From pizza to barbecue, Chris Trainor’s guide to restaurants in the Midlands

Chris Trainor’s Essentials: A Midlands restaurant guide cover

Joshua Boucher

Joshua Boucher, Hrisanthi Pickett

From barbecues to pizzerias and beyond, the restaurant scene in Columbia and Lexington is brimming with culinary treasures. Here are dozens of places journalist Chris Trainor finds essential.

These are divisive times, to say the least.

But Midlands restaurants are mostly havens where you can leave the cares of the day at the door and share a table with friends or loved ones. Where we can start a conversation in a bar with a colleague or with a stranger we have never met. Turns out a plate of nachos is the universal language.

The restaurants in the area are places where you can celebrate birthdays or clink a loud toast to a friend’s recent engagement or post in a corner with just your thoughts, a few cold libations and a killer pad Thai.

Part of what sets the Midlands restaurant scene apart, for me, is its diversity. It refuses to be easily defined.

Surely we can dress when we need to. Places like The War Mouth in Cottontown, just off Columbia’s North Main Street, have injected new energy into the capital’s food scene, providing twists on real local favorites – why, hello chicken bog – and finding that sweet spot where the New South transcends the Old.

But the Midlands scene is also dotted with old favorites like Mack’s Cash Grocery on Laurel Street, where for decades the lunchtime line has snaked its way out the back door as ordinary people queue for burgers , hot dogs and onion rings, with framed Gamecock paintings of the heroes of yesteryear watched from the wood-panelled walls. Or places like Vella’s Restaurant and Tavern in Cayce, where the regular bar crowd seems to have been stationed there since shortly after the earth cooled.

And so, with the area’s divergent restaurant offerings in mind, I wanted to give you a rundown of my go-to spots in Columbia, Lexington, and beyond. You will find, of course, that this is not an exhaustive and complete list of all restaurants in the Midlands. Nor is it necessarily a grouping of what I believe to be the “best” spots in the area.

It is, quite simply, a collection of my favorite restaurants here. My essentials, if you will. On this list, you’ll find white tablecloths, greasy burger joints, black-owned barbecues, hole-in-the-wall Mexican establishments, and pizzerias that throw mean pie. It’s mostly a guide full of spot-on local businesses, though there are few small chains mixed in. (I mean, did you really think I was doing this without Rush’s?)

I hope there are a few places in this guide that are new to you and that you will try them. I kind of feel like you’re not quite a resident of the Midlands if you haven’t climbed those dark steps at Village Idiot at Five Points, or had a Zesto-soaked cone at West Columbia. Make it a bucket list, if you will. A really tasty bucket filled with queso or maybe mustard-based barbecue sauce.

Maybe the guide will inspire you to make your own list of your favorite joints in Colombia. Places you deem essential. And maybe we’ll meet there one evening, and come to that communal place that so often sits around a table with food, drink, and conversation.

This story was originally published November 3, 2022 12:00 p.m.

Chris Trainor is a retail reporter for The State and has worked for newspapers in South Carolina for more than 18 years, including previous stops at the (Greenwood) Index-Journal and the (Columbia) Free Times. He is the recipient of numerous awards from the South Carolina Press Association, including honors in column writing, government reporting, profile writing, food writing, election coverage, social media, and more.