These days Columbia, SC, has a lot of outstanding restaurants turning out creative, inviting food. Yes, Columbia is hot….and not just for the temperature. The capital’s dining scene has upped its game in recent years. There is an abundance of food choices ranging from haute cuisine to humble ethnic spots. You can find just about anything you’re hungering for in Columbia.
Despite the quality and innovation, very few of the restaurant dishes, though, are identified as specifically from Columbia. Many could be right at home in other cities and would be welcomed with open arms. Of course this is not a bad thing, as we like a cutting-edge, trendy restaurant as well as the next person. Yet we had a feeling that there was more to the Columbia culinary landscape. What are the foods that define Columbia? Are there foods and restaurants that identify with Columbia, SC, (like the cheesesteak in Philadelphia or pizza in New York City)? That question became our mission.
After many days and nights of tasting, and sampling, and making inquiries, we can happily report that “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” Columbia, SC, does indeed have its own classic dishes, many of which have been loved and devoured for generations.
Maybe you went to college in Columbia and now return for homecomings. Or maybe your own children now attend your alma mater. Maybe you grew up in Columbia and moved away but return to visit relatives and friends. Or maybe you are a lifelong resident. Whatever the case, maybe these are the dishes that are remembered fondly and will always be a part of your food cravings.
This is our “must try” list of quintessential Soda City dishes and the places most associated with them. Not always fancy, but always speaking of home and comfort.
STP dipper – Groucho’s Deli
Harold Miller came to Columbia, in 1941, with a handful of recipes developed as a youth in a Philadelphia orphanage where he learned to cook from a woman in the kitchen. Miller was a jokester, carried a big cigar, and looked like Groucho Marx. Eventually everyone called his deli “Groucho’s.” In 1946, he moved to the Harden Street location so as to be closer to the University of South Carolina.
The STP dipper (I tried, but no record exists as to how the name was derived) became the go-to sandwich. It’s a combination of turkey, roast beef, bacon, and melted Swiss on a roll. The sandwich itself might not bowl you over, but the show stopper is the special “Formula 45” (invented in 1945) dipping sauce. The “45” is a thin, mayonnaise-based, slightly sweet, always mysterious sauce packed with dill and something that tints the sauce a light red (a secret). Like Thousand Island dressing but a thousand times better (pun intended).
Groucho’s is a full service deli, but when in Columbia, do as the students and townies do and order a STP dipper. And, yes, it’s permissible to drink some “Formula 45.”
611 Harden Street (oldest location)
Pimento Cheeseburger – Rockaway Athletic Club
Brothers Paul and Forrest Whitlock went to Canisius University in Buffalo, NY, and would drive (on breaks) all the way to Rockaway Beach in Queens, NY. In 1982, they opened a bar/restaurant in Columbia and named it after their old haunt.
Many argue that the Rockaway has the best burger in the city, but add a glob of pimento cheese and you have a Columbia classic.
Food historian Robert Moss (PhD from U of SC) claims that the pimento cheeseburger was invented in Columbia. Sometime in the early 1960s, J.C. Reynolds, proprietor of an eatery called the Dairy Bar on South Main Street, had the bright idea to put pimento cheese on a hamburger. Today, Columbia is ground zero for the pimento cheeseburger and the Rockaway is the vanguard.
They use a traditional pimento cheese with mild red pepper flavor and thorough cheese flavor. The usual set up includes lettuce, tomato, onion (raw or grilled), mayonnaise, and pickles on the side. While you can choose your side, I believe crinkle cut fries are a must (I smothered them in pimento cheese).
The menu lists many kinds of burgers, sandwiches, salads, and fried seafood….but remember this is a “classics” list and that means a pimento cheeseburger.
The original Rockaway Athletic Club was destroyed by fire in June of 2020 but quickly rebuilt. It is a beautiful, dark place with TVs everywhere. The long bar is known as The South Carolina Liquor Library and possesses the biggest spirit selection in the Southeast. There is no sign on Rosewood Drive to let you know you have arrived, but don’t despair, once you find it you will never forget it.
Rockaway Athletic Club
2719 Rosewood Drive
Grilled Beef Tips – Kingsman
In 1972, brothers Steve and Aubrey King purchased Mama Mia’s Pizza and opened the Kingsman Restaurant. They kept some of the Italian dishes for a while, but migrated to hearty beef dishes and comfort food.
In true diner style all the meats, hamburgers, ribeye, etc. are cooked on a well-seasoned, flat-iron grill. They do a lot of things well, but the grilled beef tips with brown dipping gravy has been a house specialty for over 40 years.
The restaurant has an unusual configuration. You walk into a room that looks like a tiny diner, complete with counter and short order cooks working flat tops. Beyond that is a room with a cafe feel, booths tables and a display of whiskey bottles. Finally, there is a deeper, quieter, tavern-like room. Wherever you sit you will be perfumed by grilled meat. A Columbia institution.
938 Axtell Drive
Cayce, SC (Cayce is 4 ½ miles from downtown Columbia)
Bologna Biscuit – Compton’s Kitchen
Perry Compton opened this diner back in 1977 and gained fame for the biscuits he made using the quality flour from Allen Brothers Milling Company. That biscuit tradition continues today by current owner Martha Cooke. If you are longing for an inexpensive breakfast or lunch in a place that is bright, clean and friendly then this is the place for you. No need to go to a cookie cutter chain when you can have good food in a personality-plus spot. Honest Southern food with a variety of breakfast sandwiches. However, if you want to be true to the mission and enjoy a Columbia favorite, then order fried bologna on a delicious biscuit. You can thank us later.
1118 B Avenue
West Columbia, SC
Gooey Cake – The Backyard Cafe
Off the beaten track. Home cooking, made from scratch ice cream,and Southern hospitality. But holding court is the gooey cake – a flat, dense square of cake that is custard-soft and supersweet in the center and more cakelike around the edges. The triple chocolate gooey cake is a tidal wave of different chocolate flavors and textures. Butter pecan is truly buttery as well as supersweet. Topped with ice cream, whipped cream, and a cherry, just one square of this cake and you will understand why it is a Colombia classic.
The Backyard Cafe
940 Old Barnwell Road
West Columbia, SC
Fried Chicken – Rosewood Dairy Bar
Since 1942, this establishment has been flipping burgers, frying fries, mixing shakes, and making (what many say) the best fried chicken in town.
Cheryl Austin worked here for 25 years before purchasing the restaurant about 5 years ago. Didn’t change a thing. Chicken cooked the way it always has been – a pressure frying method called broasting. Maybe it’s the ancient fryer, or that you have to walk up to a window to place and pick up an order, but there is something about hot, moist, fried chicken in a to-go box on top of crinkle cut fries that is simply delicious. Almost 80 years of perfect goodness.
Rosewood Dairy Bar
3003 Rosewood Drive
Chicken and Waffles -Drake’s Duck-In
Drake’s opened in 1907 delivering meals to mill workers. The Drake family is no longer involved but it’s still a family-run business.
Whoever paired chicken with waffles was a genius, two different kinds of crisp, seductive rapport. But how do you eat it? Topped with a syrup or gravy, it’s a challenge for a knife and fork, especially if the chicken is wings or drumsticks. But when food is this good, who cares about a finger licking mess?
The Duck-In offers breasts and fingers, but the wings are otherworldly. Wings are finger foods, so get ready for multiple napkins. The waffle starts out crisp but by the time the syrup is applied and the chicken juices flow it gets soft, but that just makes it more comforting.
Drake’s has homemade biscuits, fried chicken, burgers, and BBQ, but remember you are here for the history and that means Chicken and Waffles.
1544 Main Street
Columbia, SC (20 other locations)
Bananas Foster Cinnamon Roll – The Devine Cinnamon Roll Deli
Named not because the cinnamon rolls are divine (they are) but because it is located on Columbia’s Devine Street. Made with a dough that is tender, slightly sweet, and butter fresh. There’s such a demand that every roll you purchase has probably been out of the oven only 15-20 minutes.
The Bananas Foster Cinnamon roll can be a breakfast and a half or an extravagant dessert. It’s a marriage of eggs, bananas, nutmeg, rum extract, and, of course, cinnamon rolls. Cinnamon rolls are the driving force behind this eatery but there is a country breakfast, a roster of different hot dogs, chili, and more. But if it’s your first trip, the only way to go is with the classic.
The Devine Cinnamon Roll Deli
2617 Devine Street
Hangover Hash Browns – Cafe Strudel
Need I say more? Potatoes, onions, banana peppers, tomatoes, cheddar, spices….this dish needs no introduction in Columbia. Not sure it can cure what ails you after a long boozy night, but it sure can’t hurt and it is delicious. Have a few eggs on the side, maybe a bloody mary, and you are an honorary citizen of Columbia, SC.
Cafe Strudel has created a buzz among locals for its amazing made-from-scratch, prepared-to-order meals. Make sure you call ahead to put your name on the waiting list (no reservations). Never said that experiencing a Columbia classic would be easy.
30 State Street
West Columbia, SC (Also a Lexington location)
Hash on Rice – True BBQ
Every hash on rice in South Carolina is a classic unless a chef tries to be trendy or “creative.” That does not happen at True BBQ. This is true tradition. Best hash on rice in South Carolina….there’s even a sign outside proclaiming it! After tasting, there’s no hyperbole.
For the uninitiated, hash is a distinctive feature of the South Carolina barbecue style. It’s sort of a cross between thick gravy and a stew with a mustard sweet dimension; it’s made from pork and often various pig organs. Usually it’s served over white rice. In most parts of the state hash on rice is considered a side dish to accompany barbecue, but at True BBQ it can be a stand alone; it’s that good.
True BBQ serves superb meals with an enthusiastic staff. Best to get there early because, as we all know, barbecue is work intensive and cooks long and slow. When they run out on any given day, they are done till the morrow.
1237 D Avenue
West Columbia, SC
Chocolate Dip Ice Cream Cone – Zesto
Zesto has been around since 1949. The crunch of quickly hardened chocolate dip around soft serve vanilla and a complementary cone makes for all kinds of taste delights. This cone is so iconic that there’s a statue of it out in front of the restaurant. Hamburgers, chicken, fries, and ice cream is their stock in trade, but on this trip, it’s all about the cone.
504 12th Street
West Columbia, SC
Bacon – Roy’s Grille
This small cafe is located on one side of a convenience store in an Exxon service station. Most meals are for the takeout trade, but there are five tables and disposable utensils. There are so many good things: wonderful grits, house-made pimento cheese, fried okra, shrimp and grits….but on this stop, we’re here for the bacon. Cured and smoked in house, served as short mahogany strips. You will think it was smoked over a campfire. People travel great distances for this delicacy, and you can buy it a la carte. But that’s fine, it needs no companions.
711 Main Street
Gouda Mac N’ Cheese – The Whig
Only open since 2005, but feels like forever. It’s a first choice for students and locals looking for great dive bar food. Their signature dish uses penne pasta with thick creamy gouda sauce that oozes over the plate. This is cheese euphoria.
Bar food that you don’t have to be drunk to enjoy with a great beer list.
1200 Main Street
Mamasan’s Taiwanese Beef and Noodle Soup – Egg Roll Chen
Comforting locals and college students since 1985. The classic is tender slices of beef, soft and chewy strands of egg noodle, and an addictively sweet and meaty beef broth. Anise notes ratchet up the beef flavor. A big favorite with students for its ability to nourish at a low cost ($7.50)
Egg Chen offers all the standard Chinese take out items and the portions are huge. After imbibing the classic, do not sleep on the Taiwanese street food such as Yen Su Jee (fried chicken tossed with black pepper, chili pepper, and salt).
Egg Roll Chen
715 Crowson Road
Wings and Raw Fries – Publick House
Established in 1988, the Publick House is a popular spot in Columbia serving pub-style food. But if you’re “in the know” then you’re coming for the wings and raw fries. Wings are fresh cut every day, never frozen, minimally cooked, then refrigerated overnight to draw out the moisture. Finally they’re fully cooked and tossed in a frying pan with various warm sauces. Locals rave about the garlic butter and buttery barbecue. Raw fries – don’t worry only a moniker for very, very thinly sliced potatoes fried in oil, sometimes double fried. Can be crispy or floppy (limp) depending on preferences. If floppy, pair with malt vinegar. If crispy, with ranch dressing.
2307 Devine Street
Shrimp and Grits – Blue Marlin
Every town in South Carolina must have a classic shrimp and grits or they would lose their state charter. Blue Marlin has been serving well-prepared, mouthwatering seafood for nearly 25 years. Their rendition of shrimp and grits has won the hearts, souls, and stomachs of resident Columbians.
Founded by Bill Dukes, in 1994, in a former railroad depot complete with rich paneling and brass light fixtures. Featuring Lowcountry and Cajun cuisine. The classic dish features Adula stone ground grits (two blocks from the restaurant and 100 years in business) topped with creek shrimp in an andouille sausage and tasso gravy. No need to explain more; I’m sure you will agree with the locals.
1200 Lincoln Street
Korean Lamb Cheesesteak – Fire and Spice
Exciting food with jerk seasoning a star player all over the menu. Cubans, Reubens, subs, roast beef, french dip, plus the raison d’etre….a Korean lamb cheesesteak. After indulging in this sandwich you might never want to have a beef cheesesteak again. Life is too short not to enjoy this super spicy lamb, ferociously hot, piled into a torpedo loaf with cheese (no Cheez Whiz). You can optionally include grilled sweet onions, mushrooms, or peppers (or all three). Who needs the City of Brotherly Love? Relative newcomer, mom and pop operation, neighborhood deli, climbing the ladder of classic status.
Fire and Spice
7971 North Woodrow Street
Irmo, SC (12 miles from downtown)
Cheese Manicotti – Villa Tronco Italian Restaurant
Villa Tronco is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Columbia (1940). Original family owned. Home away from home for generations of families. Old school charm. Old world recipes. Every town needs a Villa Tronco. The manicotti recipe has not changed in 80 years. Why mess with perfection? Ricotta, eggs, parmesan, parsley, finished with mozzarella and tomato sauce. I think Billy Joel was singing about Villa Tronco in “My Italian Restaurant.”
Villa Tronco Italian Restaurant
1213 Blanding Street
Chili Cheeseburger Basket – Rush’s
In 1940, the Rush family operated a little frame drive-in at the edge of their dairy farm on the two-lane Broad River Road (the only road from Columbia to the upstate at the time). It was called Carolina Dairies then and was one of the first fast food drive-ins in the U.S. After a fire destroyed the building, the Rush family opened as a Dairy Queen on the same site. They placed a huge Carolina Dairy milk carton on top of the restaurant to let customers know it was still operated by the same family. Founder George Rush and Dairy Queen parted company in the 60s over the milk carton on top of the building. The family added a dining room, changed the name to Rush’s and became a popular place for burgers, chicken, and dairy products. With major success based on quality fast food and customer service, Rush’s has thrived.
Eating a Rush food basket is a rite of passage in Columbia. The chili cheeseburger basket with mustard, lettuce, tomato, onions, and pickles all nestled in a basket with coleslaw and french fries is as Columbian as you can get.
2640 Broad River Road (original location)
Columbia, SC (9 locations in Columbia, Lexington, and Camden)
Smoked Pigs Feet and Rice – Big Boy’s Smokehouse
Big Boy’s does barbecue, barbeque, and then more barbecue. Let me explain. They get down and dirty. They have all the regular stuff, but then they take it to a whole new level. Think neckbones, turkey wings, ham hocks, oxtails, and (oink oink heaven) pigs feet. Don’t shy away from sides like lima beans, pinto beans, and green beans. Potato salad? Yes, Ma’am! A local gave us heads up and we never looked back.
Big Boy’s Smokehouse
8604 Farrow Road
Meat and Three – Lizard’s Thicket
Family owned since 1977 with one motto: y’all come! Down home Southern cooking. Meat and three is an institution in the South and the Thicket has a large selection. The most popular is the fried flounder (meat is used loosely – it’s really a “protein and three”) Do I really have to tell you the three? How could it be anything else but mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and green beans?
2240 Airport Blvd (oldest location)
West Columbia, SC (13 other locations in the Midlands and Florence)
The food world tends to be obsessed with what’s new and what’s next. That’s why we thought it would be well worth it to visit time-tested establishments and long-standing, beloved icons. As we explained at the outset, this is not a “best of” list. That’s for a later article. The 21 institutions on our list are, more or less, the same as when they were founded which means classic restaurants, dive bars, sandwich shops, drive-ins, mom and pops, barbecue pits, and more.
There is no better way to experience the tradition and culture of Columbia, SC, than to eat your way through it. (Calories don’t count here.) To echo Lizard’s Thicket, “y’all come!”