Caught in the middle between fashionable Charleston and vibrant Greenville, the overlooked state capital is full of surprises
The first thing I got from the Saturday morning market in Columbia, which most every week takes over Main Street at the heart of South Carolina’s capital city, was an apology. I had been asking around, mentioning that I was looking forward to an outdoor farmers market in January, however there were concerns—fairly significant ones, at that. But it’s so slow right now, I was told. There was a worry that I might get my hopes up, only to leave disappointed.
Where I and plenty more Americans hail from, 40 degrees is not particularly cold, certainly not in January, and I don’t mind telling you that I was happy enough to be out and about, good cup of coffee (from local roaster, Indah) in hand, first thing on a winter morning. The Soda City Market, where Columbia comes to mingle, to eat, and to source the very best ingredients South Carolina’s least fashionable big city has to offer, kicks off Saturdays at the stroke of nine, and I was not in the least bit worried about just how much I would find there—big or small, I was certain this was going to be a good time.
Columbia may not possess the magic of Charleston, it is not part of that cool, New South inhabited by Greenville, but by God, do these people appear to know food. There were locally-milled middlins for $4 a bag, pasture-raised pork, free-range eggs from so many farms, beautiful fresh goat cheese, a juice truck selling wellness shots, there was the last remaining produce from an educational sustainable farm, right there in the city, someone was selling elaborately adorned $3 donuts from the back of a van, you had kombucha on tap, and a girl with blue hair selling boiled peanuts. This is just how we do things now, apparently, even in the cities nobody is talking about, and I found it all rather spectacular. If this truly was an off day, if this was the market being slow, who knows what goes on here, once things pick up again. I made a mental note to return, preferably before it gets to be what people around here call warm, which is what people like me refer to as quite hot.
Besides all those good things to take home, there was plenty of food to eat, right there on the spot—overstuffed breakfast biscuits, piping hot pimento cheese grits, arepas from the Venezuelan stand, there was a guy out there working on, no kidding, an absolutely massive seafood paella, at 8:55 in the morning, and there were people standing around eying the whole situation, apparently ready to chow down. There were colorful macarons, $12 for 25, a bar facing the market was advertising $2 beers, near where someone was selling Brazilian desserts. Personally, I was saving my appetite for Korean food—just around the corner on Gervais Street, a restaurant had opened recently, 929, that was not here the last time I was in Columbia. Then again, there were a lot of things that I had not seen, on my last visit, which must have been roughly a decade ago, by now. Clearly, I had some catching up to do.
Americans of all geographical persuasions do not seem to have much trouble finding room in their hearts for the cooking of South Carolina’s Lowcountry, particularly as expressed by the finer restaurants of Charleston. The dead middle of the state— landlocked, humid, traditionally very conservative, and really into drowning their barbecue in that bright yellow mustard sauce—this South Carolina can be somewhat of a heavier lift.
At the heart of the region is, of course, Columbia. Columbia is one of those fortunate cities that you find around the country, lucky enough to have that built-in economy you get when you're home to both a state’s flagship university campus, and the seat of government—so much brain power, so many relatively stable jobs. Both the University of South Carolina—go Cocks, one supposes—and the Civil War-damaged (and, proudly, never fully repaired) State House, built from apparently immovable blue granite, occupy pride of place, right next to each other, at the heart of Columbia. And yet, for a very long time, Columbia appeared content to underwhelm.
Things are different now; the city has livened up, it feels awake, there has been an impressive amount of work put into both the Main Street area, and the adjacent Vista neighborhood, an old warehouse district along Gervais Street, leading down from the State House to the Congaree River, where there are now miles of parkland and pathway. The population has become more diverse, there is plenty of new blood. Columbia might still be hotter than Hades during the summer months, but there are things happening here. If you are into food lore, for example, it is very important to know that Columbia is home to Anson Mills, Glenn Roberts’ revered operation responsible for bringing that almost-lost Carolina Gold rice to a national audience. All across America, chefs now proudly serve Anson Mills products, and without knowing it, they’re repping heavily for Columbia, where the grits are some of the finest you will try in America. Try them, most definitely, with the shrimp at Blue Marlin—those grits come from practically across the street, at Adluh Mills.
Don’t fill up on grits, because you must also try the barbecue, which will be pork, served along with that could-stop-traffic yellow sauce, and a side of that curiously delicious regional specialty, hash, which is nearly always served over rice. Essentially a stew of all the animal parts you probably wouldn't eat separately, hash might come off a tad musky for some, but this is nose-to-tail cooking at its finest.
Beyond tradition, there’s so much else going on right now, that you probably weren’t expecting. On my visit, one restaurant that came up time and again was Coa, a shimmering, cocktail-centric Mexican joint for solid mole, for roasted bone marrow, tuna tostadas, and of course, tacos. There was that Korean restaurant, recommended to me by a New York expat (there are a few of those, kicking around, to say the least) who couldn't say enough good things about the local dining scene. There was this very nice wine bar, Lula Drake, over on Main Street, where one might snack on hunks of sourdough heirloom grit bread slathered in bacon jam, or hemp seed butter, while pondering where else to eat. Combine all this (and much more) with the city’s non-edible attractions, such as the Columbia Museum of Art, carved out of a defunct Main Street department store, or the city’s rather expansive trail network, and then throw in a smart new independent hotel, directly downtown, called the Hotel Trundle, not to mention the Saturday market, which is a must, even in the dead of what they call winter, and you now have more than enough to make a weekend in Columbia worthwhile.
Do make sure to look beyond the center of everything, however, because some of the most interesting things in Columbia are happening out along the margins. Down in an industrial zone near the Congaree River, for example, is where you’ll find the dog-friendly Swamp Cabbage Brewery, which is practically next door to the Crouch distillery, where a former Anson Mills guy is making heirloom red corn (local, of course) whiskey. No place quite points to the potential for a new kind of Columbia cool, however, than the up-and-coming Cottontown neighborhood, up along Downtown's northern fringe—stop by for pork barbecue, imaginative regional dishes and smart cocktails at The War Mouth, for brews in the weekend beer garden at the next door Cottontown Brew Lab. Mornings, just around the corner, local roaster Indah Coffee’s flagship cafe is one of the liveliest locations in town.