One evening a few weeks ago, my phone started buzzing with a colorful text message from Soda City Market founder (and American Party candidate for South Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture) Emile DeFelice.
He was letting me and my editor know about the meal he’d had at Arirang, a Korean restaurant on Decker Boulevard. “Holy hell, have y’all eaten at Arirang? Sweet Jesus. Hot spicy chicken.”
He wasn’t plugging one of his market clients. DeFelice is quite the entrepreneur, having grown the privately funded, all-local market he founded 10 years ago from a small handful of vendors to a rotating cast of over 300 businesses, among his other business endeavors. He was just excited about a good meal he’d had in Columbia.
DeFelice’s enthusiasm for good food is palpable when you meet him in person, and he’s not alone. We spoke with several pillars of the city’s food community about the state of Columbia’s food scene, and they all agreed that this is a time of unprecedented culinary diversity and quality in the Capital City.
Which brings us to the real motivation for this week’s story: It’s you, dear reader. Specifically, it’s your appetite. Your interest in good food and beverage options is one of the main factors driving Columbia’s development over the last decade.
By way of example, if you had driven up Main Street from the State House to City Hall on a Saturday night 10 years ago, you would have seen a lot of empty parking spaces. The Sheraton had not yet opened in the Palmetto Building. The Nickelodeon Theatre was still on the south side of the capitol. The Whig did not yet exist. There weren’t many attractions to draw people to eat and drink on Main Street, the capital city’s home address, after work and on the weekend.
Your appetite, and your wallet, is changing that. These days, the Main Street corridor alone boasts the new fine dining restaurants Oak Table and Bourbon, Cowboy Brazilian Steakhouse, and the vegan raw food restaurant Good Life Café, not to mention smaller new restaurants like Cali’s, Michael’s, Olive Grill Mediterranean, M Fresh and Crepes & Croissants, and venerable institutions like Hampton Street Vineyard. The recent growth in Columbia’s food scene hasn’t been limited to new restaurants on Main Street, either. From the growing number of authentic international restaurants on the east and west sides of town, to an uptick in the number of pop-up dinners, to the growing popularity of locally sourced ingredients on menus, much has changed in the past few years. We took a look at why, and what it means for the future of eating in Columbia.
Why the Changes?
What’s behind the changes in Columbia’s food scene? DeFelice sees financial improvement as one of the main reasons.
“The economy is coming back, which in and of itself helps,” DeFelice says. With the return of disposable income, people are vacationing again, he reasons, and broadening their palates along the way. “
When ... people have more money, they are able to travel more, having new experiences, and thus open their minds to lots of things, including new food,” DeFelice says.
Vanessa Driscoll, partner in Farm to Table Event Company, cites a shift in the way restaurants interact with their customers as another factor in the development of Columbia’s food scene. Driscoll and her business partner Eric McClam started the Harvest Dinner series at City Roots four years ago, in which chefs from Columbia’s independent restaurants collaborate on a meal at the urban farm, using local ingredients.
“Some of the most successful restaurants participate in the community, rather than acting as an island unto themselves. Whether it’s working with organizations like Harvest Hope or Sustainable Midlands, or engaging with other restaurants and chefs in a healthy, competitive manner at events, it builds camaraderie.” And the public loves to see that kind of engagement, Driscoll says.
Over the last year, Driscoll says, the increase in demand for the events Farm to Table hosts has been broad-based, with the company adding more dinners to its calendar and more seats at each one. And though they started out with a crowd of familiar foodies at their Harvest Dinners, she says there are new faces at each gathering, especially as they branch into new types of events.
“The oyster and pig roasts, bartender challenge and harvest dinners all draw different crowds,” Driscoll says.
Sustainable local foods are also a booming business.
Columbia has embraced local farms and sustainable agriculture in a serious way. Over the past decade, local farms like City Roots, Freshly Grown Farms, Wil-Moore Farms and others have brought business savvy to their sustainable small scale farming operations, meaning dozens of local restaurants can feature their products regularly. Restaurants from Motor Supply Co. to Terra put a special emphasis on using local products.
And that’s not to mention the world-famous boutique grits mill Anson Mills, which has put South Carolina’s milled corn culture on the map in restaurants far from the Midlands. For the first time, the Midlands is looking at its own food traditions and growing environment for dining inspiration.
Tracie Broom, partner in public relations and event planning firm Flock and Rally, has served as a board member of the Columbia chapter of Slow Food USA since moving back to Columbia in 2009. Broom says the Slow Food Columbia organization has worked to raise the bar for sustainable food practices as a criterion for local businesses, highlighting and partnering with those businesses that share their values.
Broom says one of the organization’s premier events, Slow Food at Indie Grits, which started four years ago as a partnership with the Nickelodeon Theatre’s nationally renowned film festival, has grown each year. The event serves as an egalitarian cooking showcase for area restaurants, caterers and purveyors, along with home cooks who bring locavore themed potluck dishes. Broom sees the value in events like Slow Food at Indie Grits, as well as Sustainable Midlands’ Tasty Tomato Festival, in bringing the community together.
“It’s refreshing to see so many other people who share the same values, enjoying high-quality, delicious heirloom varieties of food,” Broom says. “It spurs you along to continue making conscientious choices.”
Chefs Push Food Culture Forward
The changes to Columbia’s food scene haven’t come by accident. A growing number of chef-owned and chef-driven restaurants have led diners out of their comfort zones of steak, chicken and pasta, using fresh, regional ingredients, both in new ways and forgotten traditions. Where do Columbia chefs get their inspiration? In a recent interview with this writer for Jasper magazine, Terra chef/owner Mike Davis gives credit to the importance of travel in shaping a chef ’s philosophy on food. And not just traveling for the sake of traveling, but bringing that cultural literacy back home with you.
“That was the biggest thing I took from [legendary Birmingham, Alabama chef] Frank Stitt, and the reason I went to work for him,” Davis says. “It wasn’t so much that he had successful restaurants, it was his philosophy on food, Southern food in particular. When he was working at Chez Panisse with Alice Waters, and saw what they were doing in California, he said to himself, ‘Why can I not do this in Alabama?’ That was the genesis of his career, taking European sensibilities about food and making that happen within your space, within your place, with the food around you.”
Ricky Mollohan, executive chef/owner of Cellar on Greene, Mr. Friendly’s and Solstice, sees the inspiration that comes from working in chef-driven restaurants as a magnet for attracting talent in the kitchen. “Restaurants that dedicate themselves to never-changing menus aren’t where the best chefs want to work,” Mollohan says. “They want to work where they have a say in how each day, week, month is going to go as far as what they’re cooking and why they are cooking it.”
Certain chefs and restaurants have pushed Columbia’s food scene forward. Motor Supply Co. was an early proponent of creative, chef-driven food and Ricky Mollohan’s and Kristian Niemi’s restaurant groups have been leaders on the scene. More recently, at Terra, Davis has pushed Columbia’s food scene forward, as have an array of other chefs, from Baan Sawan Thai Bistro’s Alex Suaudom to @116’s Ryan Whittaker. Even coffee shops have upped their game with Sean McCrossin’s pair of Drip locations.
The Role of the Eater
Of course, a healthy food scene can’t exist without intelligent eaters. The recent progress in Columbia’s food scene hasn’t merely descended upon a passive group of diners. Things have also changed because diners are demanding more from the local scene.
And the scene won’t continue to improve without the help of local diners, say the sources we interviewed for this story. Broom views food choices as a ballot box for your values.
“Vote with your dollars,” Broom says. “Be a little bit activist and go for the artisanal ingredients, when you can. Maybe it’s a little more expensive, but it’s your vote for an interesting, sustainable food culture in your city.”
“Columbia has some great chefs,” Driscoll says. “We should be spending more money at home instead of going to Asheville or Charleston for fine dining. The more money we put into the local restaurant scene, the more it will improve,” she says.
While Driscoll calls for local investment, DeFelice advocates traveling to expand your culinary horizons and become a more sophisticated diner. It’s an age-old economic debate, really — building demand or feeding supply.
But at the same time, DeFelice says, stay positive.
“Nothing is more discouraging than hearing people say, ‘There’s not much going on in Columbia’ or ‘Why aren’t we more like Charleston and Greenville?’,” he says, noting that unlike Charleston and Greenville, with their concentrated downtown areas, Columbia’s investment dollars are spread across multiple districts: Five Points, the Vista, downtown, USC, Harbison and, in the future, Bull Street.
“Be proud of Columbia,” says DeFelice. We’re doing great in many ways, despite the circumstances, despite the politics, and sometimes despite ourselves.”
Travel magazines are always on the lookout for what’s cool and under the radar about a place. Here’s what some local people had to say about the hidden gems right here at home.
Tracie Broom: “I’d say it’s our culture of camaraderie, between chefs who enjoy cooking and collaborating with each other at events, going to each other’s restaurants, sitting at the bar and talking shop. You see that happening in big cities, with photos of chefs standing around a pig roast, drinking whiskey and hanging out with each other. Guess what? That happens in Columbia, too.”
Emile DeFelice: “Without question, the most underrated aspect of Columbia’s food scene is the score of interesting, delicious and inexpensive non-American dining and plain, low-brow, unpretentious options.”
Vanessa Driscoll: “Columbia as a whole is underrated. We have some great restaurants. Soda City Market has given the public exposure to some of our great local purveyors. But as far as an underrated aspect, I’d have to say it’s our ethnic food. We have a lot to offer in the way of diversity here. And a lot of great dives, mom & pop diners and Southern food places.”
Saturday, July 19, 4-9 p.m. City Roots, 1005 Airport Blvd.
There are few better demonstrations of Columbia’s love for local, sustainable food than the Palmetto Tasty Tomato Festival. Now in its Fifth year, the festival takes as inspiration the simple tomato — not the rubbery orb available in supermarkets throughout the year, but the juicy, height-of-summer, just-off-the-vine heirloom tomato. It’s a profound argument for eating local, in-season food — and that’s just what local environmental group Sustainable Midlands wants to promote. This year’s festival features an array of local food vendors, including Bone-In Artisan BBQ, Bourbon, Capitol Café and Bakery, Chill Out Pops, Gin’s Juice, Jake’s on Devine, Oak Table, Paradise Ice, Rosewood Market, Rosso, Villa Tronco and many others, plus a bar. Activities include an heirloom tomato tasting, bobbing for commercial tomatoes, kids’ activities and live music. Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the gate. Visit tastytomatofestival.com for more information. — Eva Moore
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