Main Street is about to experience an unprecedented restaurant boom, spurred on by the promise of about 850 University of South Carolina students moving into the former Palmetto Center tower, which will triple the number of residents on the street.
Ten new restaurants – from Mediterranean and Ethiopian to Cajun and new Southern – have opened in the past month or will be opening soon.
The openings are building on the momentum for Main’s revitalization that started two years ago, when country-cool retailer Mast General Store opened in the former Lourie’s menswear building at the corner of Main and Taylor streets.
It seems, after decades of start-and-stop redevelopment efforts, Main Street finally has arrived.
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“Ten new restaurants is more than just good news, it’s mind blowing,” Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said.
Matt Kennell, chief executive of City Center Partnership, which encourages and guides development in the central business district, said the influx of restaurants and bars is the next step in Main Street’s evolution.
“We hope shopping-bag retail is the next,” Kennell said. “That’s typical of any revolution. Food usually comes first and, then, shopping bags come later.”
“This is just the kind of signal we need to show big retailers that this is where they want to be,” he said.
‘Changed the dynamic’
The new restaurants are the latest big step on Main Street.
First came the building of the Palmetto Center and the accompanying Marriott Hotel at Main and Hampton three decades ago. Then, the Columbia of Museum of Art moved to Main Street in 1998, along with urban pioneers like developer Tom Prioreschi, who turned worn-out office buildings into apartments and condos.
Mast General Store opened two years ago and the new Nickelodeon Theater opened in August of last year. The opening of Mast and the Nick, on what had been the dilapidated 1600 block of Main, served as a catalyst for wider redevelopment, Kennell said.
“They were the spark,” he said, bringing shoppers and nightlife to Main Street.
The Soda City farmers market added fuel to the movement, bringing folks to the corridor on the weekends, and arts events like First Thursday also boosted street life at night.
“Those things have sort of changed the dynamic of Main Street,” Kennell said.
But it was a truly unexpected development that is taking Main Street to the next level.
SCANA Corp. moved its 1,200-person workforce to a suburban-style complex in Cayce in 2010, abandoning the 21-story Palmetto Center that had been built to its specifications. Because of its odd configurations, the building was a tough sell until Chicago-based Core Campus leased it to use as student housing for USC’s growing student population.
The Palmetto Center now is called The Hub at Columbia. It is leasing apartments – from one- to four-bedroom units – and building resort-style amenities, including a clubhouse, pool and beach volleyball courts on the top of an existing, adjacent parking garage.
Students are expected to move in next August, swelling Main Street’s residents from about 400 to more than 1,250.
View New Restaurants Come to Main Street in a full screen map
‘The Hub is a big deal’
The prospect of 850 hungry kids moving into The Hub, a block away, was one of the reasons that Leslie Nasehi and her husband, Abdi, opened Olive Grill Mediterranean on Taylor Street. The restaurant is in a former Chinese buffet restaurant, steps away from the new Sumter Street parking garage.
“The Hub is a big deal for us,” she said. “And we wanted to be more connected to the arts community.”
The couple recently moved to the Midlands from Jacksonville, Fla. They had operated a similar restaurant there, offering kebabs and rotisserie gyros for two years and were looking for a fresh start. Leslie’s sister lived here, and they were impressed with the city and, in particular, all of the new development on Main.
“We’re excited about what’s happening downtown,” Leslie Nasehi said.
It was the same for Manghistab Tekie and his restaurant manager, Kevin Drake.
They have opened Columbia’s first restaurant to offer Eritrean and Ethiopian food, which they serve at dinner, at the old Sammy’s Deli location, a few steps from Mast and The Nick. The restaurant, which sells burgers, fries, gyros and deli sandwiches for lunch, is only the second in the entire state to offer Ethiopian food, Drake said.
“We wanted to be part of the growth that’s happening,” he said.
Meanwhile, restaurateur Kristian Niemi, who operates Rosso Trattoria Italia on Forest Drive, is opening Bourbon – a Cajun-creole restaurant and whisky bar in the historic Brennen Building on Main, near Gervais Street. It’s scheduled to open in January.
He said the influx of new restaurants benefits everyone. “You get a clustering effect, and it becomes a destination area, instead of a destination restaurant.”
Mayor Benjamin said the dining boom on Main Street is an indication of good things to come.
“Great cities grow from the inside out,” he said. “Stay tuned because Columbia is ready to become truly great.”