‘Something special’ is happening in the 1600 block of Columbia’s Main Street

A wine glass in hand. A small cluster of friends by your side. A portrait of Lula Drake watches over you in the new wine parlor bearing her name on downtown Columbia’s Main Street.

The setting inside transports you somewhere else – a gleaming big city, a European avenue, a hipster arts district – certainly somewhere beyond the Main Street you might remember from even a couple years ago.

Lula Drake is an emblem of Main Street’s recent, hip identity. The 1600 block in particular, home to the wine parlor for the past two months and populated by a vibrant mix of professionals, families, students and wanderers, is suddenly competitive for the title of “coolest place in Columbia” right now.

You’ve got an indie movie theater. An eclectic regional general store. A specialty ice cream shop. A vegan restaurant. Yoga and Pilates studios. A boutique cigar store. An indoor/outdoor cafe. An arts center. A pocket park.

Increasingly – and only in the past handful of years – this block is where the grown-up cool kids come to hang. And the coolness keeps coming: The near future promises a bowling alley, a web development company, an event space above Lula Drake and a boutique hotel around the corner on Taylor Street.

This New Main Street has been “a long time coming,” said Merrill McGregor, 32, who sat sipping wine and sharing appetizers with work friends on a recent weeknight at Lula Drake.

Farther down the white-topped bar, a couple of young professionals paid their tabs then slipped out to find a dinner spot nearby. An older couple joked with the bartender and shared a plate of thin-sliced Iberico ham. A young couple talked quietly across a candlelit table.

Owner Tim Gardner dimmed the lights and raised the volume of the Parisian cafe-style music that floated up into the high ceilings and bounced off the long, exposed-brick wall.

“At any time during the night, I have looked up at my bartenders and said, ‘Look around. This feels like you could be in any big city in the United States,’” Gardner said. “It’s such a vast array of people. We’re not really catering to anyone, but we’re seeing every type of person you could imagine.”

Cozy but impressive, intimate but lively, it’s a place where you can wind down from a day or wind up for your night.

Until recently, there was hardly a thought of staying on Main Street after work hours, and especially not venturing to the northern end, where the 1600 block is sandwiched between the Columbia Museum of Art and Columbia City Ballet on the previous block and the county courthouse on the next.

“It was where you’d come out of your way to do something, and now it’s becoming more of a destination in itself,” said 27-year-old Bryce Dryden, who tried a variety of red wines at Lula Drake before going out to dinner on a recent evening with Asheton Richardson.

“It’s actually a Main Street now,” said Richardson, 25.

Mast General Store and The Nickelodeon art house theater were the clear kickstarters for the 1600 block, moving in as vivid cornerstones in 2011 and 2012. Tapp’s Arts Center opened in an old department store at the opposite end of the block around the same time, another traffic-driving bookend.

When the theater’s new location was under construction in the old Fox theater building, director Andy Smith remembers, there was plenty of parking and almost no place to eat nearby. The opposite is true now.

“When we were starting our project ... we did a lot of talking about the impact it was going to have on the neighborhood, but it was honestly a lot of speculation,” Smith said. “It was a big risk for Columbia, and we didn’t know if it would happen.”

Now, “it” is happening.

On any given afternoon or evening – weekends and work days alike – the tables outside of Good Life Cafe and Michael’s Cafe and Catering are abuzz. The usual folks nod at one another. Across the street, movie-goers stream out of the Nick and down the sidewalk in either direction to grab a bite or a drink. The Soda City market in the neighboring block spills over with pedestrians who flock to brunch or to shop at Mast on Saturday mornings.

“Everybody is welcome, but it is getting to be a regular part of people’s daily or weekly routine,” said Matt Kennell, president of the City Center Partnership and the newly branded Main Street District. “People are having fun kind of experimenting. ... It’s just the place people try things that are new and cool.”

Smith and Gardner both pointed to the synergy among the small, local businesses in the cluster, the success of each one contributing to the success of the greater area.

“I know that both the Nick and Lula Drake have benefited from each other,” Gardner said. “Many times during the evening, we’ll hear people talking about the movie they just saw. And then they’ll leave here and go to Drip (in the 1500 block) to have a cup of coffee.”

As the area continues to grow in popularity, there will be a need for more parking spaces eventually. And Smith and Kennell both said they hope to see more retail pop up in the area.

The renovation of the old Hennessy’s restaurant on the corner across from Tapp’s and the uncertain future of the county courthouse in the 1700 block – officials say it needs renovating or relocating – open up possibilities for the Main Street renaissance to continue moving north.

“Five years from now, it’s going to be even more striking,” Smith said.

“I think there is something special going on.”

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.


Things that gelled to make the 1600 block work

1) It has good bones. Old buildings, often with glass storefronts, present an inviting retail “face” to the street – no matter who moves in. And there are very few empty spaces or “gaps” between buildings. Plus, the buildings have second-story space for apartments or condos.

2) It has a popular anchor: Mast General Store, a regional retail chain that likes locating in city cores, opened in May 2011 to much excitement. Not unimportantly, the city built a parking garage directly behind the shop and another a block away.

3) The Nickelodeon Theatre, the state’s most successful and oldest independent film house, moved here in August 2012 from the other side of the State House and brought its nighttime movie-goers. It’s run by the Columbia Film Society, which also sponsors Indie Grits, the city’s now-well-known annual film festival.

4) Agape, one of the state’s largest health-care organizations, bought a large stretch of one side of the block and opened several businesses in 2014. Its raw foods eatery, the Good Life Cafe, and Michael’s Cafe, a small restaurant and caterer, generate both daytime and nighttime buzz. There’s also a conference space, doctor’s offices, a pharmacy and a senior center.

5) It’s teeming with apartments, some older than others. That includes Tapp’s, the former department store-turned apartment tower in 2002, whose first floor has been home to artists’ studios that attract a stream of foot traffic during Main Street’s First Thursdays gatherings.