Columbia’s culinary culture is dynamic, and the city boasts an eclectic mix of old-school favorites, international cuisine, and innovative newcomers. Right in the middle of South Carolina, Columbia is an easy weekend getaway, and visitors enjoy Gamecock sports, concerts, outdoor activities along the river, visits to museums and historical homes, or just simple times with friends. On Saturdays, 150 vendors take over Main Street for Soda City Market, the place to find local food, crafts, music, and more. The market showcases Columbia’s diverse community and cultures. Newcomers to the city should definitely explore the range of pimiento cheese options, including the pimiento cheeseburger, rumored to have been invented here.Read More
18 Essential Restaurants in Columbia, South Carolina
Come for the pimiento cheese, and stay for the eclectic culture
Duke's Pad Thai
Well worth the short drive over the bridge to Cayce, Duke’s is a great choice for takeout or a casual meal. Diners step up to the counter to order classic Thai dishes, cult favorites from the street eats menu, or tacos with a Thai twist. (The pad Thai taco satisfies all the cravings at once.) There are extensive vegan options, so delicious they shouldn’t be ignored by meat enthusiasts. Duke’s also offers a build-your-own bowl option, with a selection of noodles, broths, proteins, and vegetables. Owners Noi and Chris Souvanna recently expanded their empire, opening Little Bun Mee Company next door, bringing their quirky culinary vision to banh mì sandwiches, poke bowls, sushi, and other dishes.
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A Columbia mainstay since 2006, Terra continues to keep it fresh with daily specials highlighting local ingredients. There are few greater pleasures than dining on Terra’s shaded patio on a balmy day. It’s easy to stop in at happy hour to enjoy a cocktail from the bar (perhaps a shiso gin and tonic, with fresh grassy shiso leaves, bright lime zest, and house tonic) with an appetizer, perhaps Korean-inspired short rib lettuce wraps or fried oysters. Patrons looking for a full meal should stay for chef Mike Davis’ seasonal specials, like his recent take on eggplant parmesan, served with a fennel, celery, and parsley salad. The staff is top notch, always ready to recommend a dish and the perfect wine to accompany it.
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The menu is French-inspired, but it incorporates elements from all over the world. Recent specials included Moroccan beef “tacos” served with beef tallow crepes instead of traditional shells. Before the main course, let the knowledgeable staff recommend a wine to go with a tin of mussels or octopus, which are served with house pickles, sourdough baguette, and a small salad. The rooftop bar offers a view of downtown Columbia and an excellent selection of seasonal cocktails often featuring local ingredients, beer, and wine.
The all-day cafe owned by chefs Sarah Simmons and Aaron Hoskins delights diners with an exceptional pastry selection, healthy options for breakfast and lunch made with seasonal ingredients, and excellent coffee. Loyal customers subscribe to the newsletter and follow the restaurant on social media to hear about family-style meals for delivery or pickup, the perfect way to celebrate any holiday — or just any random day that needs some joy. Don’t miss Simmons’ and Hoskins’ other ventures, City Grit Wine Bar and Market and Il Focolare, a small pizzeria with delightfully creative options.
The War Mouth
Located in Cottontown, one of Columbia’s oldest planned suburbs, the War Mouth has become a neighborhood favorite since its 2015 inception. Owners and founders Porter Barron and Rhett Elliott wanted to bring whole-hog barbecue to local diners looking for a place to eat, drink, and enjoy a neighborhood hang. The menu is full of creative takes on classic dishes from the Midlands and the Pee Dee. Outdoor seating is adjacent to the smoker, the heart of the restaurant. Executive chef Harold Pendleton joins other members of the War Mouth family to tend that smoker into the wee hours of the morning, socializing as they transform turkey, brisket, chicken wings, or whole hogs into the deliciously smoky meats that the restaurant is known for.
Motor Supply Company Bistro
In 1989, Motor Supply was one of the first restaurants to open in the Historic Congaree Vista. It brought a fresh new experience to Columbia — farm-to-table dining in a casual setting that still felt special. Owner Eddie Wales’s restaurant is a Columbia institution, now with chef Wesley Fulmer at the helm. He keeps the daily menu fresh, making everything in-house, and featuring local heritage foods. The cocktail menu also highlights local ingredients, and seasonal cocktails never fail to delight.
929 Kitchen & Bar
This cozy spot in the Vista serves traditional Korean dishes with a few surprises. It also has a full bar with an impressive cocktail menu. Samgyupsal (grilled pork belly served with lettuce for wrapping and 929’s signature sauces for dipping) is a standout, as is the seafood bibimbap served in a hot stone bowl. 929 is a treat any day of the week, but particularly delightful on Sunday evenings when many of Columbia’s better restaurants are closed. Owner Sean Kim is opening a second spot this fall, MOA Korean BBQ, on Main Street.
Lula Drake Wine Parlour
Oenophile Tim Gardner opened Lula Drake in part to showcase his love of wine, and the popular spot continues to offer a geographically diverse list. It also has an extensive selection of beers not available elsewhere in town. Chef Rachael Harrison, taking the lead in the Lula kitchen since 2020, has continued to feature delicious housemade pasta, often in partnership with chef Pierce Bowers (the restaurant’s former chef) who launched Dorsia Pasta in 2021 to devote himself to the art of making pasta. Cacio e pepe is Lula Drake’s signature dish, and specials like sherry shrimp make it to the main menu based on diners’ enthusiasm. Customers appreciate expert advice from the staff, all of whom can recommend a glass for anything on the menu, like the absolutely delicious “KFC,” aka Korean fried chicken.
Hampton Street Vineyard
Located just off Main Street, this self-described American brasserie with an award-winning wine list offers a tight menu of French classics, often with a twist, like duck confit ragout served with cavatelli and seasoned with Chinese five spice. The small bar is a great place to catch up with a friend over moules frites, and the wine room is cozy but large enough for a private dinner party. Happy hour at one of the outdoor tables is delightful with a few shared plates, like the croquettes du jour or crawfish deviled eggs. If happy hour turns into dinner, classic choices like steak au poivre or bouillabaisse never fail to delight.
Spotted Salamander Cafe And Catering
Before the cafe opened, chef-owner Jessica Shillato of Spotted Salamander had quite a following as a caterer for private parties and special events. Each delicious dish highlights Shillato’s love for local ingredients and Southern cooking. Deviled eggs with special additions like bacon and blue cheese take the edge off of a midday appetite but leave plenty of room for mains like the Spotted Salad, with sweet tea vodka barbecue chicken, bacon, cheddar, tomatoes, Adluh cornbread croutons, mixed greens, and buttermilk ranch dressing. Watch the Spotted Instagram for specials like blue crab rangoon or bacon-wrapped Bradford okra with roasted tomato ranch. The desserts here are legendary, and customers can’t resist taking home an oatmeal cream pie or a slice of chocolate cookie butter pie for “later” (i.e., in the car on the way back to work). Spotted Salamander is expanding its offerings in a second location this year (1441 Main Street), starting with breakfast sandwiches.
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Columbia is famous for pimiento cheese, and DiPrato’s version is the gold standard. In addition to pimiento cheese (best shoveled into the face on the crispy fried pita chips), the deli offers an extensive menu for lunch and brunch. DiPrato’s sandwiches are mouth-watering, and customers love options like panini with marinated and roasted peppers, fresh mozzarella, spinach, artichokes, fire-roasted tomatoes, basil leaves, and kalamata olive tapenade, served with a side of basil pesto mayonnaise. Daily specials like Tuesday’s bacon and pimiento cheeseburger with fries are a must. DiPrato’s is essential for tailgate takeout — the wings are unparalleled.
Mr. Friendly's New Southern Cafe
Mr. Friendly’s set the standard in Columbia, offering fresh, creatively prepared seasonal food, always with a Southern twist. Entrees like togarashi-lime roasted mahi-mahi with sweet curry lump crab, watermelon-cucumber salsa, toasted almond jasmine rice, and ginger-soy slaw keep diners on their toes. Fan favorites like bacon-wrapped filet mignon with the restaurant’s signature pimiento cheese, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, and seasonal vegetables keep regulars coming back for more. There’s always at least one carefully prepared, delicious vegetarian entree on the menu, which makes Mr. Friendly’s a great choice for an eclectic group. The friendly and knowledgeable staff is always ready with recommendations, and the tater tots served with lunch are legendary.
The Gourmet Shop
Open since 1979, the Gourmet Shop is always bustling. The wait is never too long though, because the kitchen and wine shop are there to be explored. Customers may come for the brie and bacon croissant, but leave with a French jacquard tablecloth, an excellent bottle of mildly effervescent txakoli, and a slab of imported cheese for later. Saturdays are particularly delightful for browsing, as the wine shop often has $1 wine tastings to help budding oenophiles looking to expand their palates.
Baan Sawan Thai Bistro
Baan Sawan quite possibly boasts the most loyal regulars in town, if not the world. The Thai bistro is the creation of a family of four, brothers Alex and Sam and their parents. While they closed indefinitely during a certain pandemic, they’re back up and running, with a few twists. They’re open Friday and Saturday nights from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., with a different menu each weekend. The restaurant only seats about 20 people, and early birds get dishes like the five greens pad thai, served with local bean sprouts, kale, collards, turnip greens, and spinach. The menu changes each weekend, and with just a few starters and entrees, many happy diners come hungry enough to order one of each. The bistro also houses a used bookstore with a delightfully eclectic selection, perfect for browsing while you wait.
River Rat Brewery
Just a short distance from Williams Brice Stadium, River Rat is a great hang. The outdoor area is kid- and pet-friendly, while the rooftop lounge is free of kids, pets, and smoke. In addition to its own wide and varied selection of craft brews, River Rat has interesting (in a good way) wines and specials like frosé and other frozen drinks, perfect for a hot Columbia summer (and fall, spring, and occasionally winter). The menu features brew-friendly fare like smoked wings, tacos, burgers, assorted barbecue sliders, and pimiento cheese. Located near Williams Brice, the brewery has started offering a special game day menu, just in time for Gamecock football.
The Hangar, located in the actual Curtiss-Wright Hangar, is an offshoot of Columbia’s original brewery Hunter-Gatherer. House-brewed beers are the perfect complement to the pub menu. Pizzas include Greek, chicken bacon ranch, and mushroom, with herb garlic cream sauce, fontina cheese, caramelized onions, and roasted portabella. During happy hour, or literally any other time it’s open, don’t miss the warm sausage balls, served with Hunter-Gatherer’s ESB mustard. Customers who arrive via small plane can take a quick walk or golf cart ride to the Hangar to enjoy a meal that far surpasses typical airport fare. The restaurant also hosts a farmers market on Thursday afternoons.
Sakura Japanese Restaurant
When Sakura’s Forest Acres location closed after the restaurant experienced extensive damage during the flood in 2015, Columbia diners wept. When it reopened on Rosewood Drive in 2017, loyal regulars breathed a sigh of relief, followed by a squeal of joy. Once again, they would be able to belly up to the bar for fresh, artfully prepared sushi. This is the sort of place where diners can let the chef drive the ship because everything is good. In addition to the sushi, sashimi, tempura, and teriyaki offerings, the soup with fried eel, okra, salmon, or shiitake is an absolute delight. If ordered to-go, the fried portion will be packaged separately so that the dish can be enjoyed at home with the same gusto.
Boca Grande Burritos
When its doors opened in 2021, Boca Grande Burritos became a fast favorite, especially with loyal diners who missed El Burrito in Five Points. The food is so fresh and so good, it’s well worth the (short) drive to Forest Acres. The minimalist kitchen lets fresh, often local ingredients shine. Chef-owner David Grillo works hard to offer something for everyone, including plenty of vegan and vegetarian options. And he’s good at it. A recent diner didn’t believe the potatoes in their burrito could possibly be vegetarian, thanks to the rich flavor and texture. Customers come for the burritos, but the appetizers, like Frito pie, are not to be missed.