As Charleston grows ever-more expensive, a flood of culinary talent has spilled over to Columbia, which is helping to bolster its growing constellation of stand-out bars and restaurants
To speak of the dining scene in Columbia, South Carolina without touching on antebellum produce or the agricultural history of the South would be deeply unfair to the city. When speaking of Southern foodways in the context of South Carolina, Charleston has received a bulk of the attention. It’s there that Sean Brock has garnered critical attention and a James Beard Award for his work at Husk. He’s not just cooking excellent Southern food with world-class technique, but he’s doing it with heirloom produce that was around since before the Civil War—which has all but disappeared. The Bradford watermelon, for example, was integral to the landscape of the antebellum South; grocery store commercial analogs are mere Platonic shadows of its flavor and size. The Bradford’s thin rind makes it prime for pickling, and it often stars in charcuterie boards. Its flesh is almost candy sweet.
It’s not just watermelons that have heirloom ancestors; there are also grits, peanuts, squash and a pantry of everyday ingredients that past generations knew as radically different items. And we can’t begin to understand what true Southern food is—its antebellum identity—without cooking with these very same ingredients, and that's what chefs are doing in Columbia. “Lots of varieties have been lost and we can’t get them back,” says Todd Woods, executive chef at The Oak Table in Columbia. The seeds are gone forever: no one saved them. But Dr. David Shields is helping to prevent this from further occurring. He’s a professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, and he’s garnered attention for working with Sean Brock and other chefs to connect them to this heirloom produce.
He's also worked with several chefs in Columbia, where he lives, to do the same. At The Oak Table, Woods crafts watermelon molasses, which Brock has also been known to feature on his menus. It’s just a bunch of watermelon flesh boiled down, no sugar or water added. Intoxicatingly, it smells like tomato and tastes almost florally sweet. There’s usually just enough for a precious drizzle over chicken liver mousse or head cheese.
On Woods’s menu there are also heirloom red corn grits from Congaree Milling Company, located in Columbia: they’re sweeter and heartier than what you might think grits should be, and more toothsome. There’s Carolina Gold Rice, of course, a fluffy, slightly nutty rice that was a staple in centuries past; it’s now being made accessible by Anson Mills milling company.
In most cases, heirloom produce—which relies on farmers saving the seeds of the best plants that year—is still largely a small-scale operation in which farmers hand-deliver vegetables to restaurants. As a result, these ingredients inform only a small part of even the most conscientious menus, but they’re an undeniable victory for Midlands cuisine, both its heritage and its future. And it’s hard to go to Columbia without hearing about it.
While the city has always had great access to these small scale farmers and milling companies, it has been challenged by a lack of culinary talent. Charleston, on the other hand, was home to Johnson and Wales University for over twenty years, and this provided restaurants with a competitive pool of cooking school grads who (for better or worse) were able to work in kitchens for rock-bottom rates. “This definitely helped set it up as a culinary destination,” says Wes Fulmer, executive chef at Columbia’s Motor Supply Co. Bistro. As Charleston is getting more expensive, however, there’s a trickle of talent and food connoisseurs spilling over to Columbia, which is helping to bolster its food scene and a growing constellation of standout spots.
And they're more than just barbecue or shrimp and grits (although if you’re wondering, the best ones in town are probably at The Blue Marlin). Here’s one perfect day of food and drink in Columbia:
Start your day at Indah Coffee.
What started as a farmers' market tent has now grown into a brick-and-mortar location in a relatively short amount of time, a leap made possible both by Indah’s loyal fan base as well as Columbia’s fertile food scene. Get the Thai coffee, which is a barely aerated nitro brew; it’s thickened with an aromatic sweetened condensed coconut milk that’s made by reducing coconut milk by half and adding a touch of sugar. The resulting dairy-free concoction is also spiked with cinnamon, and isn’t too sweet or too strong. It’s simply, perfectly refreshing. If you’re feeling peckish, head over to Drip Coffee in Five Points for a housemade biscuit sandwich.
Lunch at Spotted Salamander Cafe.
The term “Southern food” can be problematic because it glosses over the nuances of local food cultures in favor of general tropes. That said, there are expectations of cuisine and aesthetics in Columbia, and Spotted Salamander Cafe delivers on them in the most true-to-itself way. The space is housed in two adjoining white bungalows on a tree-lined street in the Historic Robert Mills District. Sipping a sweet tea and noshing on cornbread-crumbled deviled eggs on a sunlit patio is the kind of experience you probably daydreamed of when planning your trip. And you can do it here. This is more than just lazy fantasy, however: chef owner Jessica Shillato’s Sriracha fried chicken sandwiches with cucumber-laden slaw are what dreams are made of. There are flaky biscuits too, pecked with air pockets and moist with butter; they’re served with bacon jam. For dessert, there might be “church lady cakes” with lemon cream frosting, inspired by vintage church cookbooks. The menu is short and sweet, and changes daily.
Pre-dinner drinks at Lula Drake Wine Parlour.
At first, there is little that feels South Carolinian about this bar: an Iberico ham leg behind the counter waiting to be shaved for appetizers, which complement the heavily international wine list. It’s mostly biodynamic and organic and carefully curated; a particular stand-out is the small but intentional collection of Eastern European orange wines. Still, there are Southern touches, the most striking of which is a photo of Lula Drake, the 19th-century dame for whom this bar was named. The wood paneling is cozy, and there’s a sort of antique-inspired feel to the place. It’s the perfect place to duck into on a fall day and nibble on slivers of Iberico ham, its musty funk the perfect complement to a Brut Chenin Blanc.
Dinner at Motor Supply Co. Bistro.
Before settling down in Columbia, Wes Fulmer cooked behind the stoves of Michelin-starred Maison Christian Étienne in Avignon, France. In his impressively small kitchen at Motor Supply, coppa and pork legs hang for curing below a shelf of a dozen artisanal vinegars; kimchi ferments nearby. The daily rotating dinner menu might feature plates of yellowfin tuna, seared and placed onto a bed of crispy endive, glistening with smoked olive oil and mayo-like tonnato. It’s the perfect balance between tart, salt and sweet. Many of Fulmer’s creations have a Thai-inspired twang of acid and herb, although you can also order redfish and butter beans heirloom grits that were milled in town—and you won’t regret it. You would also be remiss to skip the cocktails; Josh Streetman’s bar program is worth the visit alone. His smoked drinks are spectacular, and his Jalisco Sour, which is a whiskey sour riff that smells like bacon, is savory in the best way possible—the smoke doesn’t translate into an overpowering flavor profile.
Other highlights: Go to Tallula’s for the brussel sprouts with tahini, and get a bone marrow chocolate pop for dessert. (Chocolate ice cream is bodied with bone marrow, and served in a push pop at lunch. At dinner, things get a little more fancy, and it’s served in the actual bone.) The charcuterie board at The Oak Table is probably the best in town; when not at the restaurant, chef Todd Woods has been known to drive venison that he’s shot and butchered himself to the James Beard House in New York, where he puts on dinner.