About 20 years ago, Columbia diners voted a national buffet-style chain restaurant as the best eatery in the city, according to the head of the Greater Columbia Restaurant Association.
“That was pretty embarrassing,” said Bobby Williams, who also is CEO of the 35-year-old locally owned Lizard’s Thicket.
The city’s restaurant scene has transformed since then, and Columbia’s Restaurant Week, which started Thursday and runs through Jan. 19, showcases some of the city’s staples and newcomers – from the venerable Villa Tronco to the modern Oak Table – with promotions aimed at getting patrons through their doors.
And while national chains are still doing well, a range of restaurants have opened in recent years to satisfy the city’s cravings for variety. Among them: locally owned eateries featuring American and international cuisine, such as downtown’s Cola’s and Cowboy Brazilian Steakhouse, and chef-driven restaurants serving family recipes or locally sourced meats and produce, such as Basil Thai Cuisine in the new Cross Hill Market on Jackson Boulevard.
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“We’ve come a long way,” Williams said. “We’ve got great restaurants now.”
A challenge to Columbia’s restaurant scene has been that it does not have the tourist business of Charleston or the corporate entertaining of Greenville, Williams said. The market is smaller for upscale restaurants in the Capital City, he said.
But, the University of South Carolina, Colonial Life Arena, the National Advocacy Center and the city’s arts offerings encourage people to go out and dine in Columbia, Williams said.
A rebounding economy also has given consumers more of an appetite for eating out, said Marianne Bickle, department chair for the College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management at the University of South Carolina.
Restaurant sales have gained steam since the depths of the worst recession in a lifetime that brought eating out to a near standstill several years ago, she said. That has driven the restaurant boom in the Midlands, which has seen nicer, sit-down restaurants move into buildings that were empty or underperforming and existing restaurants step up their offerings or décor.
The trend can be seen even in fast-food restaurants, she said. McDonald’s renovated its store at the corner of Elmwood and Assembly streets last year. This year, the IHOP and Wendy’s on Assembly Street are undergoing extensive renovations.
While some of the restaurants are opening in the suburbs – such as Chicken Salad Chick in Lexington and Rioz Brazilian steakhouse in Irmo – many of the new restaurants are concentrated in the downtown area.
A dozen new restaurants are being opened along the revitalized Main Street corridor.
Oak Table, opened by a Charleston restaurateur, was among the first to take a chance on Main Street in late 2012 and already has developed a “great local, loyal crowd,” in Columbia, said Nathan Moody, the restaurant’s general manager.
The eatery is popular with legislators at the adjacent State House, and the private dining room designed for meetings and small parties also has done well, Moody said.
The corridor’s growth speaks to the overall change in Columbia’s restaurant scene, said John Durst, CEO of the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association.
“You’ve got more white tablecloth restaurants than you did previously and also just a greater variety of menus that are offered to folks,” Durst said.
The revitalization of downtown and people moving into downtown apartments has been beneficial for restaurants in the area, said Carmella Roche, the third-generation owner of Villa Tronco on Blanding Street, just off Main.
People are patronizing local restaurants because they know they are more family-oriented, she said. She also said there is a push to eat local, where people expect the freshest ingredients.
Restaurant Week – actually 10 days – gets people to try some of those established and new restaurants during what is typically a slow time for restaurants, after the holidays when people are watching their budgets and their diets, Williams said.
The goal of the week, he said, is to encourage customers to get out and try something different, such as eating at Ruth’s Chris restaurant instead of their typical steakhouse.
“It costs more money, but there’s a reason it costs more money,” Williams said.
The week also is “a great opportunity for the chefs to show their skills and our staff to show their hospitality,” said the Oak Table’s Moody.
To display those skills, Oak Table offers a variety of deals during Restaurant Week, including a lunch special with two courses for $15 and a dinner special of three courses for $30.
Lizard’s Thicket offers 99-cent desserts during the 10-day period, prompting customers to try desserts at meals when they might not have before, Williams said. Last year, Lizard’s Thicket sold 40,000 desserts during the period, he said.
Villa Tronco offers a four-course special for $30 to get people to try something new, Roche said.
“Hopefully, they’ll come back again for another visit,” she said.
The number of restaurants participating in Restaurant Week in the Greater Columbia area doubled this year, compared to last year, Durst said.
The week benefits not just the restaurants, but also their suppliers and nearby retail spots if patrons shop before or after they get a meal, he said.
“There’s a very positive ripple effect,” Durst said.
More than two dozen restaurants in Columbia are offering promotions, discounts and special menus from Jan. 9-19 to draw in customers.
For a list of complete Columbia Restaurant Week deals visit: restaurantweeksouthcarolina.com