Way back in the day (read: 10 years ago) when I was a sweet and innocent freshman and coming to South Carolina for only the third time ever (the other two times had been for a college visit and then orientation), I was a little intimidated. Probably because I was at a huge state school, in a city that is 700 miles away from home. I was kept busy during move-in and the days that followed, as USC provides countless activities to welcome the masses to campus, but when my family and I first got to campus, it was a little rough. We were definitely those easy to spot out-of-towners (and not because my dad was wearing socks with sandals or a Hawaiian shirt with a camera around his neck). Not only did our suburban Philadelphia accents betray us, but we also had no idea how to get around town and were totally lost. We didn't even know where to start when we wanted to find something to eat. If only we had had a fabulous food blogger who knew the ins and outs of the Columbia dining scene. Lucky for all of you incoming Carolina students, you have me.
After polling the crowds on Facebook and Twitter (Huge thanks to all who helped me out!), I have put together a list of places for your dining pleasure. Some I have been to, and so can attest to their awesomeness, while some are new to me, but you better believe I'll be trying them soon. If any of you decide to take my suggestions, let me know how you liked it.
Dinner. This is often the toughest choice. My list has a wide variety of choices and price ranges. I specifically asked for places that are maybe a little too expensive for your average college student, but I didn't really want to include to many options that will break the bank. So here are my top 5:
- Terra. Terra is one of the first places I went to for this blog, and it definitely set the standard for outstanding dining in Columbia. Your meal is going to be a little on the pricey side, but I can pretty much guarantee that it will be worth it. The atmosphere is a little more elegant than your neighborhood restaurant, but there's no need to be super dressed up. You'll probably want to make a reservation if you decide that Terra is the place to go. It's also not actually in Columbia, but rather over the Gervais Street bridge in West Columbia. Very easy to get to, just visit their website for directions. You can read my 5 star review of Terra here.
- California Dreaming. This is actually where my family went for dinner when I first moved to Columbia. The restaurant is in an old converted train car, and is located right next to the College of Engineering. You could actually walk there from campus, especially if you're living in the quads or the honors residence hall. California Dreaming was one of the most recommended restaurants when I asked around. The prices are reasonable and the food is great. Their house salad dressing is divine and the buttery croissants are amazing. If you can, I'd make a reservation here too.
- Blue Marlin. Probably one of the most recommended and most famous spots in town. The food is great with a nice southern flair. If you're not really big into seafood, than Blue Marlin is probably not for you, but otherwise I would suggest that you go. Their shrimp & grits dish is legendary. The atmosphere is casually upscale, and the food is awesome. You can check out my 4.5 star review here.
- Mr. Friendly's. Again with the southern influenced fare. I've never had a bad meal at Mr. Friendly's. You can check them out for lunch or dinner, but again, I'd suggest a reservation for dinner. It's a tiny place and gets pretty busy on the weekends. You can read my 4.5 star review here.
- Solstice. If you're willing to drive a little bit, then I would suggest Solstice. It's about 20 minutes from downtown, and definitely worth the drive. Solstice is owned by the same people as Mr. Friendly's, so you know the food will be awesome. My 5 star review is here.
- Cotton Grill. This is in Lexington, so you'll have to drive a bit to get there.
- Rosso. This is on my list of places to try. I've heard great things. They also do breakfast at the All Local Farmer's Market on Saturday mornings.
- Saluda's. Also good for brunch on Sunday.
- M Vista. Asian fusion, for lunch or dinner.
- D's Wings. Just over the bridge in Cayce. Very casual.
- Rockaway's. Excellent for burgers. On the corner of Rosewood Drive and Howard St. My review is here.
- Garibaldi Cafe. Very nice, very Italian. Make a reservation.
- Ristorante Divino. Also very nice Italian. I'd make a reservation here too.
- Harper's. Casual, in 5 Points. Definitely good for the family.
- MoMo's Bistro. I really want to try MoMo's soon. I have a friend who always recommends it to me. Make a reservation.
- Villa Tronco. More Italian. And when I refer to Italian on this list, I don't mean anything remotely resembling the Olive Garden.
There are also assorted chain restaurants in Columbia, if that's what you prefer. I'd rather try something local, but there are definitely options if you are of the "stick with what you know" mentality. Your best bets for chains are to head out to Harbison Blvd (bonus: you can hit Walmart or Target while you're out there), or to get out of downtown Columbia. If you have a specific place in mind, just ask your hotel concierge.
So we've got dinner covered. What about lunch? Trust me. After lugging boxes and unpacking in the Columbia heat and humidity, you'll want food and a shower. Not necessarily in that order. A lot of these places can double as dinner locations as well, so keep that in mind as you make your decisions. In no particular order:
- DiPrato's. You can't go wrong with DiPrato's. They're only open for lunch, and again for brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. I've never had a bad experience here.
- Immaculate Consumption. Good food, walking distance to campus. And really good coffee if you need a pick me up.
- Drip Coffee. This is a new place in 5 Points. They have, hands down, the best coffee I have ever tasted. By all accounts their food menu is delicious. They have breakfast sandwiches and lunch options. I would forego your Starbucks fix, and head to Drip instead.
- Cafe Millwood. Everything is homemade. Definitely known for brunch, so stop by on Sunday morning.
- Carolina Ale House. If you're looking for a sports bar, this is it. Try to sit upstairs. If the heat doesn't bother you, you can sit on the rooftop deck and enjoy the view.
- Pawley's Front Porch. Go here for the burgers. It's a good option for lunch or dinner, but it's usually pretty crowded, so plan accordingly.
- Yesterday's. Usually the first place I tell people to go while in town. Good food, very casual, great prices. If you park in the lot behind their building, they'll validate 90 minutes of parking so you don't have to pay. Good for lunch, dinner, and the whole family.
- Cantina 76. Mexican, with a very distinct twist. The tacos and guacamole are awesome.
- Gourmet Shop. Sandwiches and such. Plus you can shop for kitchen gadgets.
- Bone-In Artisan BBQ. If you're not afraid of food trucks, make a stop here. Awesome food. Most Saturdays, they set up for brunch in the parking lot of Baan Sawan on Devine Street.
- Z Pizza. I firmly believe that you can never go wrong with pizza. And, Z pizza has some gluten free options if that's your thing.
- Mai Thai. If you like Thai food, I'm told that this is the place to go. For lunch or dinner.
- Thirsty Fellow. Tucked away near the Colonial Life Arena. Good for lunch, dinner, or Sunday brunch. Mostly known for pizza, but there are your usual pub fare options too.
- Liberty Tap Room. I'd go for brunch if I were you, but lunch and dinner are pretty tasty as well.
- Pearlz. It's an oyster bar, but their other food is pretty tasty. Plus if you sit on the enclosed porch, the people watching is great.
- Blue Cactus Cafe. If you can believe it, this is a Korean/Southwestern restaurant. Plenty of vegan and vegetarian items if that's your style.
- Cafe Strudel. Go for brunch.
- Gervais & Vine. A wine and tapas joint. If you're looking for something light, this may be the place to go.
Columbia has some great dining options - these are only some that are available. Take my advice, or ask around. It really depends on what you're looking for, but we definitely have something for everyone.
Good luck with move-in, and if you have dining questions, leave a comment, and I'll get back to you.