Call me a fatty if you will, but when I started planning my trip to South Carolina last month, I was most excited about two things: hanging out with my best friend and eating tons of tasty Southern food. It doesn’t take much research of South Carolina to find out that the state has a thriving foodie scene and is considered to be the birthplace of barbecue.
With credentials like that, I knew I had to dig a little deeper than just doing my own exploration of the restaurants in South Carolina’s capital city of Columbia. Since food and wine tours have been my “go-to” travel activities for a while now, I kept my fingers crossed that I would find one in Columbia, and I did!
Columbia Food Tours (appropriately named, right?) is a company run by husband and wife team, Brian and Kristin. They’ve only been up and running since May 2014, but with rave reviews online and two food tour options that cover different areas of the city, I knew I wouldn’t regret joining them on a tour. The prospect of making five to seven stops on the tour also hooked me. I mean… that’s a lot of food, and I love to eat.
My BFF and I decided to go on the Main Street Food Tour that would take us through the downtown area of Columbia. We met with Brian and our other tour buddies in front of the state capitol building, and Brian gave us a rundown of how the day would go including a warning that we might not be able to finish all of the food on the tour. He also told us that it wasn’t a problem if we couldn’t power through all the plates put in front of us…
But that’s not how I roll. I was ready to eat and make that mid-afternoon food tour my lunch AND dinner. With my personal “go big or go home” attitude in mind, we started the tour and walked a few short blocks away to the first of six stops.
Stop #1: Southern Squeezed
When you walk into Southern Squeezed, you can tell the place is all natural. With its inviting décor done primarily with burlap, wood, plants and fruits, you just get that feeling you’re about to be served something that won’t contribute to the destruction of your body, and you’d be right. As Columbia’s only cold-pressed juice bar, Southern Squeezed serves up some healthy, fresh, and locally-sourced juices that might even help reverse that destructive process.
Our group sampled three of their most popular drinks. First up was Classic Greens, a blend of romaine, spinach, kale, and pretty much any other leafy green you can think of. Then we moved on to Southern Greens, a blend of collard greens, turnip greens, and other plants typical in the South. We then finished off with a sweet note giving their chocolate almond milk a try. All three drinks were delicious and incredibly refreshing. They were also the perfect way to wet our palates and prepare our stomachs for the feast that was about to come.
Step #2: Midlands’ Modern Southern Food Arts
If I told you where Midlands is, you’d instantly be skeptical of their food, but hear me out for a second. This restaurant, which does its own modern take on typical Southern food, is located inside the Marriott Hotel. Now images of less than appetizing continental breakfasts from other big hotels you’ve been to are probably coming to mind, but Midlands is worlds away from that. The Marriott gave the chefs full reign to turn Midlands into what they wanted, and the effort paid off. This restaurant takes a far step in the right direction away from typical hotel food.
I settled into my seat at the table, poured myself some peach flavored sweet tea, and then the feast began.
I’m pretty sure my eyes grew to about three times bigger than their normal size when I saw that plate. It was just so beautiful, and I also wasn’t expecting that much food from one stop on the tour. I started with the fried green tomato topped with pimento cheese and bacon. The almost tart taste of the green tomato was nicely balanced with the breading that covered it and the little spiciness of the pimento cheese. And since everything tastes better with a little bacon on it, that was an added treat. I dug into the crab cake topped with citrus remoulade next. You know how some crab cakes are too lumpy and others are too flaky? Well, not this one. Poseidon, King of the Sea, must have made this crab cake himself because it was perfect in every way possible, and the citrus remoulade was a huge step up from the usual lemon slice that accompanies a crab cake.
Next, I tried their juicy house smoked beef brisket topped with horseradish cream and crispy fried onions before moving on to stuffing my face with what would be my favorite item on the plate: a slow braised then quickly fried pork wing covered in peach and pepper glaze then drizzled with a Carolina reaper hot sauce. The Carolina reaper is one of the hottest habanero peppers in the world, but you wouldn’t know that from eating this pork wing. The sweetness of the glaze evened everything out to a kick of spice as opposed to setting your mouth on fire.
I could have left Midlands fairly full and very happy, but this restaurant clearly loves to go above and beyond for its diners so they finished off our meal with a bowl of their award-winning shrimp and grits with tomatoes, corn, mushrooms and tasso cream. I don’t even like grits in general, but these grits deserve their own category for how delicious they are. I licked that bowl clean.
Stop #3: Villa Tronco
At this Italian restaurant, we were served tasty slices of freshly made cheese pizza and a piece of cheesecake. I had the Oreo cheesecake to be exact, and it was unlike any slice of cheesecake I had ever had. It wasn’t too dense, too sweet or too strong in its cheese flavor, which allowed the Oreos to really shine through instead of being overpowered. And while I loved the food we tried at Villa Tronco, what really impressed me was the history of the place.
Established in 1940, Villa Tronco is the oldest restaurant in all of South Carolina and has been owned and operated by the same family for five generations. Villa Tronco got its start when matriarch Sadie Tronco started to cook spaghetti and meatballs for some of the homesick Italian soldiers that were stationed in an around Columbia. Word got out about the delicious food she was whipping up for the soldiers, and little by little the restaurant was born. The Tronco family even introduced Columbia to pizza, which is probably one of the best things that ever happened to the city.
The history of Villa Tronco is pretty fascinating on its own, but what made it even more interesting was hearing the story from a direct descendent of Sadie Tronco.
Stop #4: Capital City Club
Capital City Club is a pretty swanky restaurant with amazing views of Colubmia and binoculars by their windows to help you enjoy the scenery. Normally, the restaurant is reserved for club members or people who book special events there, but they opened up the place just for us. As our plates of food were put in front of us, the chef came out to explain what we were about to eat: a pan seared scallop with a roasted baby carrot, bok choy, watermelon radish and hot dashi broth poured over it all. I’m still not sure exactly what dashi broth is, but I know it’s Japanese, and it’s delicious.
The light seafood and veggies was a nice little break from the heavier food we had at previous stops. The tasty scallop was just what I needed to help me power through the rest of the tour.
Stop #5: The Oak Table
The Oak Table is one of the nicest restaurants in Columbia. It’s also one of the most expensive so if it weren’t for this food tour I would have never stepped foot inside there, and I am glad I did. The restaurant itself is gorgeous. It exudes classiness with its oak wood décor and views of the state capitol building just behind the bar. And of course the dish we tried lived up to the high expectations of such a beautiful restaurant.
We had confit sweet potatoes cooked in duck fat, sitting on a bed of barbecue lentils. It was then topped off with maple sausage that was smoked in house and an apple slaw. I’m a big fan of interesting combinations of flavors in food, and this dish was definitely that. What made the food even more special was the fact that it isn’t even on their menu. The chef dreamt up that recipe the morning of the tour. Brian explained to us later that the Oak Table chef usually uses the food tour as his guinea pigs for new recipes, and he never disappoints. With such a talented and imaginative chef on staff, I did not mind being one of his first test subjects.
Stop #6: Bourbon
Bourbon is a whiskey and bourbon bar with creole and Cajun influences on their food, but walking into their small but cozy space feels like going into a prohibition era speakeasy. The vibe was just right for ending our tour with bourbon cocktails and the restaurant’s take on a BLT made with thick, house-cured bacon, creole pimento cheese, Roma tomatoes and bib lettuce. It was definitely one of the best BLT’s I had ever had. That thick bacon and creole pimento cheese made a big difference.
And as if all that food we had throughout the tour was not enough, the folks at Bourbon topped off our meal with a plate of fried oysters sitting on a bed of mixed beans with some type of garlic sauce. I was a little too busy blissfully eating to hear the full explanation on that one. Oops! Between the BLT, the oysters and my bourbon cocktail, the tour, without a doubt, ended on a high note.
Besides all of the amazingly delicious food I had on the Main Street Food Tour, I also have to add that Brian was an excellent guide around the city. Between stops at all the restaurants, he would tell us interesting facts about the history of South Carolina, the history of Columbia and also about all the efforts that the city is currently making to revitalize its downtown area. I got my food and history lesson all in one and realized that the rave reviews I read online were right.
The food at every single stop was fresh, flavorful and something I had never tried before (and would love to try again). Exploring the foodie scene in Columbia was one of the major highlights of my trip, and going on a tour with Columbia Food Tours was the perfect complement to the restaurant hopping I did on my own. I would definitely recommend this tour to anyone headed to South Carolina’s capital city.
Oh and in case you were wondering… Yes, I did finish all of the food on the tour, and no, I definitely did not need any dinner later that night.
Have you ever been to Columbia, South Carolina? Did you have any memorable meals there?
Disclaimer: Columbia Food Tours sponsored me to participate in this tour in exchange for writing a post about my experience. The opinions expressed here, however, are all my own. Duh!