Cover photo courtesy of @thestyleodysseyblog.
It’s no secret that Columbia SC is a city on the rise, and tourists from all over are traveling to see what the hype is all about. New unique restaurants + breweries, boutique hotels and attractions that are popping up all over town draw the masses, but that’s not all that entices visitors to book a trip to the Real Southern Hotspot. In addition to checking out what’s new + noteworthy, travelers are choosing Columbia to experience the city’s institutions—businesses that have stood the test of time and stolen the hearts (and loyalty) of locals + visitors alike.
In recognition of National Travel and Tourism Week, we’ve rounded up a list of these authentic, been-around-forever hotspots. They are classic Columbia and can be credited for starting the fire in this Capital City. These are our roots, y’all, and we owe them a thank you.
Bob and Anna Williams renovated a five-bedroom home and converted it into the first-ever Lizard’s Thicket in 1977. 40 years later, this local country cookin’ chain is still family-owned and operated by the Williams family. The chances of stumbling into a Lizard’s Thicket are high if you ask a local where to find the best “Meat-and-three”—a classic Southern meal consisting of one meat and three vegetables. Although, the term vegetable is used loosely in typical southern fashion and includes everything from lima beans and collards to mashed potatoes and mac and cheese. When asked what the secret is… why Lizard’s Thicket has been able to thrive in Columbia for more than 40 years, community relations director and grandchild of the original owners, Sara Krisnow, emphasized the consistency of delicious food and, of course, that sweet, Southern hospitality. Some of Anna Williams’ original recipes are still used in the restaurants today and what you get at one location, you’re guaranteed to get at another across town.
The restaurant also sources many products from local farmers, including the iconic collard greens and poultry for crispy + buttery fried chicken, which plays a major role in the delicious consistency of what ends up on your plate. This country cookin’ hub feeds 12,000 mouths a day, 14,000 on Sundays, and has seen many famous faces over the years—from Mitt Romney to Martha Stewart. And as Columbia has expanded as a tourist destination over the years, this family restaurant has followed suite. But Lizard’s Thicket’s place as an OG Columbia restaurant + true institution of the city is not to be overlooked. “Columbia is growing and we’re so excited about it,” said Krisnow. “But, we’re also excited [to be considered] a Columbia staple.” Whether you’re visiting the Zoo, the State Museum or embarking on a self-guided brewery tour, there’s surely a Lizard’s Thicket nearby when it’s time to chow down. A Columbia staple, indeed.
A cozy country tavern in the heart of Five Points where you can enjoy a CFS (country fried steak) or the iconic Arkansas Traveler. Keep an eye out of for the man in the bathtub up on the roof. Yep, you read that correctly.
Little hole-in-the-wall known for burgers, fried chicken and sweet treats (we recommend a vanilla cone with rainbow sprinkles). Walk up to the window and place your order for a taste of good ole fashioned kindness.
In 1980, Papa Jazz Record Shoppe opened its doors in the heart of Five Points on Greene Street—a few blocks away from the middle of the University of South Carolina campus. The beloved record shop has managed to evolve and thrive for almost 40 years, despite the national decline of retail shopping and the rise of downloading or streaming during the digital age. Perhaps now more than ever, the store continues to successfully support a steady clientele of treasure hunters—on a mission to find their favorite albums on vinyl. Papa Jazz’s prime location in the eclectic Five Points district + close vicinity to the University, staff with deep knowledge of niche music far beyond Top 40, and local reputation for probably having exactly what you’re searching for all contribute to its ability to steal the hearts of locals and visitors alike for the last 38 years.
Owner Tim Smith says that Columbia’s diversity makes it the perfect place for a specialty record store to succeed long-term. “Columbia is by far the most diverse part of South Carolina,” said Smith. And from Taylor Swift to Miles Davis lining the shelves, Papa Jazz is certainly known for its ability to serve a diverse crowd. “Everyone has their own individual taste in music,” said Smith. “And we try really hard to have something for everyone.” And that, they do. While the shop specializes in jazz, it’s quite the paradise for all music lovers. Stay alert when you’re perusing the aisles because you just might spy a famous face. Amos Lee (who previously worked at the store when he lived in Columbia), Wynton Marsalis, David Grissman and Phil Alvin all make the long list of celebrities that have walked through the doorway. Just like brunch at Gourmet Shop + thrifting at Sid & Nancy, buying a record at Papa Jazz is just part of the Five Points experience - an experience that both locals + visitors have and will continue to treasure for years to come.
Opened in 1974 + grown over the years into an award-winning, noteworthy attraction and the biggest zoo in South Carolina. P.s. There’s currently a baby giraffe on display. Need we say more?
Storyteller + participant of history approaching its 30th anniversary. Keep an eye out for the giant shark and make plans to check out the observatory for nighttime viewing of space.
78 years ago Sadie Tronco opened Villa Tronco, the oldest restaurant in South Carolina, in downtown Columbia SC. During World War II, Sadie—who was called Mama Tronco by all who loved her—fed spaghetti and meatballs to Northern soldiers of Italian descent that were stationed at Fort Jackson + homesick for their mother’s cooking. She is also credited for bringing pizza to South Carolina, so think of Mama Tronco the next time you order a large pepperoni. She worked tirelessly feeding hungry people homemade Italian food until she passed away at 87. Now, Sadie’s granddaughter Carmella and her husband Henry Martin run the day-to-day operations alongside Carmella’s parents, honoring Mama Tronco with every bowl of risotto.
Over the years as Columbia and Main Street have blossomed, Villa Tronco has remained a date-night staple to Columbia locals and visitors alike. “Because we’ve been here so long, we’ve seen all the stages of Columbia’s growth,” said Mrs. Martin. “It’s been really amazing.” When asked how Villa Tronco has been able to thrive for nearly 80 years, Mrs. Martin gave credit to downtown businesses working together, not against each other, to help each other succeed individually and as a district. So what’s in store for the longest-standing restaurant in the state over the next 80 years? “We hope a lot of the same,” she said. One big family working together to feed people delicious, simple Italian food—just like Mama Tronco did.
From belts to one-of-a-kind bowties, this Devine Street shop has been “dressing the discerning” since the opening of its original Main Street location in 1947. Ask for Perry when you stop in and tell him we sent ya.
In 1989, the pioneer of Columbia’s farm-to-table fine dining scene opened its doors in the Vista District. At the time, the Vista wasn’t much more than a cluster of warehouses—far from the thriving entertainment district that it is today. But thanks to a concerted effort by the city’s government to fill the area with restaurants and art galleries, the revitalization of the Vista began. Motor Supply was originally to be named the Vista Bistro, until the original owner found a 1930s neon sign in the basement that would ultimately give the restaurant its name. The same sign still hangs over the restaurant, serving as somewhat of an iconic landmark of Columbia SC. We asked the owner Eddie Wales, who originally started at Motor Supply as a waiter, what the secret is—how the restaurant has managed to not only remain popular but also grow and thrive over the last 30 years. “Our motto is 'Always Different. Always delicious' and that’s something our team really rallies around,” said Wales. “We’re always trying to change, evolve and improve.” And evolve, they have.
With a daily-changing, locally-sourced menu created by executive chef Wes Fulmer, farm-to-shaker cocktails artfully crafted by head barman/mad scientist Josh Streetman and hands-on hard work + love by the owner Eddie Wales, Motor Supply has earned its place as one of Columbia SC’s most-talked about eateries—leading the way as Columbia has grown into a city fit for foodies. “The profile of Columbia has changed as food is now a focus of travelers,” said Wales. “Now, Columbia is a destination for leisure travelers, history enthusiast, urban enthusiast, business travelers and families alike.”
The OG Columbia barbecue joint, a true hole-in-the-wall + curator of unforgettable hash and rice.
Your go-to bookstore for all things rare, used and out-of-print. Quite the dream for our book worms.
Opened in 1972 + famous for bigger-than-your-head burgers. We recommend the Palmetto Burger (topped with pimento cheese + fried jalapenos) if you want the authentic Columbia experience
Look for fun things to do in #RealColumbiaSC? Check out our Things To Do page.