SPECIAL REPORT: Spicing up Columbia’s dining scene

07/05/2014 7:53 PM

03/12/2015 5:38 PM

Columbia is emerging as a new foodie hot spot.

Columbia’s chefs and entrepreneurs are spicing up the scene with some new and unique offerings. Think raw, vegan tacos made with nut meat and cashew cheese; burritos with black beans, sprouts and fresh mango; and a bananas foster featuring homemade vanilla pudding and Maker’s Mark.

Driven by a rebounding economy and a hunger for new options among consumers, chefs and entrepreneurs are opening eateries catering to the breakfast bunch, bacon lovers, vegan fans and those who crave all-you-can-eat Brazilian meat.

Many of the new concepts have been missing from the Midlands’ dining scene until the past few years.

“I don’t even feel like I’m in Columbia,” said resident Donna Pullen, as she dined on raw, vegan pad Thai at a sidewalk table outside Good Life Cafe. “And the food is delicious.”

Good Life is one of many new restaurants popping up on Main Street, which has become the epicenter of the Midlands’ foodie revolution. It joins The Oak Table and Bourbon, a pair of chef-driven, farm-to-table restaurants; Cowboy Brazilian Steakhouse; and Salina Cafe, which serves Eritrean and Ethiopian food at dinner and burgers, gyros and deli sandwiches for lunch.

The Main Street competition feeds off of each other. Nathan Moody, general manager of The Oak Table, said his restaurant’s bar and dinner business has risen since Bourbon moved in across the street.

“People want options,” Moody said. “They’re coming down here for food now.”

Other areas of the city also are seeing an influx of new options, such as Basil Thai on Cross Hill Road; Sizzle, a new bacon-themed restaurant opening in Five Points; Black Bean Co., which brands itself as an energy food restaurant in the Vista; and even an all-chicken salad restaurant opening in Lexington and Irmo.

“What you’re seeing is pent-up demand,” said Neal Smoak, director of the University of South Carolina’s McCutchen House restaurant in the College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management.

Diners have been spending more money steadily over the past four years. The city of Columbia collected $7.94 million in 2010 in hospitality taxes, the 2 percent fee the city charges for prepared foods. That number rose 19 percent – or $1.5 million – to $9.45 million last year.

While people are spending more on eating out, they are more careful about how they spend their money since the recession that ended in 2009, Smoak said.

“They’re tired of the same old thing they used to get,” he said. “Why go out and spend 30, 40, 50 bucks for the same thing I got five years ago.”

Besides the economy, one of the biggest drivers of the region’s restaurant makeover has been a push toward healthy, local fare.

“The biggest thing I have seen since I got here is this idea of ‘Fresh on the Menu,’ ” Smoak said.

So-called superfoods, such as kale and collard greens, have been around a long time, but chefs are now finding ways to dress them up and give them a, “ ‘You can’t get this at home’ quality,” Smoak said.

Chefs are buying local meat and vegetables and finding a way to use them nose-to-tail and root-to-stalk, he said.

“People are starting to get on a, ‘Can I eat healthier, can I eat fresher, can I just eat better (kick),” Smoak said.

Part of that comes from the changing shopping culture around the city, said Joel Reynolds, executive chef at USC’s McCutchen House.

As healthy-concept grocers such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s come in to the area, they attract like-minded restaurateurs.

“Restaurants always follow them that are of the same mindset,” Reynolds said.

He said today’s generation also has grown up with more options.

“The culture ... of the youth today (is), ‘We want more of a variety, and we want it fresher,’ ” he said. “They weren’t just raised on fried chicken and Coke. Maybe they had seafood and Chinese.”

But how long will the restaurant rebound last?

“Overall, it’s just a steady, good growth,” Smoak said. Roughly half of all new restaurants stick around more than a year, he said. But it’s unclear how close Columbia is to market saturation.

“The newer restaurants are helping to bring customers out of their homes,” he said. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

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