The Magazine of South Carolina

"Columbia Is a Fun Place to Live!"

Take a Look at the Capital City of the 21st Century


USC's famous horseshoe on a winter evening

On the street in Five Points

An outing along The Vista

Sculptor Sandy Skoglund's "Walking on Eggshells" exhibit at the Columbia Museum of Art

Fishing on the Saluda rapids above the city

by Aïda Rogers

Poor Margaret Jordan. All she wanted was somebody to go to happy hour with, somebody who would go right after work and not go home, change and meet two hours later. Why couldn’t someone go now? That’s how it was in Atlanta, where Margaret lived for seven years. Not so in Columbia. When the civil engineer moved back home in 1984, it seemed sadly behind—at least in terms of fun. Where was the action?

That’s not an issue anymore. These days, Jordan has way too many options for fun after work. The question isn’t what to do, it’s what not to do.

"You don’t have only one thing to do here and one thing to do there, and if you don’t like it you don’t have anything else," she says. "There’s lots going on."

September 17, 1998, for example. On the historic USC Horseshoe, Columbia’s intelligentsia gathered at the President’s House to applaud Dr. Walter Edgar on the completion of his massive South Carolina: A History. Guests sipped cocktails and ate scallops while having their 716-page, 4-pound books signed by the author. As Cole Porter would say, "What a swell party this is!"

Five minutes away, the cast of Ain’t Misbehavin’ was playing to a sold-out, held-over audience at Workshop Theatre. The singers stomped, the combo cooked and the audience all but hauled onstage. As Fats Waller would’ve said, "The joint was jumping."

Meanwhile, on Sumter Street, the annual Greek Festival had hit full gyro. Children danced, vendors hawked, Mediterranean music twanged. Baklava, anyone?

Around the corner at the new Columbia Museum of Art, Danielle Howle and the Tantrums let loose their signature sound on a crowd of young arties. "3rd Thursdays" have become popular events for the young professional members of the museum. Spokeswoman Suzanne Flowers says it’s one of the largest art support groups in the country. "They have their own board, their own president, everything," she says. Judging by "3rd Thursdays," they also have their own way of making fun.

And maybe there’s the key: Columbians—with no mountains or beach to call their own—have learned to entertain themselves. No more is it work, school, home, and church and the country club on Sunday. It’s work, school, church, festival, play, restaurant, concert, ball game, parade, charity run, gallery crawl, black-tie gala and, as The King of Siam would say, "et cetera, et cetera, et cetera." Margaret Jordan is poor no more.

"People who plan events are concerned because there are conflicting events now, but that’s how it’s going to be," she reasons. "You just have to get used to it. We’re growing enough so we’re going to have conflicts constantly, and that’s great!"

Sometimes a newcomer’s eyes are clearest. Jim O’Connor is chair and artistic director of the USC Department of Theatre and Speech, a position he’s held two years. To him, Columbia throbs with activity. "I can’t get it done!" he declares. "There’s always a play to see, a concert, rehearsals I’m directing or rehearsals I sit in on. I haven’t even been to a baseball game! I can’t get the theater off my back so I can go to a ball game. I just relish that once a week I manage to go home and cook dinner."

For O’Connor, a New Yorker who spent years in Chicago, Columbia holds culture and courtesy equally dear. Besides about 15 theatrical groups in and around the city, there’s a refreshing lack of ill will between them. "I have not encountered anything in this city that ever indicated that any theater does anything to undercut any other theater. That’s not common at all."

From traditional musicals and mysteries to Shakespeare in the Park to Off-Broadway’s more bizarre spectacles, Columbia’s live theaters provide plenty for theater lovers to love. Of course, part of the fun is figuring out where to go for dinner before or dessert after. Will it be something quick, like breads and spreads at Hannah Jane’s in Five Points? Or a grilled salmon salad at Motor Supply Company in The Vista? Then again, you could reverse that with cheesecake and coffee at Goatfeathers in Five Points, and buffalo wings and blues at Beulah’s in The Vista.

But you can play that game forever (or a long time, anyway), because there are about 15 restaurants in the Vista and about 25 in Five Points. That’s no small shakes, says Fred Delk, executive director of the Columbia Development Corp.

"To have Five Points and the Vista is very unusual. Charlotte doesn’t have anything like either one, and we have both. And Charlotte’s four or five times our size?"

Five Points, near USC and long popular with students for its bars, dance clubs, restaurants and bohemian boutiques, recently refurbished itself with a new fountain and landscaping. Wednesday night concerts attract music lovers; later they can grab a gelato at Adriana’s, sushi from Sushi Yoshi or the famous Confederate Fried Steak at Yesterdays. More adventurous diners can try the buffalo and ostrich at Saluda’s, then peruse the interesting, on-the-edge reading materials at Intermezzo, where you also can buy a cigar—about 50 different kinds. The moneyed set may want to check out the diamonds at Sylvan and DuBose (patronize them for their witty newspaper ads) and then have an elegant supper at Garibaldi’s.

Or, if you’re hippie-inclined, shop for incense and great clothes at that Five Points institution, The Joyful Alternative, or its less expensive cousin, "cosmic outfitters" OEO (for "old, eclectic and odd"). Like ethnic food? Get global with Korean and Cajun fare at The Blue Cactus, Indian at the Indian Pavilian, Greek at The Parthenon, Mexican at Monterrey Jack’s, and everything else at Harper’s. The new speakeasy-style Knock Knock Club—you need a key to get in—features the swing music of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s and an "era-authenic" menu until 6 a.m. Who couldn’t find something to suit?

Maybe Five Points is at its most festive at Halloween, when costumed revelers pack the sidewalks, or on St. Patrick’s Day, known for its free-spirited parade. Columbian Ann Dolin remembers the "Rootin’ Tootin’ Rasputins," a group of brown-robed, long-bearded men who strolled down Harden Street with lassos and pop guns, intimidating her young daughter. Funky and fun—and seedy in spots. That’s Five Points.

Across the 290-acre USC campus lies The Vista. Wrapping around and beyond Gervais Street and overlooking the Congaree River, The Vista exudes a more sophisticated aura. Up Gervais from the South Carolina State Museum are rows of expensive shops in expensively redone old buildings, and a range of antique stores. Like Five Points, The Vista has become a magnet for bar-hoppers, day-trippers and socialites, and those who enjoy the arts. The annual "ARTista Vista" draws people from across the midlands who spend one weeknight visiting galleries, listening to music and eating hors d’oeuvres. "Vista Lights" signals the holiday season with musical performances, a pink flamingo Christmas tree and activities as diverse as watching glassblowers at The One Eared Cow gallery to eating biscuits and jelly at Adluh Flour. The Vista also is home to Trustus, a professional theater that brings some of Broadway’s latest works to Columbia—often before they reach Atlanta.

"The amount of nightlife here, for a community this size, is really unbelievable," Delk says. For him, Columbia’s social spirit was best illustrated when his sister came to visit. "Her husband is a hotel manager with Hyatt and they’ve lived in all these resort cities—Miami, Orlando, and Orange County. When I brought her to The Vista on a Thursday night, she said, ‘What’s the big tourist attraction?’ I said, ‘That’s not what this is. This is local people.’ She couldn’t get over it."

Vista dining ranges from the masculine Longhorn Steaks and stylish Blue Marlin to the more European-flavored Motor Supply Company, with its changing menu and interesting art. Likewise, you can’t get more blue collar than the menu and atmosphere of the Seaboard Diner, serving Columbians for 50 years. Two brew pubs—one casual, the other less so—and the brand-new South by Southwest restaurant, with its fashionable decor and equally fashionable cuisine—draw the after-work set.

Of course, many will tell you The Vista’s best is in the west—just over the Gervais Street Bridge. Here, on State Street in West Columbia, is a happy mix of old and new: antique and vintage clothing stores, a beauty parlor and the popular Mangia! Mangia! restaurant, where you can learn Italian in the exquisitely decorated restrooms and have your car valet-parked. Two fine coffee/dessert cafes, the old favorite Al’s Upstairs restaurant (with one of the best views of Columbia) and the New Brookland Tavern all do good business immediately across from a seen-better-days mill village. The New Brookland Tavern, devoted to live rock ’n’ roll, keeps West Columbia’s gritty, "wrong side of the river" image fresh. For fun one night, check out the diverse clientele between Mangia! Mangia!, Courtyard Coffee House and New Brookland Tavern—all on the same block. Better yet, put on a leather jacket, pretend you’re James Dean and try them all.

"I see this phenomenal daily change coming at The Vista, but it happens so gradually we don’t stop to look back and see it in the perspective of time," reflects Bob Medlock, executive director of the Congaree Vista Merchants Guild. "When you look back over 10 years, it’s really amazing how different the city is."

Medlock and Jordan believe the influx of newcomers to Columbia has resulted in more metropolitan attitudes. No longer are people content to put their feet up and watch TV when they go home. "Obviously we have a niche," Medlock says. "It’s not what we lack, but what we lack in self-confidence."

Maybe the most dramatic sign Columbia is changing didn’t occur in either Five Points or The Vista, but at 1736 Main Street. That’s where the beloved Elite Epicurean served full breakfasts, country lunches and elegant-for-its-time suppers for about 40 years.

When it closed in 1997, an era ended. Gone were the men in the morning discussing the world, the overstuffed booths and the special potatoes. In their place rose something quite mod—the shimmery-glimmery LaVecchia’s Seafood Grille. With blue-green seascape art by Columbian Mike Williams and an "oyster index" of 23 different specimens, LaVecchia’s is probably the capital city’s most glamorous eating place yet.

"A Charleston restaurant in Columbia" is one familiar opinion. With the Columbia Museum of Art a block or so south, it seems fitting, particularly in light of the CMA’s current exhibit. "Sandy Skoglund: Reality Under Siege" is a first for the museum. With one-of-a-kind displays—blue foxes in a red restaurant, a cheese puff cocktail party and an eggshell bathroom—"Reality Under Siege" is getting hoots, skepticism and awe.

When Skoglund, a nationally known photographer and sculptor, made her gallery talk, more than 200 people crammed in the museum to hear her. "It was definitely standing-room-only," recalls the CMA’s Suzanne Flowers. "It only goes to show Columbia was ready for this, Columbia needed this and people are interested in learning about art."

For further proof, hit a concert by the South Carolina Philharmonic. At this year’s season opener, patrons wore everything from evening gowns to jeans. An "anything goes" attitude about dress often distinguishes a true city, some believe.


In Columbia, the abundance of culture is squeezed into a fairly compact area. Fanning out in every direction are forests, parks, rivers, the 50,000-acre Lake Murray 10 miles west, and the 22,000-acre Congaree Swamp National Monument 20 miles south. That means on any Saturday, you can fish for Lake Murray’s largemouth bass in the morning, have lunch at a Five Points deli and hike part of the Congaree Swamp’s boardwalk before changing for a Vista supper and a performance by one of the city’s almost 10 dance companies. The next day, you could do church and brunch, take your children to Riverbanks Zoo and Garden and then a show at the Columbia Marionette Theater. After work on Monday, do a happy hour or a moonlight kayak or canoe tour on the Congaree, Saluda or Broad rivers: Columbia has about 60 miles of river. You’d be tired, but you sure couldn’t say Columbia didn’t have enough to do.

Columbia’s six colleges and USC offer plenty for the athletic and academic. Take a class or audit one. Catch a game or play one. USC offers 20 varsity sports, from men in speedos to women on horseback. Aside from football, baseball, volleyball, soccer and basketball, USC sports events are free. The City of Columbia maintains 42 tennis courts; golfers can choose between 22 courses in the Greater Columbia area. It’s all available in a very unconcretelike jungle.

"Just go to the top of this building and look around! Within five miles, it’s all green," says Robin White, a Santee Cooper executive who moved to Columbia from Charleston eight years ago.

White was lunching at Capstone on the USC campus. Over grilled eggplant, rice pilaf and chicken with lemon and capers prepared by culinary students, he recalled how a bus of associates from other parts of the U.S. were astounded by the lack of urban sprawl between Charleston and Columbia. And the intersection of interstates 95 and 26 near Orange-burg isn’t surrounded by infrastructure—something White says can’t be found elsewhere in the country. "I think it’s great planning because I like trees."

Then White says the unthinkable: Columbia is every bit as fun as Charleston. "When I first heard about Columbia, people would say, ‘Columbia is great because in two hours you can be in the mountains, two hours you can be at the sea.’ I said to myself, ‘Why do they say that? Nobody says "Columbia—it’s great to be here."’ Now, I think people do say that, and that’s a tremendous change in philosophy. I don’t need to go two hours to the sea. I can stay here and be happy."

Amen, says Rupert Thompson, a CPA who came to Columbia from North Carolina in 1950. After a few years in Atlanta during the ’60s, he was glad to get back. "It was like coming to the promised land," he remembers. "I said, ‘Big, wide streets. Don’t ever let me leave again.’ " Thompson says Columbia doesn’t have Atlanta’s dreaded traffic. That alone makes him appreciate a smaller city.

"I don’t want anybody else to know about Columbia," he confides. "I like it the way it is. I’m comfortable."

Perhaps it’s the comfort (aside from the skewering summertime heat) that in the end makes Columbia a surprisingly happy place to live.

"This is a fun place to be," affirms Bob Medlock. "I had to choose between four events last Saturday night. What a sweet dilemma."


* C.R. Jackson, Inc., Contractors
* Columbia Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau

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