Restaurant renaissance: Dining options

Choosy diners have new options for eating out in Columbia

krupon@thestate.comJuly 5, 2014 

Dining options are increasing around the Midlands. If you want an omelet at 2 p.m. or you didn’t have time to make your own green juice for breakfast, no problem. If you want to know where your greens were grown and the location of the farm that nourished the cow that became your steak, some new restaurants will put it right on the menu. Here are some trends that are hot now:

Breakfast

Breakfast is back. Columbia residents can head to breakfast-and-lunch-only restaurants, which are popping up around town, such as Le Peep in the Vista and Eggs Up Grill coming to Devine Street. These restaurants specialize in breakfast feasts from standards biscuits and gravy to Southwestern omelets and creamy crepes.

“Wonderful egg dishes of course, that’s the heart and soul of any Southern breakfast,” said Skip Corn, director of francise development for Eggs Up. But the restaurant also serves bananas foster pancakes and a family home fries recipe. Both of these restaurants also feature lunch menus with sandwiches, soups and salads. But they close before the dinner rush sets in.

The trend isn’t likely to slow down: Toast Cafe, a Davidson, N.C.-based eatery featuring dishes such as lobster eggs Benedict and made-from-scratch turkey burgers, plans to open in the Columbia area in the next year.

Chef-driven restaurants

Farm-to-table is more than a trend. “Consumers are interested in where are you getting your food and how fresh is it,” said Neal Smoak, director of the McCutchen House at the University of South Carolina. “It’s not frozen hockey pucks anymore.”

The Oak Table brought the concept to Main Street when The Indigo Road restaurant group opened its first restaurant outside of Charleston a year and a half ago. It serves tarted up steakhouse fare with dishes such as a City Roots tomato salad with ingredients grown less than four miles away in the Rosewood community.

Another hot new fresh-on-the-menu restaurant is Bourbon, opened on Main Street earlier this year by chef Kristian Niemi, who has been helping transform Columbia’s food scene for two decades. The Cajun and Creole eatery serves braised Heritage Farms Pork Cheeks raised in the Pee Dee and an S.C. shrimp Cobb salad.

“People want to see a little trail: Where did my food come from; is it fresh and good,” Smoak said.

Ethnic cuisine

The Midlands restaurant scene is going global -- with cuisine from Jamaican to Japanese. The list includes two Brazilian steakhouses, where “gauchos” walk around with meat freshly cooked over an open fire pit and diners can select as much meat as they can stomach. Cowboy Brazilian was the first to enter the market, on Main Street. Rioz followed on Columbiana Drive near Harbison.

The Midlands also has one of only two Ethiopian restauarants in the state. Salina Cafe, also on Main Street, serves Eritrean and Ethiopian food at dinner and burgers, gyros and deli sandwiches for lunch. An authentic Japanese restaurant, Inakaya Watanabe, serving sushi, opened on St. Andrews Road two years ago. And Basil Thai, another eatery stemming from a Charleston group, opened in Cross Hill Market on Fort Jackson Boulevard.

Healthy eating

America is fighting its obesity crisis with a health kick, and Columbia diners have more options than ever for health conscious dining while eating out.

The Good Life Café, which started three years ago in West Columbia and opened a location on Main Street earlier this year, serves all raw food, all the time -- although it’s hard to tell the tacos and lasagna aren’t cooked.

Entrepreneur Michelle Wang also brings a range of healthy eating options to the Midlands. She has nine restaurants “M” and Miyo’s restaurants throughout the Columbia area and in recent years has focused an eye on using clean, healthy ingredients. Her M Fresh on Washington Street lets diners add microgreens to their food or smoothies, and her M Grille on Lady Street uses mostly organic ingredients.

Fast casual fare

It’s not just higher scale dining that’s thriving in Columbia. The area is starting to see an increase in the fast casual concept, as well -- higher-end fast food with a sit-down feel. Smashburger opened a year and a half ago on Devine Street in an emerging retail corridor, promising to smash each burger on the grill to seal in the juices and serving up Häagen-Dazs milkshakes.

Since then, the Midlands has seen an influx of these fast-food-sit-down hybrids, including nearby PDQ, which promises fresh poultry, and Chicken Salad Chick in Lexington and Irmo, which specializes in the full range of chicken salad options.

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