People watching: A restaurant with a large front window or outdoor porch is the perfect venue for watching passersby while you dine. Some spots that fit the bill include Pawleys Front Porch in Five Points(for watching what’s on the porch as well as what’s passing by); Rosso Trattoria Italia, where you can sip some prosecco or a signature cocktail while watching the shoppers at Trenholm Plaza in Forest Acres. Enjoy the daily lunchtiime specials (especially Friday’s fish & chips) at Michael’s Cafe and Catering on Main Street, and the sidewalk seating at Gourmet Shop in Five Points is perfect for lunch while you decide where next to shop.
Porches: Who doesn’t love a big, wide porch or deck? Back porches are the favorite places to have a meal or hang out with friends. Some of the best are Thirsty Fellow in the Vista; ; Pawleys in Five Points; World of Beer in the Vista; Jake’s in Five Points; and Rusty Anchor, with a view of the water in Chapin. And while not a dining establishment, River Rat Brewery has a killer deck and green space, just around the corner from Williams-Brice Stadium.
Porches — and pets: Some restaurants, if there is outdoor seating available, will allow you to dine with your four-legged friends. I’ve seen pets at these places, but when in doubt, call ahead: Jake’s in Five Points, World of Beer in the Vista, Cafe Strudel in West Columbia, and Solstice Kitchen in Northeast Richland. Solstice will occasionally have Doggie Dinner nights.
Picnics: There are some wonderful outdoor spaces in and around Columbia where you can take a break from the office or enjoy on the weekends with the kids. Pack a lunch and head out to Mays Park in Forest Acres (there’s a sprinkler fountain in the summer for kids); Guignard Park in Cayce (picnic tables and a walking path along the creek); and for even wider open spaces, try Saluda Shoals Park in Irmo and Sesquicentennial State Park in Northeast Richland.
The celebration of the Farm-to-Table movement happens year-round, whether it is in the form of a festival or special dinner. Check out these events: Harvest Week at Motor Supply Co. Bistro happens twice a year (spring and fall) and features a Meet the Farmer Happy Hour and special food and drink menus; the Tasty Tomato Festival at City Roots is usually in early to mid-July and features a contest for backyard tomato gardeners, a restaurant week where participating restaurants feature tomato-centric items on the menu and it all leads up to a celebration of all things ’mater on the farm in the Rosewood neighborhood. And speaking of City Roots, a must-do dining experience is one of the monthly Farm to Table Dinners that feature a guest chef creating a three- to six-course meal with fresh, local sustainable produce.
Craving seafood? There are three ways to approach seafood in Columbia. First, head out to a somewhat upscale dining experience like Blue Marlin in the Vista, advocates of sustainable seafood practices before they became popular. Second, go old school and order take out from one of the seafood markets where you can usually pick and choose a combo platter that can be broiled or fried ( Palmetto Seafood on Gervais, Clifton Seafood on Decker, or DJ’s Seafood on West Beltline). Third, go classic, no-frills and steamedat Oyster Bar in the Vista. The bar is in the front and you may have to wait to sit at the U-shaped, totally unfancy oyster bar in the back that serves up oysters steamed or raw on the half-shell, shrimp and scallops. That’s about it. Oh, yeah, except for bowls of drawn butter and the house specialty Mother Shucker’s cocktail sauce.
Learn to cook: Did you know that Columbia has four cooking schools that regularly offer classes to the masses? Let’s Cook Culinary on Assembly is led by Chef John Militello, who specializes in Italian cuisine and offers classes for couples, cooking camps for kids and a monthly Wild Women class. New to the school this year is a sponsored culinary trip to Italy. Chef Francois Fisera operates Fleur de Lys Home Culinary Institute on Millwood and offers classic French cuisine that is easy to reproduce at home and gourmet tours of Europe. McCutchen House at USC has Saturday morning classes during the spring and fall semesters where participants get to create (and eat) four-course meals and learn about beer and wine pairings. Charleston Cooks! at Cross Hill Market also features a hands-on teaching kitchen in the back of the retail establishment. Classes are held almost daily and range from basic knife skills to picnic planning to special occasions. They even have kids classes.
Bring it home: Sure, Columbia boasts a lot of supermarkets. But why not get out of your safety zone and wander through one of the many ethnic markets in town? Pick just about any storefront along Decker Boulevard to wander through. Hyundai Oriental Grocery & Gifts on Decker has been around for 20 years; Spices of India serves the St. Andrews side of town ; and Halal International in Boozer Shopping Center, also in the St. Andrews area, provides Arabic ingredients (check out the fresh meat counter in the back with cuts of lamb and goat).
One extra dish: This one is a bit of a drive, but well worth it. If you want a chef’s table experience (where you sit and the chef decides what to serve you, usually a menu of four to six small plates,with or without wine pairings), head to Juniper in Ridge Spring on Main Street. This unassuming diner-by-day turns into a white linen service for dinner Thursday through Saturday nights and Chef Brandon Velie creates a high-quality dining experience using fresh local ingredients. Check it out after an afternoon of antiquing in the area. 640 Main Street, Ridge Spring, (803) 685-7547