April 30, 2014

What’s Good Here? Cola’s on Assembly Street

The steaks have been the “phenomenal” item since the day the restaurant opened in June 2012

What’s good here?

Cola’s manager, Dustyn Hughes, says steaks have been the “phenomenal” item since the day the restaurant opened in June 2012. There is a 16-ounce grilled New York sirloin and a filet mignon. Each is served with unique sides; the sirloin has roasted garlic mushrooms and thick-cut parmesan steak fries.

Since Cola’s is part of the management company that owns Garibaldi’s, a carry-over item from that Five Points institution is the crispy flounder, which is flash-fried and diamond scoured. Chef Tom Barry, in fact, has a flair for seafood dishes, according to Hughes.

Other menu items that are becoming signatures of Cola’s: Coconut Shrimp with orange horseradish marmalade and pineapple chili dipping sauces; Pulled Pork BBQ Eggrolls with mustard BBQ sauce and Cola slaw (a distinct recipe with more vegetables than just cabbage), and the Crispy Sesame Asparagus with a soy ginger glaze. Each dish is creatively paired with items that provide a range of flavors. The Poached Pear salad has arugula, spiced walnuts, a blue cheese fritter, and port wine pear vinaigrette. The Shrimp Succotash has sweet corn, lima beans, onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, and is served with a lobster sauce and grits.

What else?

Three Cola Plates on the menu offer a sampling of their favorites; The Lady Plate has the restaurant’s Fried Green Tomatoes with Sweet Bacon, Crispy Asparagus and BBQ Pork Eggrolls. A Veggie Plate offers spicy greens, a cheddar cheese grits cake, mushrooms, garlic spinach, asparagus and a sweet potato with pecan butter.

Some of the desserts are familiar – Strawberry Lime Sorbet and Creme Brulee – while others are unique, such as the Almond Basket served with vanilla bean ice cream and fresh berries, and the Toffee Cheesecake with a caramel and a chocolate sauce. An entire wall of wine dominates the lengthy bar, while there are special cocktails and beers as well.

How did Cola’s get its start?

Jeff Balish and his sisters, Donna Moeckel and Kiara Barnett, are owners of the Dining Group South restaurants, which includes Cola’s, Garibaldi’s, and three others located in Charleston or Savannah. Balish says he was on the lookout for 20 years for a novel location for a Columbia restaurant where “progressive” food could be served in a “fun, high-energy” environment.

They found that ideal location in the restored 1930s RC Cola Bottling Plant building along Assembly Street near the corner of Gervais Street in the heart of downtown Columbia. The name Cola’s refers to both the former bottling plant and the city’s name. Cola’s opened in June 2012. “You’re not out of place whether you have on a suit and tie or blue jeans,” says Balish. “America is a melting pot, so we’ve played around with that idea for this restaurant.”

What is the exterior and interior design?

Hughes says that if Balish had not been a restaurateur, he most likely would have been an interior designer. The interior and exterior of the former bottling plant conveys his touch: exposed brick, salvaged painted metal that serves as wall art, black and white framed photography of architectural elements in downtown Columbia, chicken wire set in wavy glass, at least a 10-foot leather and button-tufted waiting area sofa, and a wall mural of Assembly Street’s old 1930s street market.

The design – inside and out – is both rustic and contemporary. The front of the building sports two massive garage doors that are opened when weather permits to allow patrons to have an almost sidewalk-cafe-like dining experience. The floor – made of pieces of tile set into cement – is original. Above the 40-foot bar is the extensive wine selection, which can be accessed by a rolling ladder.

There are large booths as well as table seating in the main dining areas, and two private dining rooms seat up to as many as 50.

Who eats here?

Hughes says that everyone from Gamecocks football coach Steve Spurrier and Gov. Nikki Haley to prom dates to professionals to families dine at Cola’s. “It’s the whole gamut,” she says.

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