of that was Nate Stephens, who passed away last year. Known for his hospitable demeanor, Stephens helped shape one of the area’s best bars and was well loved by many a Henry’s patron.

Honorable Mentions: Josh Streetman (Motor Supply Co. Bistro), Kasey McKay (The Capital Club)

Best Beer Selection — Craft and Draft

Second Place: Steel Hands Brewing

The taps at Craft and Draft rotate so quickly and are curated so attentively that no matter what your beer preference, you’ll find something new and up-your-alley to drink when you come in. And when you add in the even wider package selection, most of which is cold and ready to drink on-premise, you’ll find at least four or five.

Honorable Mentions: The Whig, Cafe Strudel

Best Bloody Mary — Cafe Strudel

Second Place: The War Mouth

What’s a great brunch without a great bloody mary? Strudel’s variations are great, ably balancing savoriness and spice for a perfect hangover cure (or fine breakfast food accompaniment if you’re not showing up worse for wear).

Honorable Mentions: Motor Supply Co. Bistro, Bourbon

Best Brewpub – Hunter-Gatherer Brewery & Alehouse

Second Place: Steel Hands Brewing

Hunter-Gatherer has been brewing beer in Columbia for 25 years, and has long been an institution on Main Street south of the Statehouse. It was the first microbrewery in Columbia. The food here is on-point (well, hello, baked macaroni and cheese), the dining room is as cozy as a hobbit’s house and the beer is always fresh. The Hazy Grammar IPA is a favorite.

Honorable Mentions: River Rat Brewery, Old Mill Brewpub

Best Cocktail Program — Bourbon

Second Place: The War Mouth

The best cocktail program in town is being shaken up behind the bar at Main Street’s Bourbon. The dark and sexy atmosphere is exactly the kind where you’d expect to find more than 400 varieties of whiskey, and the list of seasonally changing cocktails highlights fresh and often local ingredients — not to mention the mind erasing offerings on tap during Tiki Week each winter.

Honorable Mentions: Motor Supply Co. Bistro, Tazza Kitchen

Jake's outside

Jake’s is Best College Bar, Best Neighborhood Bar in Five Points and Second Place for Best Bar or Club and Best Outdoor Deck.

Best College Bar — Jake’s

Second Place: Taneyhill’s Group Therapy

Dogs plus a patio plus drinks make for a college bar haven. Jake’s has all that, and it’s nestled right in Five Points. With a food menu that’s perfect to enjoy with drinks, it’s a standout for college folks — and great for others, too.

Honorable Mentions: Pavlov’s Bar, 5 Points Saloon

Best Craft Beer Selection — Steel Hands Brewing

Second Place: Craft and Draft

Apparently, Free Times readers really like Steel Hands beers. Because that’s what Steel Hands serves at its brewery, a whole bunch of Steel Hands beers. And the time of this writing, the taplist ranged from familiar standbys like the Coffee Lager and Tropical IPA to bold one-offs like a Peach Iced Tea Ale and a Habanero Agave Tequila Lager.

Honorable Mentions: Columbia Craft Brewing Company, WECO Bottle & Biergarten

Best Dance Club — The Woody on Main

Second Place: Carolina Western Pub

COVID-19 may have dampened The Woody on Main’s reopening this year, yet the club maintains a strong reputation from its earlier location in the Vista. Known for its range of dance nights, it’s sure to be a hit now that it’s back swinging again.

Honorable Mentions: Skyline Club, Social Bar and Lounge

Best Distillery — Hollow Creek Distillery

Second Place: Crouch Distilling

Hollow Creek wants to give you what you want. You want a nice drink made with fine bourbon? It’s on it with its High Cotton brand. You want a shot of something tasty and fun? It’s there with an attentively crafted take on the cinnamon whiskey craze with its White Hot. Drinker’s choice.

Honorable Mentions: Southern Essence Distilling, LLC

Best Gay Bar — The Capital Club

Second Place: PT’s 1109

Some traditions never die. The Capital Club is the longest continuously running gay bar in the Southeast, and has been a mainstay in Columbia for four decades. A private club not far from the Statehouse, it’s noted for its laid-back vibe. It has a venerable happy hour and is known for its drag shows on the weekends.

Honorable Mention: Vice Club

Best Happy Hour — The Whig

Second Place: Cantina 76

It’s nice that the drinks are a little cheaper at The Whig right after work — not that they aren’t cheap already, especially for those looking to sample fine craft beer. But what’s really great is that it’s a quiet, dimly lit oasis where the bartenders and the regulars are the kind that will strike up conversation if you want, and just leave you alone if you need a drink and some space.

Honorable Mentions: Bourbon, Tazza Kitchen

Brewmaster Doug Smith at Steel Hands Brewing

Brewmaster Doug Smith at Steel Hands Brewing, which wins Best Local Brewery, Best Craft Beer Selection and Coldest Beer and comes in Second Place for Best Brewpub and Best Beer Selection.

Best Local Brewery — Steel Hands Brewing

Second Place: River Rat Brewery

Not all breweries are conceptualized the same way. In 2018, Cayce’s Steel Hands Brewing was born ready to please right out the gate. In the last two years, it’s paired some of the best brews in town with a large canning production facility on site. The results? Its brand and quality flagship brews have spread far throughout the area, making it a quick favorite.

Honorable Mentions: Columbia Craft Brewing Company, Cottontown Brew Lab

Cantina 76 pouring margarita

Cantina 76 is voted Best Margarita, Best Taco, Best Restaurant — Devine Street/Shandon/Rosewood, Best Bang for the Buck; Second Place for Best Mexican Restaurant, Best Burrito; and Honorable Mention for Best Place for a First Date, Best Service and Best Takeout Food.

Best Margarita — Cantina 76

Second Place: COA Agaveria Y Cocina

Margaritas can go one of two ways: very simple with fresh, real ingredients (never a mix!), or wild new flavors like a prickly pear margarita made with dragon berry rum. No matter which way your taste buds take you, the best margaritas in town are said to be at Cantina 76, with locations on Main Street for right after work, or on Devine Street for when you’re already in the neighborhood.

Honorable Mentions: Publico, Moctezumas Taqueria

Best Neighborhood Bar — Downtown/The Vista — The Whig

Second Place: The War Mouth

If there’s one thing we’ve missed most during this godforsaken pandemic, it’s The Whig, which has been closed due to COVID-19. The subterranean dive bar at the corner of Main and Gervais streets is known for its wide selection of craft beers, it’s delicious food (what’s up, Whig Chicken Sandwich?) and it’s dimly lit, relaxed atmosphere that draws a diverse crowd of regulars. Come back soon, Whig.

Honorable Mentions: Art Bar, Bourbon

Best Neighborhood Bar — Five Points — Jake’s

Second Place: Bar None

Jake’s is where the two sides of the Five Points nightlife coin most come together these days. It’s spacious patio helps it remain a reliable draw among the college set, but the fact that it comes paired with a beer selection, vibe and quality food menu that appeals to young professionals — particularly during Yappy Hour, for those who want to bring their furry best friends — means they also come out in droves.

Honorable Mentions: Goat’s, Publico

Best Neighborhood Bar — Harbison/Irmo — The British Bulldog Pub

Second Place: Craft and Draft Irmo

The British Bulldog is one of those oddly placed places that makes you want to believe that we live in a computer program, and you’re experiencing a coding error. This authentic English pub has the devoted but welcoming crowd associated with such spots on the other side of the pond, filling it out with ridiculously tasty English fare, and augmenting it with a robust selection of local and national American craft beer. That it sits in the middle of a Harbison shopping center isn’t a glitch in the Matrix, but a welcome respite for bar goers who need a break on a mall day.

Honorable Mentions: Hemingway’s, Lucky’s Burger Shack

Best Neighborhood Bar – Lexington – Keg Cowboy

Second Place: O’Hara’s Public House

Keg Cowboy, located on Lexington’s increasingly vibrant Main Street, has a saying: “No Crap On Tap.” And they stick by it. The bar offers a diverse and seemingly ever-evolving menu of craft beers. It also has a unique and ambitious food menu. It’s certainly the only place on Main Street in Lexington that regularly offers a duck panini.

Honorable Mentions: The Casual Pint, Hazelwood Brewing Company

Best Neighborhood Bar — Northeast — Henry’s Northeast

Second Place: Random Tap

Each of Henry’s three locations is a favorite neighborhood bar for the neighborhood it resides in. And that’s definitely true of the Northeast outpost, where the reliable mix of tasty bites, well-stocked bar offerings and friendly service keep people coming back.

Honorable Mentions: Top Dawg Tavern, Racks Restaurant & Sports Bar

Best Neighborhood Bar — Shandon/Rosewood/Forest Acres — Craft and Draft

Second Place: Henry’s

Craft and Draft is a great place to go get nerdy about craft beer. With such well-curated, rapidly cycling taps and adventurously stocked shelves and coolers, how could it not be? What’s more remarkable is how it’s grown into the kind of welcoming neighborhood hangout that draws in folks who just want light beers and good times with familiar faces.

Honorable Mentions: Nightcaps, The Cock N’ Bull Pub

Best Neighborhood Bar — West Columbia/Cayce Steel Hands Brewing

Second Place: WECO Bottle & Biergarten

Steel Hands Brewing doesn’t fit the mold of the classic neighborhood bar, but the tasty beer makes for a swell coupling with the spacious interior and fantastic outdoor space, which frequently has live music.

Honorable Mentions: New Brookland Tavern, Henry’s Restaurant & Bar

Bet New Bar or Club — WECO Bottle & Biergarten

Second Place: Craft and Draft Irmo

Attaching a large and comfortable outdoor space, including a spacious covered patio, to a bottle shop and beer bar that emphasizes a quickly rotating selection of American craft beers and a reliable stock of European favorites has resulted in a new hotspot on Meeting Street.

Honorable Mentions: The Woody on Main, Carolina Western Pub

Best Place to See Live Comedy — The Comedy Closet

Second Place: The Comedy House

Since the Best Of Columbia polling process started, one of the co-owners of The Comedy Closet stepped away due to accusations of sexual misconduct. Before that, many in town were excited by the stout selection of touring and local comics the new club was bringing in. How the recent controversy and the club’s response impact that popularity remains to be seen.

Honorable Mention: Art Bar

Best People-Watching Bar — Art Bar

Second Place: Jake’s

From robots to Christmas lights, Art Bar has the setting to draw an eclectic crowd. Pre-COVID, its various event nights, from karaoke to trivia, made for one the best spots to cozy up to its bar and just gaze out on the cast of characters.

Honorable Mentions: The Woody on Main, The Whig

Best Outdoor Deck — Liberty on the Lake

Second Place: Jake’s

Liberty on the Lake has a lot going for it in the traditional sense. A solid food menu — the shrimp and grits is pretty special — and a well-stocked bar make this a respectable casual dining experience. But the deck, with gorgeous views over Lake Murray, especially in the evening, is what elevates this particular location. Dinner is good. Dinner and a view? Even better.

Honorable Mention: Steel Hands Brewing, Hendrix Restaurant

Best Sports Bar – Thirsty Fellow Pizzeria and Pub

Second Place: The British Bulldog Pub

Maybe y’all voted Thirsty Fellow as the best sports bar because there are often ballgames playing on their many TVs as you enjoy their delicious pizzas and partake from the bar’s deep selection of drinks. But we’re guessing you are likely giving it a nod as a sports bar in a more direct sense: Thirsty Fellow, situated just steps from Colonial Life Arena, has become a go-to spot for basketball fans before and after University of South Carolina men’s and women’s basketball games.

Honorable Mentions: Village Idiot, Hickory Tavern

Coldest Beer — Steel Hands Brewing

Second Place: The Whig

Not every beer is meant to be consumed frigid. So in awarding this honor to Steel Hands, we’re in no way suggesting that it does its beers a disservice with the temperatures at which it serves them. But that eminently crushable Punch Clock Pilsner does go down mighty fine when ice cold, and it’s been that way every time we’ve grabbed one at the brewery.

Honorable Mentions: Thirsty Fellow Pizzeria and Pub, Columbia Craft Brewing Company

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