Columbia restaurateurs ‘cooking their dreams’ to create foodie town

ashain@thestate.comApril 13, 2014 

— Scott Hall, a Columbia caterer best known for his Bone-In Artisan Barbecue food truck, is among a group of local chefs who want to make South Carolina’s capital city a foodie town.

He hopes that diners ditch the chains where “no one is cooking their dreams.”

Hall was among 16 restaurant chefs and caterers who fed more than 250 people samples of their food and drinks featuring locally sustainable ingredients Sunday. The Slow Food event — which included The Oak Table, Bourbon, Motor Supply Company Bistro, Saluda’s and Terra — was part of the Indie Grits film festival that started Friday.

Charleston holds the state’s foodie town crown, and Greenville — with its much-publicized revitalized downtown — has grabbed a few headlines in recent years. But the Columbia chef-driven restaurant crowd insists they’re next.

“I told my wife if I ever opened a restaurant, it would be in Columbia because it’s an untapped resource,” said Wesley Fulmer, Motor Supply’s new executive chef. The Prosperity native returned to the Midlands after spending time at restaurants in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Charleston. “We’re not too far from having a restaurant culture here. ... We’re no longer going to play second fiddle.”

The Slow Food event and the Indie Grits film festival are part of a growing hip movement in Columbia for people who care for less mainstream food, art and culture. The movement — which includes the weekly Soda City farmers market on Main Street and the annual Converge SE technology conference — can lure more young people to live and stay in Columbia, organizers say.

“A lot things like this are hidden,” said Joe Hendryx, a University of South Carolina doctoral student from Iowa who was munching at the Slow Food tasting. “I feel like I’m discovering something here.”

The nine-day-long Indie Grits film festival, which has grown in popularity in recent years, attracts people from all over the South. They in turn see how Columbia’s Main Street and Vista have become attractive, lively night-time districts, restaurateurs and event organizers said.

“This is that kind of culture that will make things happen here,” said Mike Davis, the owner-chef at Terra in West Columbia.

Columbia benefits from adopting culture and events tried out in other cities, said Tracie Broom, a public relations executive who produced the Slow Food gathering.

“We already knows what works, and have a blueprint,” she said, “so ‘Thank you, San Francisco.’ ”

The growing popularity of organic, local food and continuing interest of cooking shows are helping these city-bred restaurants, owners said.

But as the quality of restaurants grows in Columbia so do the checks.

Owners said they must educate diners about the higher costs of dishes served using locally grown, sustainable — rather than mass-produced — ingredients. Patrons who are willing to pay extra to eat at Charleston’s hot spots should understand that they will pay the same at similar chef-dominated restaurants in Columbia.

“We’re no longer a dark hole,” said Hall as he served bacon jam and goat cheese with bourbon cherries and shallot rings.

Other goodies Sunday included Baan Sawan Thai Bistro’s Thai tea and lemongrass doughnut holes, Rosewood Market’s blackened sturgeon over gumbo with chocolate coffee hazelnut hot sauce and Motor Supply’s ham-wrapped rabbit.

The pricier ingredients are more responsible to the environment and the health of diners, restaurant owners said. An improving economy should help the local restaurant scene as people will be more willing to spend more for better food, Hall said. “It’s pricey — but well worth it,” Fulmer added.

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