Best of Columbia 2014: Food & Dining

By Free Times
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
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  • Bourbon is Best New Restaurant thanks to chef Gordon Langston. Photo by Jonathan Sharpe

    Best New Restaurant
    Runner-up: Cantina 76 on Main

    Kristian Niemi’s cozy, swanky new Cajun joint on Main Street is apparently just what Columbia was hoping for. Mmm … bourbon.

    Mr. Friendly’s wins Best Restaurant. file photo

    Best Restaurant
    Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Café
    Runner-up: Motor Supply Co. Bistro

    After all these years, Mr. Friendly’s knows exactly what it’s doing, with its excellent service and upscale-but-chill Southern fare. If Columbia’s culinary outlook has a pulse, Mr. Friendly’s seems to have its finger on it.

    Best Restaurant: Northeast
    Solstice Kitchen and Wine Bar
    Runner-up: Travinia’s Italian Kitchen

    Whether it’s a fine cut of beef you’re looking for, or just a great business lunch, Solstice is the nicest place in the Northeast.

    Best Restaurant: Lexington
    Hudson’s Smokehouse
    Runner-up: Mellow Mushroom

    You know that feeling when you have a plate of pulled pork that’s just moist enough, but not too moist? A plate that’s smoky, but not too smoky? And that feeling you get when you douse that pork with mustard sauce and take your first bite? Once you’ve tasted Hudson’s exquisite pulled pork, you’ll know what Lexington locals have known for years.

    Best Restaurant: Irmo
    Liberty on the Lake
    Runner-up: The British Bulldog Pub

    Nothing feels quite like pulling a boat into a Liberty on the Lake’s dock after a long day of lounging on the water. An offshoot of the popular Vista restaurant Liberty Tap Room with a big deck offering stunning views of Lake Murray.

    Best Restaurant: West Columbia/Cayce
    Café Strudel
    Runner-up: D’s Wings (Cayce)

    There are fancier restaurants than Café Strudel in the West Columbia/Cayce area, but it speaks to the low-key, down-home sensibilities of the locals that this charming spot would take first prize. And Café Strudel’s menu doesn’t disappoint: Half-Pound Stuffed Burger? Brined Pork Ribeye? Seafood Mac & Cheese? Yes, please.

    Terra’s Mike Davis wins Best Chef. file photo

    Best Chef
    Mike Davis — Terra
    Runner-up: Kristian Niemi – Bourbon, Rosso

    Terra turns 8 years old this month, which means chef/owner Mike Davis has been creatively influencing Columbia cuisine for the same number of years. Any good Southern chef can cook a nice piece of pork, but not just anybody can perfectly prepare a field pea. And those desserts! We’re lucky to have him.

    Best Place for a First Date
    Gervais & Vine
    Runner-up: Hunter-Gatherer

    A good first date, like tinder, will only need a spark to ignite it. OK, so Cupid shot his arrow through your lying heart and you hope you’ve met your match. But the conversation is slow, and the wine isn’t helping like it should. Try saying, “How about we order another app?” And if the fire still dies, at least you’ll have had the best meal of your week.

    Best Late Night Food
    Waffle House
    Runner-up: Cook-Out

    Yeah, those buttery waffles and perfectly crisp hash browns taste good at any time of day. But there’s just something about rolling into a Waffle House slightly buzzed and gorging on a traditional All Star Special (waffle, two eggs, meat, toast — the essentials). Wash it down with some piping hot and surprisingly drinkable coffee, and it just feels right. You know?

    Best Place to Dine Outdoors
    Liberty on the Lake
    Runner-up: Pawleys Front Porch

    Watch the comings and goings on Lake Murray while tossing back a beer, listening to music and enjoying Liberty’s classic American cuisine. Come sunset, you won’t be disappointed.

    Best Takeout Food
    Runner-up: Cook-Out

    From chili burgers to fried chicken, and hot dogs to soft-serve ice cream, Rush’s is fast food the old-fashioned way. The Rush family started out with a small drive-in in 1940 and ran a Dairy Queen for years before morphing into Rush’s in the early 1960s and expanding throughout the city in the 1980s.

    Best Bang for the Buck
    Runner-up: Moe’s Southwest Grill

    Oh, the Cook-Out Tray. With tantalizing options for your main course, and a list of sides that really seems more like an additional collection of entrees — including chicken wraps and quesadillas — it may well be the best meal you can get for five bucks. Pro tip: Try the Cajun chicken sandwich. With a grilled breast fillet that’s tender and spicy, it’s one of the most delicious sandwiches you can grab through a drive-thru window.

    Best National Chain Restaurant
    Runner-up: Chipotle Mexican Grill

    Something something homophobia, something something waffle fries.

    Best Fast Food Chain
    Runner-up: Rush’s

    Sure, Chick-fil-A gets a lot of flak because of the family that runs it, but it still serves some of the best chicken sandwiches around. And yes, it’s still closed on Sundays.

    Best Kid-Friendly Restaurant
    Runner-up: CiCi’s Pizza

    You’ve compared the cleanliness of the play set at Chick-fil-A with those at some other restaurants and, well, you cast your votes accordingly. Good call, voters.

    Café Strudel wins Best Restaurant: West Columbia/Cayce, Best Breakfast, Best Brunch and Best Place for a Business Breakfast. file photo

    Best Place for a Business Breakfast
    Café Strudel
    Runner-up: Lizard’s Thicket

    Who says business breakfasts have to be stuffy? Not Best of Columbia voters. At Café Strudel, you’ll have a sturdy breakfast at an absurdly low price and an endless supply of coffee. Sounds like good conditions for talking business.

    Best Place for a Business Lunch
    Blue Marlin
    Runner-up: DiPrato’s

    It’s classy, it’s Southern, and it serves Adluh grits milled practically right across the street. Add in the smooth, professional service, and Blue Marlin is a perfect place to bring that out-of-town client for lunch.

    Gervais & Vine wins Best Wine List and Best Place for a First Date

    Best Wine List
    Gervais & Vine
    Runner-up: Cellar on Greene

    When you want to wind down, seek out a table at this Vista restaurant and they’ll take care of you. If you’re adventurous, you can join the wine club that will introduce you to wines you normally wouldn’t, well, seek out.

    Best Coffee
    Runner-up: Starbucks

    Great things take time — for instance, the coffee at Drip’s two Columbia locations. The locally owned caffeine parlors specialize in the pour-over method, making each cup of coffee individually. It takes a few minutes, but the result is invariably the best java in town. Not one to rest on these laurels, Drip offers other tasty concoctions, for instance the draft ice coffee at the Five Points location. Infused with nitrogen — like Guinness — it pours out smooth and drinkable.

    Drip wins Best Coffee and Best Barista, Rachel Allen. file photo

    Best Barista
    Rachel Allen — Drip
    Runner-up: Jessica Ochoa — The Wired Goat

    Obviously she’s Free Times’ favorite barista — we see her more than we see our own mothers — but we’re happy to know she’s Columbia’s favorite barista, too.

    Best Sweet Tea
    Runner-up: Chick-fil-A

    Get something sweet to wash down that Cajun cuisine. A favorite of former American Idol contestant Scotty McCreery who loves the Big Bo Box. It’s Bo time! Again!

    Best Breakfast
    Café Strudel
    Runner-up: Original Pancake House

    Don’t believe Tom Petty, because the waiting isn’t the hardest part of arriving to this crowded restaurant on the weekend; it’s the parking. Waiting is actually easy because you know you — and your hangover, if you have one — will be rewarded. Here’s a secret: the breakfast is just as fantastic during the week, and in the evening.

    Best Brunch
    Café Strudel
    Runner-up: DiPrato’s

    Famous Hangover Hashbrowns, a proper noun that will make any brunch awesome. Look in the dictionary; they’re: 1. A legend. 2. Hash browns with onions, banana peppers, tomatoes, cheddar cheese and two eggs your way. 3. Full order, $6.95. 4. Half order, $5.50. 5. Amazing.

    Best Deli/Sub/Sandwich Shop
    Runner-up: Firehouse Subs

    Generations of Columbians have developed attachments to the sandwiches at Groucho’s — particularly the canonical STP Dipper, with its bacon bits and gooey cheese. Also, there’s that great crushed ice.

    Best Vegetarian Menu
    Rosewood Market Deli
    Runner-up: Good Life Café

    The deli at Rosewood Market’s been making vegetarian-friendly food for a long time, and it shows — Chef Benoit St. Jacques always strikes the right balance between scrumptious and health-conscious. Oh, man, that vegan gravy.

    Best Barbecue
    Hudson’s Smokehouse
    Runner-up: Shealy’s BBQ

    Hudson’s tender, succulent pulled pork is truly something to behold. And Cheerwine-glazed ribs? That’s a stroke of genius.

    Moe’s wins Best Burrito. file photo

    Best Burrito
    Moe’s Southwest Grill
    Runner-up: Chipotle

    Moe’s knows burritos. They know tacos and quesadillas, too, but their hat is hung on their tightly rolled behemoths. What sets these creations apart is the expansive selection of fresh ingredients — guacamole, cilantro, diced and pickled jalapeños, and corn salsa are available to give your burrito some personality. Pro-tip: Go with the chipotle ranch instead of sour cream for some extra zip.

    Best Pizza
    Mellow Mushroom
    Runner-up: Marco’s Pizza

    It seems kind of ballsy for a major chain restaurant to run with the stoner theme the way Mellow Mushroom does, but it gets away with it because the pizza is so dang good. That dusting of parmesan on the crust … mmm.

    Best Wings
    D’s Wings (Cayce)
    Runner-up: Publick House

    D’s wings are legendary. Whether you like the unusual house recipe for hot wings — which is tomato-based — or one of the many other flavors of fried poultry forelimb, D’s is an excellent place to hang out and plow through great quantities of excellent food.

    Hudson’s Smokehouse wins Best Barbecue, Best Ribs and Best Restaurant in Lexington. file photo

    Best Ribs
    Hudson’s Smokehouse
    Runner-up: Little Pigs Barbecue

    There’s nothing like the taste and texture of meat coming off the bone of a perfectly made rib — and the greasy fingers to remind you that it was worth the effort. Hudson’s does ribs right, giving you yet one more reason to make the trek down 378 to check out this iconic local joint.

    Best Hot Dog
    Sandy’s Famous Hot Dogs
    Runner-up: Rush’s

    So big … so good. A Sandy’s dog comes with as much slaw and chili as the Sandy’s crew can pile on.

    Best Hamburger
    Five Guys Burgers and Fries
    Runner-up: Pawleys Front Porch

    Each year since 2010, Five Guys has won the top spot in the Best of Columbia voting — and for good reason. Yes, you do want to add bacon to your made-to-order burger.

    Best French Fries
    Five Guys Burgers and Fries
    Runner-up: McDonald’s

    They just keep coming and coming — watching those well-seasoned, golden brown fries pouring into your brown paper bag is a beautiful thing. You could order just fries at Five Guys and still have a meal.

    Best Salad goes to California Dreaming. file photo

    Best Salad
    California Dreaming
    Runner-up: Copper River Grill

    We’re convinced Columbians have developed an actual addiction to those little honey croissants that come with the California Dreaming salad, accounting in part for the restaurant’s perennial dominance in this category. As for the salad itself — well, it’s huge and delicious.

    Best Steak
    Ruth’s Chris
    Runner-up: Longhorn Steakhouse

    After eating a steak here, you’ll always want your beef to sizzle when it’s placed in front of you. If you’re serious about steak, you go to Ruth’s Chris.

    Best Taco
    Cantina 76
    Runner-up: San Jose

    With fresh ingredients and flavorful variations on the classic taco — we recommend the Smoked Pork, Peruvian Shrimp or BBQ Brisket — you can’t go wrong with Cantina 76. Oh yeah, and they’re only $2.99 each.

    Miyo’s wins Best Asian Restaurant, Best Chinese Restaurant and runner-up for Best Sushi. file photo

    Best Asian Restaurant
    Runner-up: M Vista

    Where else can you get delicate, delicious sushi and hearty stir-fries, not to mention healthy soups and salads? And that Thai Basil Beef? Yum.

    Cantina 76 wins Best Mexican Restaurant. Photo by Jonathan Sharpe

    Best Mexican Restaurant
    Cantina 76
    Runner-up: San Jose

    With a bold variety of tacos and some excellent margaritas, Cantina 76’s two locations offer up some great Mexican-Southwestern fare.

    Best Chinese Restaurant
    Runner-up: Eggroll Station

    From Shanghai noodles to ginger beef, the Chinese dishes on the menu all have a special flair because the owner, Michelle Wang, hails from China. Definitely a step or three above your typical Chinese joint.

    Best Greek Restaurant
    Runner-up: Grecian Gardens

    Has hosted the Miss South Carolina and Miss Teen South Carolina Pageant contestants for three years running and serves some of the city’s most revered Greek salads and pizzas. Generous portions, family-friendly atmosphere.

    Best Japanese Restaurant
    Miyabi Japanese Steakhouse
    Runner-up: Inakaya

    This Myrtle Beach-based Japanese steakhouse chain has eight locations in Georgia and the Carolinas. It’s doing something right — probably the delicious hibachi-grilled food and the top-notch sushi bar. Doesn’t hurt that the chefs can flip a shrimp into your mouth, either.

    Best Italian Restaurant
    Villa Tronco
    Runner-up: Carrabba’s, Pasta Fresca (TIE)

    When you’re the oldest restaurant in Columbia, you probably know a thing or two about how to make Italian food. Run by three generations of the Tronco family, Villa Tronco serves up some fine pastas and other Italian classics.

    Best Southern Restaurant
    Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Café
    Runner-up: Lizard’s Thicket

    As Mr. Friendly’s has been voted the best restaurant in Columbia, it stands to reason that it’s also the best Southern restaurant in Columbia. That pimento cheese is righteous stuff.

    Bombay Grill (top) ties with Delhi Palace (bottom) for Best Indian Restaurant. file photo

    Best Indian Restaurant
    Bombay Grill and Delhi Palace (TIE)
    Runner-up: Spice Junction

    Whether it’s the Southern Indian zestiness and excellent dosai of Bombay Grill or the broad array of Indian favorites at Delhi Palace, these two restaurants have you covered when it comes to Columbia’s best Indian food.

    Best Cajun Restaurant
    Runner-up: Bojangles’

    It came; it saw; it conquered. Bourbon hasn’t been open long, but it’s already made its way into Columbia’s Cajun-loving heart. Certainly the gumbo helped. And the whiskey.

    Best Thai Restaurant
    Mai Thai
    Runner-up: Basil Thai Cuisine

    Whose Thai? Mai Thai. All our Thai, really. Mai Thai serves up a splendid array of Thai favorites, cooked with love.

    Best Cuban/Caribbean Restaurant
    Mojito’s Tropical Cafe
    Runner-up: Taste of Jamaica

    While it’s currently closed for repairs, Mojito’s has for several years been the prime place to go for the finest Cuban pork around — not to mention its scrumptious salads and excellent tropical cocktails.

    Al-Amir wins Best Middle Eastern Restaurant. file photo

    Best Middle Eastern Restaurant
    Runner-up: Mediterranean Tea Room

    Ah, Al-Amir. Your hummus is so well balanced; your kofta so meaty and pleasantly spiced. We think you’re tops.

    Inakaya wins Best Sushi. file photo

    Best Sushi
    Runner-up: Miyo’s

    Inakaya is a little far out for some Columbia residents, sitting just off of Two Notch Road near I-20, but its fresh and creative selection of sashimi and rolls is well worth a trip. The spicy selections are a cut above those at other area sushi bars, and Inakaya even manages to deliver flash-fried rolls that don’t end up as a greasy mess.

    Best Seafood Restaurant
    Blue Marlin
    Runner-up: Bonefish Grill

    Here’s the catch for seafood restaurants: If you put shrimp and grits on the menu, you had better do it right. If you need a tutorial, order the dish from Blue Marlin. And since you’re there, might as well get the Charleston Crab Cakes, too.

    Best Dessert
    Runner-up: Cupcake

    What do you do when you’re craving a cup of coffee with some white chocolate ginger cheesecake, raspberry cheesecake or a honey walnut tart? You go to Nonnah’s. Has a cozy atmosphere that’s perfect for date night.

    Best Frozen Yogurt
    Runner-up: TCBY

    If you’re looking for the college girls at a bar, you’re in the wrong place — they’re at Yoghut. So are all the 6-year-old soccer players and just about everybody else. It’s not just the frozen yogurt — it’s also all those delicious and sometimes decadent toppings.

    Best Ice Cream
    Marble Slab Creamery
    Runner-up: Cold Stone Creamery

    There might be some hard-hearted person out there who can resist the appeal of creamy, delicious ice cream mixed together with peanut butter, Snickers or whatever else you might be into, but we have yet to meet that person. And when Marble Slab has its cinnamon ice cream out — well, you’d be a fool not to try it.

    Best Mobile Food
    Pawleys Front Porch Truck
    Runner-up: 2 Fat 2 Fly

    Given the hordes that regularly crowd the outdoor area at Pawleys Front Porch, it makes sense that the restaurant would need another outlet to sling its beloved burgers — once featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Seek out the Pawleys truck if the line’s looking long, and you’re too hungry to wait.

    Best Service
    Runner-up: Terra

    You might have some issues with Chick-fil-A’s politics, but that’s no reason to take it out on its front-line employees — who are without a doubt the friendliest, most well-trained and most efficient in the fast-food business.

    Which categories did the readers get right? Which ones did they blow? Which categories should go away — and which ones are missing? Let us know what you think: Email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

    Let us know what you think: Email

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