Best of Columbia 2012

By Kara Gunter
Friday, March 22, 2013 |

Readers, you have spoken.

First held in 1989, the annual Free Times readers’ poll is the real, original poll of local residents’ opinions on everything from Best Local Politician to Best Late Night Food. This year, the third year in which the voting was conducted exclusively online, more of you voted than ever before.

While the democratic system might be dysfunctional up in Washington, D.C., it’s working just fine here in Columbia. Your choices pay homage to many of the individuals and institutions that make Columbia a great place to live. And, as always, in a few categories where we feel that a true gem has been overlooked, we’ve weighed in with Writers’ Picks, in which our writers make the case for their personal favorites.

This year, for the first time, we held two rounds of voting: First, a free-form round where we invited nominations; then, a round where readers picked from among the most common three to five nominations in each category.

A further word about how the voting process works: Some newspapers actually ban chain restaurants and businesses from winning their readers’ polls, and some readers have asked Free Times to institute a similar policy. Our reply? We can and do encourage you to support local businesses in your voting, but it would be fundamentally undemocratic to tell you whom you can and cannot vote for.

Congratulations to all winners and runners-up: The people have spoken, and your crowns are well deserved. — Dan Cook

Local Media

Best Local TV News: WIS (NBC)
Runner-up: WLTX (CBS)
Our own bias is toward the print media, but when you’re choosing among local TV news stations, WIS is still the definitive, go-to source for breaking local news. Whether it’s an impending storm, a downtown shooting or a snake in a tree, WIS is consistently working to stay ahead of the competitors nipping at its heels.

Best Anchorperson: Judi Gatson (WIS)
Runner-up: Dawndy Mercer-Plank (WIS)
These two WIS heavyweights have both seen their share of Best of Columbia awards, but the 2012 trophy goes to Judi Gatson. Since joining WIS in 1995, Gatson has covered everything from hurricanes to presidential primaries. She’s also nabbed three regional Emmy awards. And in case you hadn’t heard, she and her husband recently adopted another son. Congrats on both counts, Judi.

Best Weatherperson: Ben Tanner (WIS)
Runner-up: Jim Gandy (WLTX)
More than 2,200 heat records were broken in the U.S. in June, and one of those was right here in Columbia, where the mercury hit an unprecedented 113 degrees on June 29. So, yeah, it’s an interesting time to be in the weather business. Ben Tanner, an Atlanta native who’s been with WIS since 1998, holds both the American Meteorological Society’s Television Seal of Approval and National Weather Association’s Seal of Approval. When he’s not predicting when the next storm will hit, Tanner might also be found working on his house or watching the soccer action downtown at Owens Field.

Best Sportscaster: Rick Henry (WIS)
Runner-up: Reggie Anderson (WLTX)
Rick Henry joined WIS in 1988 and became the station’s sports director in 1996. Prior to his position at WIS, he worked at WPDE-TV in Florence, where in 1981 he became the first black sports director for a South Carolina TV station. In 2005, his sportscast was selected as the best in South Carolina by the Associated Press. Along the way, he’s also picked up two regional Emmy awards.

Best Local Website - News:
You like us. You really like us.

Best Local Website - Sports:
Makes sense — the station with the Best Local Sportscaster obviously provides first-rate coverage of sports in the Midlands.

Best Local Website – Music and Entertainment:
You really, really like us!

Best Radio Station: 96.7 Steve FM
Runner-up: 104.7 WNOK FM
Sometimes you just want to hear something you know you’re going to like. For that, you can turn to your old pal Steve FM.

Best Local Radio Personality: Jonathon Rush (97.5 FM WCOS)
Runner-up: Matt Lee (93.5 WARQ), Steve Varholy (99.3 FM WXRY) (tie)
For a while, poor Jonathon Rush was getting blasted on the Rant & Rave page for everything from his wardrobe to his hairstyle. In case you don’t know, though, here’s a little secret: The Best of Columbia poll is a more representative sample of local taste than the rant line. Congratulations, Jonathon.

Best Media Hog: Gov. Nikki Haley
Runner-up: S.C. Sen. Jake Knotts
Look, most of Gov. Nikki Haley’s media-hogging isn’t intentional — she’d be happy if we in the local media only reported on her successes in attracting jobs to the state, leaving her to be an occasional talking head on Fox News. But Haley can’t stay out of the headlines, whether it’s for kicking Occupy Columbia protestors off the State House grounds, having formal ethics complaints filed against her or refusing to answer questions from local reporters. Oink oink.

Politics & City Life

Biggest Improvement in Columbia: Whole Foods Coming to Columbia
Runner-up: The Vista
It’s a sure sign Columbia has arrived: The Cross Hill Market at Devine Street and Jackson Boulevard is bringing in a Whole Foods, the natural food megagrocer, to anchor the shopping center. It’ll open later this year.

Best Use of Public Funds: Riverwalk Park
Runner-up: Main Street Improvements
The City of Columbia has been slow to get behind completion of its portion of Riverwalk Park, but you, readers, have it right: This is a worthwhile investment. It’s about time we started getting the full benefits out of our rivers — recreation-wise, as well as environmentally and economically.

Biggest Waste of Public Funds: Gov. Nikki Haley
Runner-up: Occupy Columbia
How many years has Free Times been publishing its Best of Columbia survey? This is the 24th. How many times has a person won in this category? As far as we can tell, just twice — and it was Gov. Haley both times. Maybe it’s time to jump ship, Haley staffers, before you step across the political Bridge to Nowhere.

Best Local Politician: Mayor Steve Benjamin
Runner-up: U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson
We could do without a Walmart on the soon-to-be former site of Capital City Stadium, but there’s no doubt Mayor Steve Benjamin has ushered in a new era of energy and momentum on City Council. Here’s to Benjamin for his refreshing sense of optimism about what Columbia can be and his tireless efforts to make his ideas reality.

Scariest Local Politician: Gov. Nikki Haley
Runner-up: S.C. Sen. Jake Knotts
The 2012 Kids Count Report ranks South Carolina 43rd for the well-being of its children. A recent Harvard study shows a link between expanded Medicaid programs and lower death rates. Seems the logical thing to do, then, would be to expand Medicaid — largely with federal money — to improve the well-being of our kids. Kind of funny then that our governor has made a career out of just saying no to the federal government. Or maybe not.

Biggest Disappointment This Year: Gov. Nikki Haley
Runner-up: Sale of Capital City Stadium to Walmart
We get it, readers: You don’t like the governor.

Best Activist Group or Effort: Pawmetto Lifeline
Runner-up: SC Pride
There are more than 21,000 homeless pets in the Columbia area. Pawmetto Lifeline works to give shelter pets homes — and to educate pet owners about spaying and neutering so as to reduce this problem in the future.

Biggest Local Hero: Ray Tanner
Runner-up: Michael Roth
He led the Gamecock baseball team to back-to-back national championships, and almost took a third at this year’s College World Series. Now, Ray Tanner’s set to lead the University of South Carolina to unprecedented heights at the school’s new athletic director. He can be your hero, baby.

Biggest Local Zero: Gov. Nikki Haley
Runner-up: S.C. Sen. Jake Knotts
Wow, you guys really hate Gov. Haley.

Best Charity: Harvest Hope Food Bank
Runner-up: Pets Inc
Most charities can’t boast the reach and the impact of Harvest Hope, which feeds thousands of hungry people each week.

Best Green Business or Initiative: All-Local Farmers Market
Runner-up: City Roots Farm
Every Saturday morning and Wednesday evening you’ll find the best local, organic and sustainable farmers, dairy farmers, ranchers, flower growers, crafters and more selling their wares — not to mention fresh food and drink and beautiful people.

Biggest “Our Dumb State” Moment: “It’s a great day in South Carolina”
Runner-up: Attempted eviction of Occupiers
Uh, it’s not always a great day in South Carolina. That’s why our Our Dumb State series exists.

Best Place to Take Out-of-Towners: Riverbanks Zoo
Runner-up: The Vista
George and Gwen Kellerman, the central characters of Neil Simon’s The Out-of-Towners, rejected the upwardly mobile move to New York City. But we think the Ohio natives would have loved our wholly charming zoo.

Best Neighborhood Shandon
Runner-up: Forest Acres
With its red-brick bungalows, tree-lined sidewalks and exquisitely landscaped front yards, Shandon is the most coveted — and despised — of all Columbia neighborhoods. It’s pretty much like this: If you’re not condemning Shandon’s liberal elitism, you’re trying to buy a house there. Some of you are even doing both at the same time. Vivan las Shandonistas!

Best New Home Community: Saluda River Club
Runner-up: Rosewood Hills
In 2009, Saluda River Club became the first Midlands community to win the Best in American Living Award for Community Design. Built on 235 acres along the Saluda River, Saluda River Club integrates a wide range of home designs — everything from town homes, cottages and single-family homes in a walkable village district to estate-style homes on large wooded sites — into a beautiful natural setting that includes nature trails, two clubhouses and a river launch.

Best Apartment Complex: Granby and Olympia Mills
Runner-up: Canalside Lofts
New apartment complexes are popping up all the time, but judging by the results in this category, Granby and Olympia Mills are more than holding their own against the competition.

Best Annual Event or Festival: South Carolina State Fair
Runner-up: St. Patrick’s Day in Five Points
What’s the subtext of the State Fair’s win in this category, typically dominated by the St. Pat’s in Five Points Festival? Maybe voters are trying to say that the St. Pat’s fest is in decline. Maybe it’s because The Roots — The Roots! — played last year’s State Fair. Really, it’s probably just the elephant ears.

Best Art Gallery: 701 Center for Contemporary Art
Runner-up: City Art
Remember that robot show? The one where David Cianni made all those incredible, cyborg-like sculptures out of leftovers from a machine shop? Yeah, that was amazing.

Best Local or Regional Museum: South Carolina State Museum
Runner-up: Columbia Museum of Art
Readers, your government has tried to lay waste to the State Museum repeatedly, either through an outright veto of the museum’s budget (Gov. Mark Sanford) or through death by a thousand cuts (its staffing level is about half what it was a decade ago). Nonetheless, the museum keeps on task with exhibitions ranging from South Carolina painters and photographers to artifacts from the Titanic. If you like what the museum is doing, it wouldn’t hurt to drop your legislator a line.

Best Dance Company: Columbia City Ballet
Runner-up: Southern Strutt
In a city brimming with dance talent of every variety, the Columbia City Ballet is the only company that’s been able, decade after decade, to transcend niche status and consistently appeal to the broadest swathe of local audiences.

Best Local Theater Company: Trustus Theatre
Runner-up: Town Theatre
It speaks volumes of Columbia’s slowly building arts savviness that the edgiest theater in town has also been voted its best. Congratulations to outgoing founders Jim and Kay Thigpen for giving Columbia a much-loved local institution.

Best Local Theater Production: Avenue Q – Trustus Theatre
Runner-up: Passing Strange – Trustus Theatre
Well chosen, readers. This raunchy, witty, not-for-the-prissy coming-of-age musical starring hand puppets was one of the longest-running shows on Broadway. The local production at Trustus was brilliant. What’s more, every time you see one of the actors around town at their day job, that infectious song pops right back into your head. You know the one.

Best Movie Theater: Columbiana Grande
Runner-up: Nickelodeon Theatre
Regal’s Harbison-area Columbiana Grande theatre is big and clean. Its seats are comfortable. Its snack bar offers a bounty of tasty treats. It even occasionally brings in artsier movies. Best of all: Its air conditioning is powerful. Yeah, readers, it’s a pretty nice movie theater.


Best New Restaurant: Cowboy Brazilian Steakhouse
Runner-up: Café Caturra
If you want proof that we Columbians really love our meat, the success of upstart all-you-can-eat Brazilian steakhouse Cowboy shows we’ll support someone who brings us sizzling steaks on skewers. And if you want proof that Main Street really is coming back, the throngs of people at Cowboy should be your answer.

Best Restaurant: Mr. Friendly’s
Runner-up: Motor Supply Company
For years, Mr. Friendly’s has been setting the standard for upscale yet casual Southern food, excellent service, great drinks and an all-around splendid dining experience.

Best Place for a First Date: Gervais and Vine
Runner-up: Hunter-Gatherer
The key to tapas is sharing. So, once you’ve got a glass of wine in your hand and a table laid out with seared scallops, sautéed spinach and garlic parmesan fries, the conversation and romance should come easily. If it doesn’t, then order another glass of wine — or chalk this up as your last date, too.

Best Late Night Food: Cook-Out
Runner-up: Waffle House
It’s 3 a.m. You’re in a taxi, headed home after a night of bourbon-and-sodas and carousing. And in the distance you see the warm glow of the Cook-Out sign. Yeah, you’re gonna pay that extra cab fare to go through the drive-thru. You’re gonna buy the driver a chocolate-banana milkshake, too, because you’re just that nice. Cook-Out brings out the good in all of us.

Best Place to Dine Outdoors: Pawleys Front Porch
Runner-up: Carolina Ale House
Rain or shine, the deck at Pawleys Front Porch is always full. Why’s that? It might be the comings and goings on Harden Street, but more likely it’s the fantastic burgers. Feeling traditional? Try the Front Porch burger. More adventurous? The Beaufort burger is served with an onion ring, a fried egg, apple-cured ham and cheddar cheese.

Best Take Out Food: Miyo’s
Runner-up: Moe’s Southwest Grill
If you live in Columbia, you’ve likely heard of Michelle Wang and the culinary empire she’s been building since she emigrated from China 16 years ago. With eight Asian restaurants throughout the city serving fresh, healthy Asian cuisine — and a ninth on the way — it’s no surprise that readers have noticed. Located on South Main Street in the shadow of the State House, Miyo’s is a venerable take-out institution among university types, the downtown business crowd and the politicos up the block.

Best Bang for the Buck: Moe’s Southwest Grill
Runner-up: Cook-Out
You’re broke. You are, let’s say, a teenage girl or a college boy, which means you have the metabolism of an army of mutant killer hummingbirds. You need protein. You need carbohydrates. You need a giant, foil-wrapped scepter of cheesy, rice-filled doom. You need a half-gallon of soda. You need 10 fistfuls of tortilla chips, because the burrito wasn’t enough. Welcome to Moe’s.

Best Wine List:Gervais and Vine
Runner-up: Cellar on Greene
While some people might be looking for a cellar full of expensive rare wines and a trilingual sommelier, most of just want an interesting, well-curated list of wines at multiple price points and with lots of by-the-glass options. Whether you’re well acquainted with the finer points of white Bordeaux or just want the server to recommend something kind of sweet, Gervais and Vine is your place.

Best Coffee: Starbucks
Runner-up: Drip
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Starbucks is evil. It’s killing the local coffeeshop. Its roasts are inferior. But until Drip opens a satellite location on Main Street, we’re looking to Starbucks when we need a quick turnaround on a venti drip.

Best Sweet Tea: Groucho’s Deli
Runner-up: Chick-fil-A
We’ve had sweet tea at many, many restaurants, but with something as ubiquitous as sweet tea in the South, we’d be fools to say we’ve tried it all. So, we will defer to the wisdom of the crowd on this one: If you say Groucho’s has the best sweet tea in town, then surely it must be so. Goes quite nicely with an Apollo Dipper, too.

Best Breakfast: Café Strudel
Runner-up: Original Pancake House
Café Strudel is hangover heaven, and it even has a famous breakfast dish that’s appropriately named for it: Hangover Hash Browns. Maybe you’re heard of them. Maybe you’ve had them. The whimsical atmosphere, low price points, and diner-style breakfast platters make this Vista West institution a must-stop for the morning-hour munchies.

Best Brunch: DiPrato’s
Runner-up: Café Strudel
A bustling, casual brunch spot, DiPrato’s always offers up the tastiest specials and best old standbys.

Best Deli/Sub/Sandwich Shop: Groucho’s
Runner-up: Firehouse Subs
Groucho’s opened in 1941 as a store that later became a deli, and it’s been churning out classic food ever since. The delectable STP Dipper and 45 Sauce have fed generations of Columbians. And the ice — oh, the ice! 

Best Vegetarian Menu: Rosewood Market
Runner-up: Blue Cactus
Rosewood and Shandon residents know the small deli tucked inside this natural foods store is the place to go for vegetarian and vegan fare, not to mention weekend brunch on the porch.

Best Barbecue: Hudson’s Smokehouse
Runner-up: Little Pigs
Hudson’s tender, succulent pulled pork is truly something to behold. And Cheerwine-glazed ribs? That’s a stroke of genius.

Best Burrito: Moe’s Southwest Grill
Runner-up: El Burrito
You might have noticed those Moe’s billboards with the bearded kid; they’re an effort to make sure you know about the restaurant’s all-natural, cage-free chicken and hormone-free, grass-fed steak. If that’s what you care about, great. But most of you probably just want a burrito the size of your head, filled with all the grilled meat, rice, beans, cheese and salsa a rational human could ever desire.

Best Pizza: Mellow Mushroom
Runner-up: Village Idiot
A recent trip to Mellow Mushroom yielded an amazing discovery: the Red Skin Potato Pie, a pizza loaded not only with red potatoes, but also applewood-smoked bacon, caramelized onions, cheddar, mozzarella and — bear with us here — drizzled with sour cream and spicy ranch dressing. Decadent? Hell yes. Amazing? It was so good we thought we might be hallucinating.

Best Chicken Wings: 2 Fat 2 Fly
Runner-up: Wild Wing Café
Sometimes nice guys finish first. The perfectly fried stuffed wings and good humor served up by these local food truck entrepreneurs are one of the best things to happen to Columbia’s food scene in recent years.

Best Ribs
Hudson’s Smokehouse
Runner-up: Carolina Wings and Rib House
It’s one thing to make ribs; it’s another thing entirely to make them right. We don’t profess to know Hudson’s secret, but its fantastic ribs are just 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
When you step up to the counter at Sandy’s to place your order, they actually write it down rather than punching it into a touch screen. The same old-school touch goes into their hot dogs: They’re famous because they’re delicious, so why change? Huge and grilled to perfection, 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

Free Times devoted an entire cover package to awesome local hamburgers last year. But we can’t argue with you here: Five Guys’ fresh, made-to-order burgers are delicious, dripping with cheese and grease, and loaded with toppings.

Best French Fries
Five Guys Burgers and Fries
Runner-up: Pawleys Front Porch
Have you ever asked for a large order of fries at Five Guys? We certainly hope not, because a small order can easily feed a family of four. Sure, the burgers are pretty great, but the Five Guys chain is probably even better known for its fries.

Best Salad
California Dreaming
Runner-up: Zaxby’s
What’s in the California Dreaming Salad? Mixed greens, shredded ham and turkey, cheddar and Monterey jack cheese, chopped eggs, tomatoes and toasted almonds — all topped with warm Hormel ham and bacon. A salad at California Dreaming is not just a side item; it’s a heaping, fresh meal unto itself. Dive in.

Best Steak
Ruth’s Chris Steak House
Runner-up: Longhorn Steakhouse
Where are you going to get a dry-aged prime steak in Columbia? Ruth’s Chris, that’s where.

Best Taco
Cantina 76
Runner-up: Moe’s Southwest Grill
You wised up, readers. Last year, you picked Taco Bell; this year, you chose this loosely Southern-inspired, upscale-ish Shandon Tex-Mex joint, which offers some pretty primo fillings in its tacos, from spicy beef brisket to smoky pulled pork. (Pro tip: Try the chimichanga.)

Best Asian Restaurant
Runner-up: Mai Thai
From sushi to stir fry to saucy steamed dumplings, everything that comes out of the various Miyo’s kitchens is tasty. Still, the extensive menu can be a lot to absorb at once, so here are a couple of recommendations: Seaweed Salad and Thai Basil Beef.

Best Mexican Restaurant
San Jose
Runner-up: Casa Linda
If your definition of great Mexican food involves a big menu of classic Mexican-American combination plates, sizzling fajitas and cold draft beer, you probably already know about the San Jose restaurants, three of which call the Midlands their home.

Best Chinese Restaurant
Runner-up: Eggroll Chen
Miyo’s makes all kinds of good Asian food, but because owner Michelle Wang hails from China, the Chinese dishes on the menu have a special flair. From the Shanghai noodles to the ginger beef, this is some fresh, tasty fare — definitely a step or three above what people generally think of as Chinese food.

Best Italian Restaurant
Runner-up: Villa Tronco
When you want spot-on chicken parmigiana and a romantic yet family-friendly environment, you go to Carrabba’s.

Best Greek Restaurant
Runners-up: Mediterranean Tea Room
This longtime Columbia institution serves up fine versions of Greek classics, including 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
From soft-shell crab and Oriental fried chicken to sushi, squid and filet mignon, Miyabi serves up delectable Japanese favorites.

Best Southern Restaurant
Mr. Friendly’s
Runner-up: Lizard’s Thicket
Who fries those green tomatoes better than anyone else in town? Mr. Friendly’s, that’s who.

Best Indian Restaurant
Delhi Palace

Runner-up: Bombay Grill
A Columbia institution, Delhi Palace has all the chicken tikka masala you can shake a stick at.

Best Thai Restaurant
Mai Thai
Runners-up: Thai Lotus
In The Simpsons episode “Homer to the Max,” Homer meets Trent Steel, a successful yuppie businessman. Steel asks Homer to lunch, asking if he likes Thai. Homer’s reply: “Thai good. You like shirt?” Point being: Mai Thai is delicious.

Best Latin/Cuban Restaurant
Runner-up: Cowboy Brazilian Steakhouse
Empanadas! Cuban pulled pork! Avocado pie!

Best Middle Eastern Restaurant
Runner-up: Mediterranean Tea Room
With Middle Eastern restaurants, it’s the simple things that make a difference: perfectly seasoned hummus; golden-brown flatbreads; tender spiced lamb. Al-Amir nails them all.

Best Sushi
Runner-up: SakiTumi
The competition in this category is stiff, what with such heavyweight contenders as Camon, Inakaya, SakiTumi and more. But when Miyo’s does something, it commits fully — and clearly sushi lovers have noticed.

Best Seafood Restaurant
Blue Marlin
Runner-up: Bonefish Grill
It’s not just that Blue Marlin has the best seafood in Columbia. It does. But this is the Best Seafood Restaurant category, and Blue Marlin’s ambience ranges from casual to elegant, friendly to romantic, and its service is top-notch. And those grit cakes. My god, those grit cakes.

Best Dessert
Runner-up: Cupcake
There are plenty of places you can go to grab a scoop of ice cream or yogurt. But what if you’re craving a cup of coffee and some Raspberry Cheesecake, California Almond Cake or a Honey Walnut Tart? Then you go to Nonnah’s.

Best Frozen Yogurt/Ice Cream
Runner-up: Yumilicious
When you drive by the corner of Main Street and Blossom Street, you’ll almost always see college students sitting on the steps of Yoghut, devouring toppings-filled frozen delights. Step inside and you might see a pack of 6-year-olds piling cups high full of yogurt, sprinkles and, uh, Cinnamon Toast Crunch. If you have yet to try these frozen goodies, maybe you should.

Best Mobile Food
Pawleys Front Porch
Runner-up: Bone-In Artisan BBQ
When the Pawleys truck pulls up, you know juicy burgers are in store.

Best Service
Runner-up: Mr. Friendly’s
Unless you’re gay.

Best Concert
Red Hot Chili Peppers at Colonial Life Arena
Runner-up: George Clinton and P Funk at Famously Hot New Year’s
The Red Hot Chili Peppers are a radically different band than they were at their last performance in Columbia. (Note: At the Huger Street Concert Hall, on the Uplift Mofo Party Tour, in 1987.) The old galactic funk-punk might have given way to stadium-sized pop-rock, but the Peppers — pushing 50, and now rock ‘n’ roll lifers some 29 years after their first gig — can still bring it.

Best Music Venue
Colonial Life Arena
Runner-up: New Brookland Tavern
The perfect place to catch a concert with your friends — all 15,000 of them.

Best Blues or Jazz Club
Runner-up: Speakeasy
Speakeasy does it more often, and Conundrum does it better (if weirder), but the home of jazz in Columbia is still Thursday nights at Hunter-Gatherer, where first horn blower Skipp Pearson still holds court.

Best Karaoke
Mr. B’s Goodtime Karaoke Explosion – Art Bar
Runner-up: DJ Ray’s Karaoke - The Saloon
Better to burn out: Mr. B swept the Best Karaoke category in the eight years he ran the Karaoke Explosion at Art Bar. And for good reason: the all-natural double-plus karaoke host made it his mission to have fun or die trying. What will we do with our Wednesday nights, now? And who’ll take up his crown? Who has survived, and what will be left of them?

Best Local Band
Weaving the Fate
Runner-up: Alter Ego
“Str8 to the Bottom”? More like straight to the top: Having inked a deal with Universal Records last year, Weaving the Fate could be the biggest thing from Columbia since Crossfade — or maybe even since Hootie.

Best Local Solo Artist
Danielle Howle
Runner-up: Adam Cross, Jessica Skinner (tie)
Though she calls the Lowcountry Awendaw Green compound home now, the inimitable Danielle Howle will always be from Columbia.

Best CD Store
Papa Jazz
Runner-up: Manifest
Really, Papa Jazz is the best place in town to buy music on any format.

Best Store For Vinyl
Papa Jazz
Runner-up: Manifest
The record industry is dying, but Papa Jazz is still alive and well. That must be because it kicks ass, especially when it comes to LPs and seven-inches, 45s and 78s.

Best Musical Instrument Store
Runner-up: Sims Music
Need a guitar? A keyboard? A tuba? Pecknel’s got you covered, and has been serving all your musical needs for more than 50 years.

Best Recording Studio
The Jam Room
Runner-up: Archer Avenue Studio
Yes, readers, Jay Matheson’s local-institution studio is where not only local but regional and national bands — among The Jam Room’s lengthy client list: Band of Horses; Kylesa; Big Boi — go to lay down tracks. And its new Boom Room hip-hop studio is cornering the local rap game. But kudos also to the runner-up, Kenny McWilliams and Eric McCoy’s little-studio-that-could Archer Avenue, runner-up for the second year running.

Clubs & Bars
Best New Bar or Club
World of Beer
Runner-up: Tap Room
Comfy seating, knowledgeable servers and a devastatingly long menu of fine craft beers, both bottled and draft? Smells like World of Beer.

Best Bar or Club
Art Bar
Runner-up: Tin Roof
The Vista wasn’t always known as a haven for tourists from Irmo, and as long as the Art Bar is standing it will never be just that, either. Art Bar was a Vista pioneer and it continues to attract the city’s most forward-thinking partiers with its sensibly priced booze, kickass bar staff, super-hip vibe … and robots.

Best Bar to Go to with Only $10 to Your Name
The Whig
Runner-up: Art Bar
Dollar slices and $2 drinks on Monday. Seventy-five-cent tacos on Tuesdays. Cheap pints on Wednesdays. Dirt-cheap nightly happy hour specials. Heck, you could probably last an entire week at the Whig on a sawbuck.

Best Place to Pick Up Guys
Art Bar
Runner-up: World of Beer
See a cute dude at Art Bar, and you’ve got lots of ways you could get somewhere with him. Make small talk while you’re both waiting for the bartender to catch your eye. Sidle up next to him while he’s watching a band and say something funny about the drummer. Squeeze by him a little too closely when he’s crammed between the bar and the wall. Hell, if you’re desperate enough you could “accidentally” walk in on him in the boy’s room. Not that we’d recommend such a thing, of course.

Best Place to Pick Up Girls
Liberty Tap Room
Runner-up: Art Bar
Why Liberty? Because it just seems like the type of place you could pick up a girl that you could take home, but also take home to mother.

Best Bathroom Wall Wisdom
Art Bar
Runner-up: Village Idiot
You’re standing there, you’ve been done with your business for five minutes, and some guy is banging on the stall door behind you. But you don’t care — you can’t look away. Read that one again. No, don’t call the number; that would be twisted. Now read the one to your left. Yeah, that’s the one. Read it again. Remember it. It changed our lives, too.

Best Bar Trivia
Flying Saucer
Runner-up: Publick House
Trivia, readers, is a lot like porridge. Sometimes, it’s too hot. (Read: Mental Floss lunchtime quiz hard.) Sometimes, it’s too cold. (Like, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader easy.) Flying Saucer’s Tuesday Trivia Bowl is just right: Difficult enough to be mentally stimulating, simple enough to do when you’re sloshed.

Best Bar Service
Thirsty Fellow
Runner-up: Art Bar
Competent, friendly (but not too friendly) adults: That’s who’s pulling the tap handles at Thirsty Fellow.

Best College Bar
Village Idiot
Runner-up: Sharky’s
It’s hard to say when exactly Village Idiot became known as a college bar. Then again, it’s hard to say which bars in Five Points are “college bars” and which ones are really just “neighborhood bars.” Village Idiot straddled that line for a long time, but with this year’s ranking, it looks like the upstairs restaurant and bar with booths, tables and a big-screen TV has officially crossed into the college bar category. Now that it’s there, here’s a word of advice for the woo-college crowd: If you can make up those stairs, then you clearly haven’t reached your limit yet. Party on.

Best Dance Club
Art Bar
Runner-up: Salsa Cabana
No, sweetie, you’re not hallucinating, that is a wall of robots dancing next to you. No, babe, seriously, we didn’t dose you, those are three brick walls of neon graffiti. Honey, please, we wouldn’t waste our stash on your ass, that really is a band covering The Smiths under a spinning disco ball, in front of a wall of TVs all set to Planet of the Apes. Darling, chill out, you’re just at the Art Bar. Now, let’s get down.

Best Neighborhood Bar - Downtown/The Vista
Carolina Ale House
Runner-up: Thirsty Fellow
Beloved by none other Gov. Nikki Haley and her staff, the Ale House lets you sit indoors or out — or at the bar that serves both.

Best Neighborhood Bar - Five Points
Runner-up: Group Therapy
The idea of the neighborhood bar is that it’s somewhere you can go where everyone knows your name, where you’ll always see someone you know, and you always know what you’re in for. In Five Points, that bar is Delaney’s. Great food, personable staff, live music and a vibrant atmosphere — but get there early, as it fills up fast, especially on pint nights.

Best Neighborhood Bar - Shandon/Rosewood/Forest Acres
Publick House
Runner-up: Cock & Bull Pub
When you think “neighborhood bar,” perhaps no place comes to mind quite like Publick House if you live in the leafy neighborhoods surrounding Five Points. This restaurant and bar just has that homey feeling, and it’s staffed with servers and bartenders who’ve been there for a while — long enough to remember you, and probably call you by name. Whether you’re there for the famous wings or pub bread; a round of pool in the side room; a game of darts in the back room; or to watch a soccer match with your mates, Publick House has you covered.

Best Neighborhood Bar - Harbison/Irmo
British Bulldog Pub
Runner-up: Carolina Ale House
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron might consider Salt Lake City “the middle of nowhere,” but no doubt he’d feel right at home in Harbison.

Best Neighborhood Bar - St. Andrews/Dutch Square
Wild Hare
Runner-up: Wings and Ale
This well-known sports bar is known for its specialty burgers, sandwiches and chicken plates as much as its TV-in-every-line-of-sight atmosphere, full range of sports broadcasts and trivia.

Best Neighborhood Bar - West Columbia/Cayce: New Brookland Tavern
Runner-up: State Street Pub
The New Brookland Tavern is frequented by a flock of regulars who come there even when there aren’t bands playing — or even when they hate the bands. That’s loyalty.

Best Neighborhood Bar - Lexington: Mellow Mushroom
Runner-up: Main Street Café
If you try all the beers Mellow Mushroom has to offer, they’ll give you your own engraved mug and a plaque on the wall. Yeah, there is more to Mellow Mushroom than great pizza.

Best Neighborhood Bar - Northeast: Solstice Kitchen
Runner-up: Polliwogs
With a friendly staff, an impressive list of wines and after-dinner drinks, and a fantastic menu — lamb meatballs! Braised buffalo quesadillas! Cajun-seared black grouper! — Solstice is a great neighborhood bar and then some.

Best Outdoor Deck: Carolina Ale House
Runner-up: Pawley’s Front Porch
There are any number of local restaurants and bars with outdoor decks that do a fine job facilitating merriment and camaraderie, but rather fewer that offer a decent view. With its bird’s eye view of the bustling Vista, it’s hard to compete with the deck at Carolina Ale House.

Best People-Watching Bar: Art Bar
Runner-up: Carolina Ale House
If you disagree with our readers’ collective wisdom here, it’s because you’ve never actually been to Art Bar, a haven for Columbia’s artistic and musical elites as well as a full complement of freaks, geeks, Greeks and the, uh, tweaked.

Best Gay Bar: Art Bar
Runner-up: PT’s 1109
Let’s be clear here: Art Bar is not a gay bar, per se; it’s an open-minded place where people of any sexual orientation are welcome. In these parts, though, that’s apparently enough to take top prize.

Best Adult Entertainment Venue: Platinum Plus
Runner-up: Heartbreakers
Hey fellas, how do you get to Platinum? Take I-26 to Bush River Road. Hey ladies, how do you get there? Practice, practice, practice. A straight-up institution in Columbia’s adult night life, this fine establishment serves up the best, shall we say, talent, that Columbia has to offer.

Best Sports Bar: Carolina Ale House
Runner-up: Buffalo Wild Wings
Have you seen the size of that gigantic pull-down screen Carolina Ale House has? It’s the next best thing to being in Williams-Brice on a Saturday afternoon. And with a better beer selection, to boot. Sports bars live or die on the basis of food, beer and TVs; Carolina Ale House has you covered on all counts.

Best Happy Hour: Village Idiot
Runner-up: Pearlz Oyster Bar
Want to know where to go between the hours of 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.? Sounds like you already know, reader. With its great prices, entertaining bar staff, hometown atmosphere and inimitable smell of the pizza oven filling the entire joint, Village Idiot has become a Five Points institution among the college crowd and beyond — even before and after happy hour.

Best Beer Selection: Flying Saucer
Runner-up: World of Beer
No doubt Flying Saucer had some new competition this year, but they still pulled down the top spot. Why? Because they’ve set the bar high. Very high.

Best Craft Beer Selection: World of Beer
Runner-up: Hunter-Gatherer
If you’re looking to try, say, a horizontal tasting of small-batch Flemish sour ales, then World of Beer is definitely your place.

Best Margarita: Cantina 76
Runner-up: Mucho Margaritas
Wasting away again in Margaritaville, are you? Well, you likely aren’t wasting a drop if you’re at Cantina 76. The restaurant’s eight specialty margaritas — the Prickly Pear and the Strawberry Basil caught our eye — are each served with one of their 11 (yes, we said 11) different types of tequila. No wonder Cantina 76 has won this category three years running.

Best Specialty Drink: Mojitos
Runner-up: Motor Supply Company
Chances are you can’t jet off to the tropics for a specialty cocktail on a whim, so it looks like you’ve found the next best thing. Mojitos Tropical Cafe serves inspiring drinks in interesting glassware. Try one of their signature mojitos with real muddled fruit and sugar.

Goods and Services

Best New Car Dealership: Jim Hudson Automotive Group
Runner-up: Dick Smith Nissan
Founded in 1980, the Jim Hudson Automotive Group is a family-owned business offering a huge selection of vehicles and emphasizing customer service. “Automotive group” covers a lot of territory here: Buick, Cadillac, Ford, GMC, Hyundai, Lexus, Saab, Scion and Toyota, to be exact.

Best Used Car Dealership: CarMax
Runner-up: Jim Hudson Automotive Group
CarMax was built on an idea whose time had come: Making car-buying feel less sleazy. CarMax recognized that people hate haggling with used-car salesmen, and they did something about it — they set fixed prices and structured their salespeople’s commissions so they don’t have an incentive to screw you over. Wow, what a concept.

Best Motorcycle Store: Harley Haven
Runner-up: Thunder Tower Harley-Davidson
Look, when you want a hog, you don’t want some namby-pamby, crotch-rocket dirt bike. No, you want a hog — a real, fire-breathing, Peter Fonda in Easy Rider chopper. So what do you do? You get yourself a freaking Harley-Davidson. And where do you get it? Harley Haven, of course. Oh, and if you’re one of those mid-life crisis dudes who’s never flogged it down the big slab? They’ll teach you how to ride it, too.

Best Auto Repair: Nuttall Tire and Battery
Runner-up: Complete Car Care
Of course it’s the best in town: This one-stop auto-service shop on Millwood has been in business for 30 years and is an accredited member of the Better Business Bureau with an A+ rating. What, did you think we were going to make a joke on the name? For shame, reader.

Best Hair Salon: Bombshell Beauty Studio
Runner-up: Shear Xpectations
Whether your style is retro glam or modern natural — and especially if it’s some combination of the two — Bombshell will do your ’do just right.

Best Day Spa: Urban Nirvana
Runner-up: Occo Skin Studio
Your girlfriend’s birthday is coming up again, and you don’t know what to get her. Flowers die. Chocolates melt. But you know how she acts after she’s spent a day with Urban Nirvana’s professional and attentive staff. Yeah, she loves you, too, but that relaxed smile and radiant glow is from the massage, not your lame jokes and unique personality.

Best Yoga Studio: City Yoga
Runner-up: Yoga Masala
There are a lot of gyms and studios that will teach you a half-decent Warrior II pose. But for the best-trained teachers who’ll challenge and nurture your body and mind, you go to City Yoga.

Best Tattoo Experience: Jonathan Cheston – Devine Street Tattoos
Runner-up: Shane Anderson - Animated Canvas
What do you want? An eagle? A gun? A gorilla? A ship? Jonathan Cheston has done them all, with a good eye for detail, color and shading. Tell him what you want, and odds are he can make it happen.

Best Piercing Experience : Mari Downing – Knotty Headz
Runner-up: Sarah Wooten – Immaculate Body Piercing
Owned by a husband-and-wife team with many years of tattooing and piercing experience between them, Knotty Headz also employs some young artists, one of whom is the vivacious and fun-loving Mari Downing.

Best Furniture Store: Whit-Ash Furnishings Inc.
Runner-up: Marty Rae’s
How big is your house — 2,000 square feet, maybe 2,500? Well, Whit-Ash’s store is 40,000 square feet. That’s a lot of space, and it’s filled with furniture, mattresses, rugs, lamps and other accessories, all at discount prices.

Best Pet Supply Store: PetSmart
Runner-up: Mill Creek Pet Food Center
Shop smart. Shop PetSmart. Got it?

Best Kennel or Pet Boarding Facility: Camp Bow Wow
Runner-up: Wescott Acres
Kids like going to camp, right? Stands to reason, too, that your beloved Fido would dig palling around with other pooches at this doggy day care while you’re away. I mean, think of all the new butts he’d have to sniff!

Best Hospital: Lexington Medical Center
Runner-up: Palmetto Health Baptist
From women’s wellness to heart health, Lexington Medical Center offers comprehensive care. Its modern medical complex has 414 beds; its extended care facility is the largest in the Carolinas; and its comprehensive network boasts more than 600 affiliated physicians. Lexington Medical Center has also nabbed such honors as Best Company for Working Moms (2011, March of Dimes), Green Bill of Health (2011, Keep the Midlands Beautiful) and Consumer Choice Award (2009, National Research Corporation).

Best Place to Work: University of South Carolina
Runner-up: Lexington Medical Center
We thought Free Times was the best place to work. We learned we were we wrong when longtime prolific contributor Craig Brandhorst decided last month to leave us for a job at the University of South Carolina. Given a choice between covering the university for a paltry freelance check or working there for a nice salary with benefits, Craig’s choice pretty much sums up why so many people in this town work at USC — or want to.

Best Contemporary House of Worship: Shandon Baptist Church
Runner-up: NewSpring Church
For all you out there who think Free Times is a liberal rag, the winners in this category offer abundant proof that it’s not just Unitarians and Pastafarians reading these pages. Congratulations, Shandon Baptist.

Best Continuing Education Institution: University of South Carolina
Runner-up: Midlands Technical College
You’re probably accustomed to thinking of USC as our state’s flagship university and home to thousands of hard-partying undergrads. That’s all true, but USC is also dedicated to helping working professionals and other nontraditional students meet their goals.

Best Heating and Air Service: 2nd Wind Heating and Air Conditioning
Runner-up: CoolCare Heating and Air
Columbia has been famously hot for a long time, but never so hot as this year, when the mercury hit a record-breaking 113 degrees. But you? You’re cooler than a polar bear’s toenail, thanks to 2nd Wind, the place that’s been servicing all brands of heating and air conditioning equipment since 1985, six years before DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s Grammy-winning hit, “Summertime.”

Best Plumbing Repair: Meetze Plumbing
Runner-up: Franklin D Plumbing
Drain clogged? Toilet backed up? Feeling like you need your pipes cleaned? We all feel like that from time to time, and now we know who to call to take care of it. Meetze Plumbing has been keeping the water flowing throughout the Midlands since 1981. Professional, on time, and offering 24-hour services with no plumber’s crack, these guys know what they’re doing.

Best Landscaping Company: Woodley’s Garden Center
Runner-up: Blue Moon Landscaping
Need a hole dug? Want to put a tree in that hole? Maybe a shrub? Or maybe you just want to spiff up your yard to shut up your green-thumb neighbor? Woodley’s will help.

Best Real Estate Agency: Russell & Jeffcoat
Runner-up: Coldwell Banker
Founded in 1965, Russell & Jeffcoat has become one of the largest residential real estate firms in the Southeast.

Best Local Clothing Store: Sid and Nancy
Runner-up: Bohemian
Whether you want to replace that obscure, straight-edge hardcore shirt that got ripped in an on-stage pile-on at New Brookland Tavern in ’96 or grab a leather jacket that would have looked killer on James Dean, Sid and Nancy is the place to get it. A buy-trade-sell store, Sid and Nancy carries affordable clothes, jewelry, accessories, gifts and more.

Best Alternative Clothing: Loose Lucy’s
Runner-up: Sid and Nancy
Loose Lucy’s got its start in 1990 selling tie-dye shirts in the parking lot at Grateful Dead shows. More than 20 years later, it’s Columbia’s established venue for hippie and bohemian clothing and merchandise of all kinds and has three other locations. Super-low prices, also.

Best Jewelry Store: Handpicked
Runner-up: Jewelry Warehouse
Music editor Patrick Wall once got his girlfriend a necklace from Handpicked for Valentine’s Day. His roommate at the time got his girlfriend the same necklace. Point being: Handpicked stocks quality jewelry at affordable prices.

Best Florist: Rosewood Florist
Runner-up: Blossom Shop
Here’s the thing about flowers: You only send them on special occasions, usually very special occasions. So you want to trust someone who’s going to get it right, don’t you? Yes, you do.

Best Bakery: Publix
Runner-up: Cupcake
Can’t argue with that fresh-baked bread. Or those moist cakes.

Best Place for Fresh Meat and Seafood: Ole Timey Meat Market
Runner-up: The Fresh Market
Family-run and top-quality, the Ole Timey Meat Market is the place for custom cuts of meat, fresh seafood and excellent service.

Best Place for Fresh Produce: All-Local Farmers Market
Runner-up: S.C. State Farmers Market
The All-Local Farmers Market at 701 Whaley is one of the best things to happen to Columbia in years. Open Saturday mornings and Wednesday evenings, you’ll find an ever-growing array of local food vendors offering everything from fresh produce to organic meats and fresh-baked goods. If you haven’t checked it out yet, you really are missing out.

Best Natural Food Store: Earth Fare
Runner-up: Rosewood Market and Deli
With a cheese counter to die for, a great deli, wines and beers, and tons of organic produce, Earth Fare is the place to be.

Best Beer and Liquor Store: Green’s Discount Beverages
Runner-up: Morganelli’s
Whether you’re stocking a tailgate party or a quiet dinner with friends, Green’s has you covered — because they know way more about booze than you do.

Best Wine Store: Total Wine and More
Runner-up: Green’s Discount Beverages
There’s a reason why Total Wine calls itself “America’s Wine Superstore”: Each location carries approximately 8,000 different types of wine, 3,000 types of spirits and 2,500 different beers. Overwhelmed? They’ll be happy to help you out. Get your drink on.

Best Store for Used Books: The Book Dispensary
Runner-up: Ed’s Editions
If you’re looking for a good book, The Book Dispensary has, literally, thousands of good-condition used paperbacks and hardbacks at bargain prices.

Best Consignment Store: Revente
Runner-up: Sid and Nancy
Founded in 1992, Revente is Columbia’s designer consignment shop, with labels like Chanel, Christian Dior, Tory Burch, Louis Vuitton, Prada and much more. Located in Five Points, Revente attracts a diverse customer base from students to soccer moms and everyone in between. Frequent buying trips keep the selection fresh, too.

Best Gamecock Store: Garnet and Black Traditions (Jewelry Warehouse)
Runner-up: Addams Bookstore
Gamecock T-shirts. Gamecock sweatpants. Gamecock glassware. Gamecock coolers. Gamecock flip-flops. Gamecock underpants. All of these and more can be found at Garnet and Black Traditions. Come on, Carolina’s primary colors are the name. How could you expect any less?

Best Dog Park: Barking Lot Dog Park (at Saluda Shoals)
Runner-up: City of Columbia Dog Park (on Humane Lane)
Arf! Rrruff! Bark! Arf arf arf! (Translation: The Barking Lot off-leash dog park is fun for dogs and humans alike.)

Best Cycle Shop: Outspokin’
Runner-up: The Cycle Center
Columbians, take note: Though your city is not exactly known for being bike-friendly, there is a thriving cycling culture here that deserves your attention. Founded in 1982, Outspokin’ was one of the first pro-level cycle shops in the Southeast and carries everything from top road, mountain and BMX bikes to starter bikes for children.

Best Outdoors/Camping Gear Store: Half-Moon Outfitters
Runner-up: The Backpacker
With outdoor gear and clothing and footwear for men, women and children, Half-Moon Outfitters has recently moved into a mega space on Devine Street complete with a solar panel tree, which powers the store.

Best Sporting Goods Store: Dick’s Sporting Goods
Runner-up: Todd & Moore
Need running shoes? A tennis racket? A baseball bat? Some golf clubs? A tent? A hunting rifle? A kayak? You get where we’re going with this, right?

Best Fitness Club: Gold’s Gym
Runner-up: Planet Fitness
Founded in Venice, Calif., by Joe Gold in 1965, Gold’s Gym now boasts roughly 600 locations nationwide. In addition to all the latest cardio and strength-training equipment you expect in a gym, Gold’s offers a dynamic program of such classes as yoga, group cycling, mixed martial arts, muscle endurance training and pilates.

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