My travels always begin with a search.
I type in “Best restaurants in _____” into Google, compare local magazine or newspaper rankings, customer reviews, and plan large chunks of my trips around the results. What “best” might actually mean is up for debate, but the practice has led me to some of the most delicious food I’ve eaten.
In my last home of Minneapolis, the search led me to modern French cuisine and my first experiences with prix fixe menus. In Louisville, to a brunch cafe set inside a neighborhood house with a delicious smoked pork shoulder hash. In Columbia, to Motor Supply Co. Bistro and an herb-marinated flank steak cooked beautifully rare.
How Motor Supply landed in my search is an effort that has spanned three decades. Since opening its doors in December 1989, the restaurant has been at the forefront of Columbia food trends, sparking a now expected emphasis on farm-to-table fare among fine-dining establishments.
“The restaurant itself has gone through this long evolution of growth and ups and downs,” owner Eddie Wales tells Free Times. “Really in the last 10 years, I feel that the restaurant goes up and up as far as our quality, the consistency and our professionalism.”
Before owning Motor Supply, Wales worked at the restaurant, starting in the second month it was open in January 1990. Then a 24-year-old waiter with previous restaurant management experience, he quickly became an assistant manager and then general manager.
“I did realize … after we got started in those early years that this was a unique place,” Wales offers. “We did things differently, the number one thing being the daily-changing menu.”
Wales left Motor Supply for a short time to move with his girlfriend (now wife) while she attended veterinary school in Athens, Georgia, and in 1998 he returned as general manager.
Two years later, he purchased the restaurant from the prior owner.
Those early years, he recalls, were marked by the growth of the surrounding Vista neighborhood and the occasional end-of-shift, late-night party — which at one point resulted in Wales and staff dancing on the bar with empty scallops buckets on their heads. When he looks back, he’s taken by how much the restaurant has matured.
“You do all kinds of crazy stuff,” Wales says, “but people grow up and businesses grow up with that.”
Wales has overseen the restaurant as its grown to focus on grass-fed beef and farm-to-table ingredients — a push started by Fulmer’s predecessor, Tim Peters — and garnered strong regional and national recognition.
Southern Living readers voted the restaurant as the fifth best in the South this year, and in 2017, it was featured in Food and Wine magazine as the go-to dinner for Columbia, which the article dubbed “One of America’s Best New Food Destinations.”
Executive Chef Wes Fulmer tells Free Times this recent recognition was “the power of PR” (the restaurant works with local public relations firm Flock and Rally).
But that answer seems to undersell the work that Fulmer has done since he took over the kitchen in 2014. In the past, the restaurant focused on typical Southern comfort food — potatoes of the mashed or sweet variety, grits and more.
“I just took what [former executive chef] Tim Peters did and took it and ran with it,” Fulmer says. “We do a little more variety. It kind of put Motor Supply back in the forefront again … I changed up so much of the proteins we were using and kind of added to it as I saw fit.”
Over the years, Motor Supply became a feeder for new restaurants in the Columbia area. Wales notes at least three previous chefs that have recently gone on to open or lead other restaurants.
Examples include Main Street restaurant Hendrix’s top chef Javier Uriarte and Henry Griffin, who owns Restaurant Divino, the Kingsman restaurants in Lexington and Cayce and The Royal Butcher in Lexington.
“It’s well known that Motor Supply is in the upper crest of restaurants in Columbia,” offers Griffin, who left the restaurant in 2014. “It’s not for the weak-hearted to go there and work, just because of how much business they put out. You got to be on your A game to make it work there.”
Griffin recalls the pressure of the restaurant’s daily-changing menu. His shift started with two hours set aside to handwrite a menu and turn it in to managers. It’s a challenge that helped him grow.
“It was my first experience writing my own menus,” Griffin remembers. “It was very helpful for me and kind of jump-started my career.”
Fulmer says that people hiring his chefs to run new restaurants is something of a “backhanded compliment.”
“You’re very proud of that … [but] it felt like for a little while there that people were definitely coming after my main people,” Fulmer admits. “Why wouldn’t you find the best restaurant that you can find and take their help?”
In the lead-up to the restaurant’s birthday, Wales and his staff are planning a series of events to commemorate the occasion. The second week of December will feature a ’90s-era menu, and Fulmer is crafting a high-end New Year’s Eve menu with items like a New Zealand venison rack that will be rubbed with Indah coffee and brown sugar, braised short ribs with an apple hash, and scallops topped with shaved Perigord truffle.
It’s a higher-end-than-usual New Year’s Eve menu for the restaurant, which in the past only commemorated each birthday and new year with a few special items. For Fulmer, it’s just one more example of how the restaurant keeps pushing itself.
“I always say, ‘Evolve and conquer,’” he posits. “You know, the life of a restaurant, it’s very short. Unless you’re doing what Motor Supply’s doing and keep it going for 30 years.”