The next time you have family and friends visiting, give them the true taste of the Capital City.
We’re not talking a “best of” list, or haute cuisine or the latest nosh from a trendy hotspot. These are places that have been Columbia landmarks for decades, and this is the food that folks here have grown up on.
Some Cola eats, like the fried chicken at Rosewood Dairy Bar, could be the best you’ve ever tasted. Others, like the pizza from LaBrasca’s, might be an acquired taste.
And there are some really good, certainly iconic eats you won’t find on this list (the cheeseburger basket from Rush’s, for instance, or the spaghetti and meatballs from Villa Tronco). But with so many good eats in Colatown, we self-imposed our selections to an even dozen.
If you disagree with our super-unscientific list, we respect that. That’s what the interweb is for! Feel free to comment on our Facebook page or Twitter or Instagram.
Here are a dozen selections that help make up the bedrock of Columbia’s iconic eats.
Pizza and cheese salad from LaBrasca’s
4365 Jackson Blvd., Columbia
LaBrasca’s has been a grandaddy of Columbia’s pizza scene since 1966, when George LaBrasca and Jack Jackson opened the joint.
And for those who aren’t natives, it’s a little different. The main focus is cheese, cheese and more cheese on a thin pre-prepared crust. And the cheese salad is just what it sounds like — a big heap of mozzarella dwarfing the greens underneath. Oh, and a tomato wedge on top.
They call it a “five-minute pizza.” Supposedly that’s how long it takes to deliver the pie after ordering. But nobody takes that very seriously.
The joint has aged gracefully and got an upgrade thanks to the 2015 flood that put it out of business for two months.
The sauce might be a little on the bland side for some palates, and the crust is not hand-tossed.
But there are tons of folks who are all-in on LaBrasca’s. They sit at the same tables every visit, often on the same night (every week!), and have even signed one of the Chianti bottles that hang from the ceiling.
So there is no question that LaBrasca’s is a Columbia original.
STP Dipper at Groucho’s Deli
Original deli at 611 Harden St., Five Points, Columbia
More than 30 locations in the Carolinas and Georgia
The deli was first opened in 1941 on Lady and Main streets by Harold Miller. It was called “Miller’s.”
Miller came to Columbia with a handful of recipes developed as a youth in a Philadelphia orphanage, where he learned to cook from a woman who ran the kitchen.
But Miller was a jokester, carried a big cigar and looked like Groucho Marx. So eventually, everybody called the place “Groucho’s.”
According to a story in The State, “Groucho sold cheeses and meats, including escargot, rattlesnake, salami and tongue.”
The deli in 1948 moved to Five Points near the University of South Carolina. And ever since, Groucho’s has become one of those places USC students long to come back to after they go out into the big wide world.
Arguably the restaurant’s most popular sandwich, the STP Dipper, is a blend of roast beef, turkey, melted Swiss cheese and bacon. But the kicker is the special “Formula 45” dipping sauce, which is is kind of like a sweet Thousand Island dressing.
Pimento cheeseburger at Rockaway Athletic Club
2719 Rosewood Drive
Rockaway Athletic Club is a relative newcomer on the list — it’s only 36 years old.
Brothers Forrest and Paul Whitlark went to Canisius University in Buffalo, N.Y., and would often drive down to Rockaway Beach in Queens. They opened the Columbia joint in 1982 as a sports bar. Hence, Rockaway Athletic Club.
The used to have a sister restaurant, Pizza Man, that was equally iconic, but alas it has gone away.
Many argue Rockaway has the best hamburger in the city, period. But add a heaping glob of pimento cheese, and you’ve got a Columbia classic. George W. Bush even stopped in for one when he was president of these United States.
The original Rockaway burned in 2002. But the new version retains some of the funky vibe of the old one and a much bigger bar.
Peanuts or popcorn from Cromer’s P-Nuts
3030 N. Main St., Columbia
The store’s motto is “Guaranteed Worst in Town,” but its story is one of the best.
In 1935, Midlands farmer Julian D. Cromer opened a produce stand at the Assembly Street farmer’s market. But business really took off when he added peanuts he roasted fresh every morning.
However, Cromer had a nemesis: a competitor who would yell out to his customers, “Don’t buy those! Mine are the best!.”
Cromer, in a bit of marketing genius, posted a sign that said “Guaranteed Worst in Town.” Curious people soon flocked to his stand to try “the worst.”
The business was a fixture on Assembly Street, then moved to Huger Street and recently relocated to North Main.
Cromer’s still roasts and boils its peanuts on-site and offers big bags of popcorn and a wide array of candy.
Beef tips from The Kingsman Restaurant
936 Axtell Drive, Parkland Plaza, Cayce
The Kingsman Cue & Brew
924-C E. Main St., Lexington
In 1972, brothers Steve and Aubrey King purchased Mamma Mia’s Pizza and opened The Kingsman Restaurant. They kept some of the Italian dishes on the menu for a while but gradually migrated to the hearty beef and comfort food loved by so many today.
In true diner style, the meats, from hamburger steaks to their popular rib eyes, are cooked on a well-seasoned (like from 1984) flat iron grill, often manned by now-co-owner Mike Deevey. The decor harkens to the ’70s, down to the faux sets of armor that adorn the joint and the knight’s crest over the door.
While the rib eye steak (both 10 ounce and 14 ounce) has been a Kingsman specialty for 44 years, we give a nod to the beef tips, if for no other reason than they go so well with the brown dippin’ gravy.
Fried chicken from Rosewood Dairy Bar
3003 Rosewood Drive, Columbia
When you live in the land of the Gamecocks, you better have some serious fried chicken.
Since 1942, Rosewood Dairy Bar has been slinging burgers, fries, shakes and what many think is the best chicken in town, and maybe the world. Some folks also credit the dairy bar with having the best shakes in town as well, and who can argue?
Cheryl Austin, who worked at the dairy bar for a quarter century before purchasing the business three years ago, still cooks the chicken the way it always has been — a pressure frying method called “broasting.”
Although other top flight Cola chicken joints like Bernie’s, the Zestos on Forest Drive and Triangle City, and Angelo’s Zesto in Eau Claire also broast their birds, there’s just something about the dairy bar. (And BTW, contrary to popular belief, all five restaurants are owned separately.)
Maybe it’s the ancient fryer, or that you have to walk up to a window, rain or shine, to place and pick up your order. And there’s just something about putting hot, moist fried chicken in a to-go box on top of crinkle cut fries. Yum.
Ice cream from the Triangle City Zesto
504 12th St., West Columbia
Compared to Rosebood Dairy Bar’s 77 years in business, the Triangle City Zesto is a relative new comer at 70 years.
And like the dairy bar, Zesto’s stock in trade is hamburgers, chicken and ice cream.
Many would argue that Zesto’s chicken is just as good as the dairy bar. And that would be hard to dispute.
And many would say the dairy bar’s ice cream and shakes are just as good as or better than Zesto’s. That, too, would be hard to dispute.
Who’s to argue either way? It comes down to personal preference.
But we’ve got to make a call here, people! And we’re going with Zesto’s chocolate-dipped soft-serve ice cream cone. Heck, they’ve even got a statue of it out front.
Chicken-fried steak from Yesterdays
2030 Devine St., Five Points, Columbia
Yesterdays has been a Five Points mainstay since partners Darrell Barnes and Scottie and Duncan McRae opened the restaurant in the triangular building at the corner of Devine and Santee streets in 1977.
Today, the building has a big American flag painted on its side and the landmark cowboy mannequin in a bathtub over the front door. But it’s what inside that counts, and Yesterdays’ extensive menu has something for everyone.
The shrimp and grits and chicken and grits are legendary. Roberto’s meatloaf is the favorite of Darius Rucker, the country music artist, hometown hero and lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish. And the Arkansas traveler is, well, the Arkansas traveler.It’s sort of an open-face roast beef sandwich except on cornbread, smothered with brown gravy and black-eyed peas.
But for our money, it’s the chicken-fried steak that sets the bar. (Yes, it used to be called Confederate fried steak, but sometimes you just have to move on, folks.)
Shrimp and grits from Blue Marlin
1200 Lincoln St, Columbia
When we said the shrimp and grits at Yesterdays were outstanding — and then went chicken fried steak as its go-to meal — it’s because of this place.
Blue Marlin is Columbia’s iconic upscale Lowcountry restaurant and the newest member of this club at a mere quarter century old.
Founded by Bill Dukes in 1994, Blue Marlin is located in a former railroad depot, complete with the rich paneling and brass light fixtures of days bygone.
The restaurant features Lowcountry and Cajun cuisine, complete with free collard greens up front.
In our favorite dish, local Adluh grits — stone ground just two blocks from the restaurant — are topped with creek shrimp, andouille sausage and tasso gravy.
When celebrities and sports figures come to town, it’s likely they’ll be in a corner booth with a bowl of this Columbia classic.
Meat and three at Lizard’s Thicket
Oldest location (39 years) 2240 Airport Blvd., West Columbia
13 other restaurants in the Midlands and one in Florence
From the daily specials to the standards, Lizard’s Thicket has for 40 years been Columbia’s go-to comfort food gathering spot.
We didn’t pick a single meal. Who could? But we did ask owner Bobby Williams what the most popular combos were. Fried chicken as the entree comes in first. And, perhaps surprisingly, fried flounder comes in second.
And the three vegetables?
“It’s the South. So it’s mashed potatoes, mac and cheese and green beans,” Williams said. “We sell a ton of those every day.”
Wings and raw fries at The Publick House
2307 Devine St., Columbia
Andy Ugarte founded the cozy pub at the Devine Street location more than 20 years ago after first selling wings for delivery at the former Bazaar on Harden Street.
Former employees Meg Hearn and Drew Kalagher purchased Publick House in 2013 and made a few changes like serving lunch and upgrading the dinner menu.
But one thing they didn’t change: the wings. We gotta lot of really, and we mean really good wings in Colatown (hello D’s Wings!). But again, we had to make a call.
“There are some secrets,” Kalagher said.
But here’s what he will make publick. The wings are fresh cut every day, never frozen. They are minimally cooked then refrigerated overnight to draw out the moisture. Then they are fully recooked and tossed in a frying pan in warm sauce.
Add an order of what might be the city’s best raw fries, and you’ve got a Columbia superlative.
Barbecue buffet at Little Pigs
There are few things in life that are too rich for words, and the buffet at Little Pigs might be one of them.
For a mere $9.90 (drink included) you have the most bountiful barbecue buffet in the Midlands: Three types of Q (ketchup, mustard and vinegar), and a pickin’ station if you want your hog un-sauced.
We didn’t call it the best barbecue in South Carolina. Southern Living did.
But it doesn’t stop there. The buffet features ribs and brisket every day, two types of chicken (fried and barbecued), fish, homemade chicken pot pie, tomato pie and the list goes on and on.
Take a look around the usually packed room, and you will see a testament to these good eats: The place likely will be stacked with police officers, soldiers, paramedics and other first responders.
You know what they say — eat where the cops eat.