About halfway between Five Points and the University of South Carolina, there’s a square of sidewalk that’s had my name on it since the 1980s, when a boyfriend scratched it there. That worn yard of concrete gave me a smile on a recent afternoon when I saw it again after making the 100-mile drive to my old college town of Columbia.
This weekend, I wouldn’t be picking cheese or plain grits in a USC cafeteria or going to a student party spilling onto Greene Street. Instead, there’d be short ribs and roasted tomato salads at chef-owned restaurants, sharp prose and stirring art in a new gallery, and comfortable nights in a handsome downtown hotel.
Columbia’s attractions—new and old—may surprise. When I mentioned my destination to a Charleston friend, she said, incredulously, “You’re going to ‘Ho-hum-bia?’” Yes, I was.
We drove in from I-77 and Bluff Road, past the skyward bleachers of Williams-Brice Stadium, where the Gamecocks play football and train-turned-tailgating cars line an old rail track. Then, we made our way past the livestock sheds of the State Fairgrounds and into downtown. First stop? 701 Whaley Street. Part of the historic Olympia mill village, the massive circa-1903 building here was recently renovated to house the 701 Center for Contemporary Art plus workspace for artists and creative firms. I took in a powerful and interesting exhibit with wall-spanning, mixed-media pieces about the people and work of the city’s now-silenced textile mills. One mural-sized poem by artist Phil Moody began: “For all those sons/and daughters who/came to work each/shiny morning and/every graveyard/shift to twist yarn/and fix looms and/dye fabrics…”
In the heart of downtown, we walked the Horseshoe, the oldest part of the 204-year-old USC campus. Like days remembered, there were students reading and talking under the shade trees, throwing footballs and Frisbees on the wide lawns. Two blocks further is the State House. Visitors are welcome inside the cool hallways and the tall House and Senate chambers, and you can feel the history all around. The floors are marble, and there’s intricate paneling and moulding, paintings of state leaders, and a dome rising some 180 feet above. It’s all impressive and, yes, stately.
Thirsty from touring, we made our way to 116 State, an easy-to-be place just across the Gervais Street bridge. The narrow coffeehouse is also a wine bar and café, and original photography lines its walls. Along with
a couple of beers, we tried the bartender-recommended anchovy flatbread pizza (tapas-size) and a Cuban-style salad with olives, ham, celery, and roasted tomatoes. From there, we had plans to meet Charleston friend and
Columbia native Trae Wilson for dinner.
In July, Wilson opened Granville’s Café in a former gas-station-turned-bakery. (He’s the same chef-owner of Charleston’s own Granville’s.) His restaurant was packed that Friday, the wine flowing, and the beef Bourguignon perfectly browned and tender. Afterwards, we drove through busy Five Points, which gets even more traffic at night with students lining up in the glow of store signs and lit fountains to show IDs to the doormen at bars and music clubs. (Rockafellas is long gone, but Group Therapy is still there.)
The next morning, on the way out for breakfast, traffic was stopped on Main Street for a gay pride parade; groups of onlookers gathered along the street to catch strands of beads being thrown by men and women on sparkling floats. Later, streets closed downtown for an African American Heritage Festival, and the nearby Congaree Vista restaurants and hotels blocked off roads for the music, crowds, and food of the Viva la Vista festival. It was a busy fall Saturday in Columbia.
Parking lots were packed at the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, where parents pushed strollers in every direction. We dodged the crowds that hot afternoon and parked at the far end of the lot to walk the paths down to the Saluda River, through woods that open to a wide riverbed full of pools and massive boulders. (In college, we would swim and climb on the rocks here.) There’s true white water nearby, and the Riverbanks trails go past remnants of a covered bridge burned in the Civil War and one of the oldest textile mills in the state.
Around dinnertime, we slid into a comfortable booth at Terra. Chef-owner Mike Davis trained at Johnson & Wales in Charleston and began his career in the kitchens of Donald Barickman and Don Drake at Magnolias. At Terra, he uses as many South Carolina ingredients as possible in dishes like braised rabbit with wild mushrooms and crispy chicken with lima beans. As we talked and watched the nightfall and the city lights come up just across the Congaree River, I wasn’t ho-humming at all.