Restaurateur jazzes up Columbia’s food scene

One of Columbia’s leading restaurateurs wants to give Main Street a shot of Bourbon.

Kristian Niemi, who has helped define the food scene in Columbia over the past two decades, said he is opening Bourbon, a Cajun/Creole-influenced restaurant and bourbon-based cocktail bar, in the historic and newly renovated Brennen Building. The building for decades was home of the legendary Capitol Café.

The new restaurant, slated to open its doors in the fall near the corner of Main and Gervais streets, is expected to boost not only Columbia’s emerging foodie reputation, but further cement Main Street as a destination for dining and the arts.

“That’s such a critical corner for the whole state – it’s the front porch of the State House,” said Heather Spires, vice president of recruitment for City Center Partnership, which guides and encourages investment in the central business district. “Kristian has lots of followers. And the fact that he wants to be involved on Main Street is a big deal.”

For Niemi, who has a degree in historic preservation architecture, locating a new restaurant in one of Columbia’s most historic buildings is a thrill.

“I’m coming full circle after all these years,” he said.

A circuitous path

Niemi, 47, was raised in Chisholm, Minn., a small iron ore mining town in northern Minnesota. He decided to join the Army after graduating from high school, because he felt he wasn’t ready for college.

“It was a way to get out of town and see the world,” he said.

After four years of active duty, during which he was taught to speak the Persian language Farsi, Niemi decided to attend the College of Charleston in anticipation of moving on to the Medical College of South Carolina.

“I wanted to be a heart surgeon,” he said.

To pay his way through college, he started waiting tables at places like Hyman’s Seafood and The Colony House. He also learned to cook.

“When I got out of the Army, I realized there was nobody to cook three meals a day for me,” he said. “So I went to Barnes & Noble and bought a cookbook – ‘60-Minute Gourmet.’”

The heart surgeon thing didn’t work out, and Niemi found himself back in Minnesota, studying architecture and going to culinary school. All the while “I kept working in restaurants and asking questions.”

Niemi returned to South Carolina in 1993, this time to Columbia, when his first wife was accepted to graduate school at the University of South Carolina.

“I decided to stay in Columbia because I liked it,” he said.

Back to Columbia

Niemi began his journey to become one of Columbia’s leading restaurateurs 20 years ago as a bartender at Garibaldi’s in Five Points.

He later worked as manager of Longhorn Steakhouse in the Vista, and was picked by the owner, Columbia restaurant legend Bill Dukes, to be the first general manager of the Blue Marlin.

After a year, he struck out on his own, buying Mr. Friendly’s, then a sandwich shop, with partners Harold Ham and Jon Campagna, and turning it into upscale Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Café in Five Points.

He has since helped build Columbia’s culinary core with such restaurants as the Vista’s Gervais & Vine tapas restaurant and Northeast Richland’s Solstice, which he has since sold, and then Rosso, his Forest Acres trattoria.

“His talent is being a restaurateur with excellent business skills,” said Tracie Broom, a public relations executive who writes the local food blog The Yum Diaries and is on the board of Slow Food Columbia. “He runs his restaurants like tight ships, and that frees him up to be creative.”

Niemi also leverages social media to the maximum, Broom said, noting that Bourbon has more than 1,600 “likes” on its Facebook page and it isn’t scheduled to open for months.

Broom said Niemi and other notable Columbia chefs and owners such as Eddie Wales at Motor Supply, Mike Davis at Terra and Ricky Mollohan at Mr. Friendly’s, Solstice and Cellar on Greene also have built their reputations by promoting and buying sustainable local food and delivering creative, delicious meals.

“There’s a coterie of fine dining restaurateurs in Columbia, and Kristian is a leader of that,” she said.

And success breeds success downtown. Adding another fine dining restaurant – which recently has seen Colas restaurant open on Assembly Street and The Oak Table, in the Main & Gervais building – will only add to the buzz, said Motor Supply’s Wales, a Vista pioneer who opened his restaurant in 1989.

“I don’t think there are enough nice restaurants,” Wales said. “I have to turn down reservations all the time. Kristian is a talented guy, and he’s very good at promoting his restaurants.”

Main Street rebirth

While Niemi has helped define the culinary culture of Columbia, the renovated Brennen Building symbolizes the rebirth of Main Street.

It is one of the oldest buildings along Main Street, reportedly built circa-1870, just five years after Gen. William T. Sherman’s troops roared through the Capitol City during the Civil War and much of the town burned to the ground.

The building was home to the legendary Capitol Café from 1911 to 2002, attracting a wide range of customers, from musicians to college students to lawmakers. Legend has it that about as many deals were cut in the restaurant as in the State House.

First Citizens bank bought Brennen in 2002 when it was constructing a new office tower next door, pledging to restore it. Several years later, bank officials considered demolishing the structure, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, because they said it would be too expensive to renovate.

But they had a change of heart, in large part due to public outcry against the building’s demolition, and began restoration of the structure last year. Bourbon is planned for one of the two storefronts. Bank offices will be located on the upper floor.

Bank officials confirmed they were in negotiations with Niemi for the 1214 Main storefront. And they added that the other storefront, once envisioned as meeting space and a courtyard, may now become something different. They wouldn’t elaborate last week on plans for that space.

“We are excited that there has been so much interest in the newly rehabilitated space in the historic Brennen Building,” the bank said in an email. “We are confident that the Brennen Building will soon become the newest destination in downtown Columbia.”

The French Victorian-style building occupies a prominent space half a block from the State House. It is built in a style of architecture once common along Main Street – with ornate cast-iron door frames, windows and balcony – but now rare in the city.

Niemi said he had several concepts in mind for a new restaurant, but the building itself, particularly its distinctive balcony, dictated Cajun and Creole.

Bourbon refers to Kentucky whiskey, varieties of which would be served at the restaurant’s “old school” cocktail bar, Niemi said. But it also refers to Bourbon Street in New Orleans, which is reflected in the building’s architecture.

“Plus, my wife, Heather, is a huge lover of Creole food,” Niemi said. “So I’m just being a good husband.”

Shaping Columbia’s restaurant scene

After 20 years on Columbia’s restaurant scene, Kristian Niemi is still influencing the city’s fine dining, planning to open Bourbon on Main Street this fall. Here’s a timeline of his influence:

Aug. 1993: Arrived in Columbia, tended bar at Garibaldi’s in Five Points

Oct. 1993: Took management position at Longhorn Steakhouse in Vista

July 1994: Named opening general manager of Blue Marlin in Vista

Oct. 1994: Opened Blue Marlin for Bill Dukes

March 1995: Purchased Mr. Friendly’s in Five Points with Harold Ham and Jon Campagna, changed the concept and renamed it Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Cafe

Fall 1998: Opened Mr. Friendly’s Lexington

April 1999: Opened Gervais & Vine in the Vista

Jan. 2000: Closed Mr. Friendly’s Lexington

Fall 2006: Opened Solstice Kitchen & Wine Bar in Northeast Richland with partner, Ricky Mollohan

Aug. 2008: Sold interest in Mr. Friendly’s and Solstice and took sole ownership of Gervais & Vine

Feb. 2009: Opened Rosso Trattoria Italia in Trenholm Plaza with partner Larry Miller

April 2011: Sold Gervais & Vine

Fall 2013: Opening Bourbon on Main Street