Columbia’s restaurant scene has been growing for years, and now the city boasts an eclectic mix of old-school favorites and innovative newcomers. Right in the middle of South Carolina, Columbia is an easy weekend getaway, and visitors enjoy Gamecock sports, 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 or cult favorites from the street eats menu, like steamed pork and shrimp dumplings or crispy chicken with sriracha and spicy mayo. 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.
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 the Paper Plane, with lemon, Aperol, bourbon, and Amaro Nonino) with an appetizer, preferably the smoked lamb mac with goat and fontina cheese and poblano peppers. Patrons looking for a full meal should stay for chef Mike Davis’ seasonal specials, prepared simply to highlight local ingredients. The staff is top notch, always ready to recommend a dish and the perfect wine to accompany it.
The menu is French-inspired, but incorporates elements from all over the world. Recent specials included a Hanoi fish mazeman ramen bowl with catfish, turmeric and dill dressing, cucumbers radish, roasted peanuts, fried shallots, soy pickled mushrooms, kimchi, and a soft boiled egg as well as a salmon wellington with ratatouille, bacon noisette, wild mushrooms, ginger-carrot veloute, English peas, and salmon cracklins. 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 cocktails, 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.
Motor Supply Company Bistro
In 1989, Motor Supply brought a fresh new concept to Columbia — farm to table dining in a casual setting that still felt special. The restaurant remains a favorite with chef Wesley Fulmer at the helm. He keeps the menu fresh, making everything in-house, 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. They also have a full bar with an impressive cocktail menu. Katsu (panko battered pork deep fried and served with 929’s signature tangy, savory brown sauce) is a standout, as is the tteokbokki (chewy rice cakes tossed in a spicy gochujang-based sauce and served with eomuk fish cakes and udon noodles). 929 is is a treat any day of the week, but particularly delightful on Sunday evenings when many of Columbia’s better restaurants are closed.
One of Columbia’s newer hot spots, Smoked offers a robust menu, including selections from the oyster bar, prime meats, and intriguing small plates, like pork belly trail mix, smoked seafood dip, and a steak flight — one ounce each of wagyu, wet-aged ribeye, and bison coulotte, prepared tableside on a 450 degree Himalayan salt block. The wine list is extensive, and the cocktails are creative and delicious. A classic “martini for two” is served tableside with smoked olives, cocktail onions, lemon peel, and a choice of vodka or gin. At $27, it’s a bargain, especially since there are definitely more than two martinis in there.
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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 Rachel Harrison, taking the lead in the Lula kitchen since 2020, has continued to feature delicious house made 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. 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 à l’orange with orange and fennel salad and bok choy. 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 should include at least one order of gloriously crispy potatoes. If happy hour turns into dinner, the fracas burger, served on a croissant with brie, braised onions, and port dijon mustard, is a 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 crab fries — a pile of lump crab over hot fries with brie “Cheese Whiz,” and crab seasoning. The desserts here are legendary, and guests 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).
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 guests 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 cheese burger 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. The lump crab Louis, a recent special with delightfully sweet and savory house-made Thousand Island dressing, hits the spot. Entrees like crispy red trout with green curry cilantro chimichurri and pickled watermelon rind salad keep diners on their toes. Classics like meatloaf with ground beef tenderloin and ribeye, blue cheese barbecue sauce, fried onion rings, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, country ham, and stewed collard greens create loyal customers. The friendly and knowledgeable staff is always ready with recommendations. 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. The mimosa kit — a bottle of sparkling wine and a carafe of orange juice — is a brunch budget favorite.
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 the 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, nacho fries, and pimiento cheese.
Il Gio is named after chef owner George Kessler. He sends out meal after delicious meal from the kitchen while Monica, his co-owner and wife, welcomes customers at the door and makes sure they grab a drink at the bar while they wait. If it weren’t for (most) diners speaking English, Il Gio would fit into any Italian neighborhood. The menu includes simple traditional dishes like margherita pizza and spaghetti alla carbonara as well as a few nightly specials. The Praianese salad — with tuna, house-made mozzarella, tomatoes, arugula, lemon, and extra virgin olive oil — is so deeply satisfying that diners almost forget it’s a salad. George and Monica freely offer advice on travel to Italy for diners who ask.
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 portabellas. 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. Guests 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. Ordered to go, the fried portion will be packaged separately, so 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 and 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.