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liz gunnBy Liz Gunn || I had the pleasure last night of dining at one of my all-time favorite Columbia restaurants.  Anytime someone asks for a restaurant recommendation in downtown Columbia, I always reply without hesitation – “Mr. Friendly’s.” It’s consistent, the menu is creative (while offering something for every palate) and the service is unparalleled.

They don’t take reservations, which annoys some people, but I actually like that about the place.  You know you’re on equal footing with everyone else in line.

The bar is small, but the bartenders are friendly, efficient and well equipped to make good wine suggestions.  One perk of Mr. Friendly’s location is that its sister restaurant “Cellar on Greene” is right next door.  If the bar at Friendly’s is too crowded, we get our name on the list then head to Cellar while we wait.  Last night was half-priced champagne night, so it suited me just fine to start my evening with a glass of ($5) bubbly.  And the Ahi Tuna Nachos, naturally.

I regard Mr. Friendly’s as Columbia’s flagship restaurant.  There are other good places to eat nearby like Garibaldi and Saluda’s, but neither has remained as consistent and up-to-date as Mr. Friendly’s.  This isn’t a knock on the other guys as much as it is a nod to Friendly’s for staying to true to its vision while making necessary changes in order to stay relevant.

I’ve never had a bad meal at Garibaldi, but I do tire of feeling like I stepped onto the set of Miami Vice when I walk in.  The décor hasn’t been updated since the first time I ate there twenty some odd years ago.  However, we do occasionally pop in for dessert at the bar because that almond basket is hard to beat.

Saluda’s has changed hands a few times, and unlike Friendly’s the food has been somewhat hit or miss.  I’ve had incredible meals there, but I’ve also had very average meals there.   The balcony that overlooks Five Points is nice, but there is only a small window of time between seasons when you can enjoy dining al fresco in Columbia.

Some other great restaurants within the city limits to choose from are Motor Supply, Oak Table, Bourbon and Hampton Street Vineyard.  Some relatively new and some have been around for quite some time.  The food and service are particularly good at all of them.  But in my humble opinion, none of them quite measure up to the overall dining experience I always have at Mr. Friendly’s.

I’m sure it’s not called Mr. Friendly’s for this reason, but when you dine there – you really do feel as if you’re among friends.  If you live here or plan to visit, do yourself a favor and stop in for lunch or dinner.  They serve sophisticated food, but a in an eclectic casual atmosphere.

They also offer great specials like half-priced wine at dinner when the Gamecocks are playing football at home, and on Monday Nights they offer “Meatloaf, Moonpies & Half-Priced Wine”.

Never allowing the menu to get stale, they create specials in accordance with the seasons, holidays or events happening around town.  This week is “Tailgate Week.”  They’re serving tailgate classics like nachos, hot dogs and burgers, but with a “Friendly” twist. (We had the blackened shrimp & crawfish nachos and they did NOT disappoint!)

Best of all you never know who you might run into.  Last night, dining nearby were Tim Tebow, Jesse Palmer and Brent Musburger from ESPN!

Liz Gunn is a wife, mom, author, businesswoman, travel enthusiast, food snob, fashionista, lover of great wine and the No. 1 Gamecock football fan … ever.  A graduate of the University of South Carolina, she lives in Columbia, S.C. with her husband and daughter.