Executive chef and general manager of the Blue Marlin restaurant, Brian Dukes, has been with the popular Vista eatery since 2004.
But some of his favorite memories of the Vista pre-date his current stint with the Vista staple.
In 1989, Columbia native Bill Dukes had opened a Longhorn Steaks restaurant at Lincoln and Gervais. In 1994, across Gervais Street, he had opened the Blue Marlin, in the old Amtrak train station. And he was opening a lunch spot, Willy’s, next door, in 1998.
Dukes, who had just graduated from the Johnson & Wales culinary school in Charleston, came to Columbia to help his uncle, Bill Dukes, with the new venture.
Willy’s “usually had a big lunch crowd, and the (USC) men’s basketball team was doing awesome,” recalls Brian Dukes. “So we would be slammed.” At the time, the city’s trolley service was also running through the Vista, ferrying folks around downtown.
“I would work and ride the trolley to the game. It was a lot of fun,” says Dukes, who’s 37. Willy’s is now a private dining room that’s part of Blue Marlin, and Dukes is in charge of it all.
A native of Knoxville, Tenn., Dukes had visited Columbia many times and was impressed with the Vista’s revitalization. One thing he noticed right away was how connected everything seemed to be.
“That was one of the things that got me excited about coming down here,” he said. “There was Innovista, USC, Main Street. There were just a lot of things going on.”
Since those early years, he says he’s seen the district continue to grow and become more vibrant.
“The (down) economy hurt a lot of that. ... But I really see it coming back now,” he said.
Dukes points to a new hotel planned for Gervais Street, additions to EdVenture and the State Museum, plans to expand the Three Rivers Greenway and the Vista Greenway pedestrian and bike path, which runs from Lincoln Street to Finlay Park and eventually, to Elmwood Avenue.
As someone who likes to get outdoors and ride his bike occasionally, the idea of connectivity is something he would like to see continue.
“We have so much potential,” he says. “It’s important that we are able to move people around the city.”
In the meantime, he says he feels fortunate to work in a place that’s so tight-knit.
“I know a lot of the other restaurateurs, and we all work together,” he says. “If we need something, we’ll borrow something from Motor Supply or Liberty (Tap Room). ... There is that sense of community here.”