When people visit bustling downtown Greenville, South Carolina now, most of them have no idea that Main Street was a four-lane ghost town artery for a while. In the golden days, downtown was where everyone went to go shopping and and there were department stores from Belk, Kress, and J.C. Penny. Then it followed the same path as many urban cores in the 1970s as shopping malls with giant parking lots drew the crowds instead. The big stores left, then the little ones, along with all the shoppers.
Many downtown main streets in America never recovered, but those cities led by a mayor with a vision and political will eventually roared back. Greenville was one of those and now it’s thriving.
“I think at one point there were only five restaurants in Greenville proper,” says my food tour guide John. “Now there are 130 and the number keeps going up.” The biggest problem now is staffing. “This is not Atlanta or even Charleston where there’s a deep well of experienced cooks and servers,” he explains. “New restaurants opening up need to do a lot of in-house training.”
A Culinary Tour of Modern Greenville
This is not such a problem for the restaurants on our tour because they’re all part of the long-established Table 301 Group. One of the spots we visit is their locally famous Soby’s New South Cuisine. It was an island in a sea of neglect when it opened in 1997. The 1860 rough wood beams in the ceiling had overlooked a grocery store, a wagon shop, a shoe mart, and more before becoming the fine dining spot today that wins Wine Spectator awards. The interiors are warm and inviting, but you can also rent the wine cellar table out with just a $250 minimum spend—not hard for a party of eight. At this stop we got to sample tenderloin meatballs with a peanut and pimento sauce and polenta, paired with a nice pinot noir.
We also visited their Soby’s on the Side, which has a more casual deli atmosphere. The ricotta dumplings with garlic sauce and fennel salad with asparagus we sampled was terrific though, especially since we had a mimosa on the side.
A block up the street we popped into popular Nose Dive, where they serve “urban comfort food.” Our plates contained something I never would have ordered off the menu: charred cauliflower with shishito peppers. Covered with a Spanish hazelnut and pepper sauce, finished with rocotta and pine nuts, it was so surprisingly good that a guy who doesn’t like cauliflower finished it all. The pairing choice was also a good one: Sound Czech Pilsner from Terrapin Beer Company out of Georgia.
We did a bit of a walking history tour before the next restaurant, learning about the courthouse, City Hall, the Poinsett Hotel, and the evolution of the river that’s now the centerpiece of the city. At Passarelle Bistro we had an entree-sized, perfectly grilled piece of trout with vegetables and a white wine. Thankfully some more walking followed, through the attractive riverfront park by the waterfalls and the dramatic Liberty Bridge for pedestrians.
The last stop for dessert was The Lazy Goat, an airy riverfront spot where we had a tasty flourless chocolate cake with purple basil atop the sauce, paired with an Italian sparkling wine.
Swamp Rabbits and Zotz in Greenville
The next day I made up for my caloric intake by taking a long bike ride on the Swamp Rabbit Trail from downtown. This is one of those “rail to trail” projects where an abandoned railway line was paved and turned into a path that everyone could use. Now it’s very popular with joggers, walkers, and cyclists who want to get some fresh air and exercise. If you head left from downtown you can get to Cleveland Park and the zoo. I took a right and headed north though, which brought me past a fascinating landscape of factories (some abandoned, some humming), an old rail car that was too expensive to move, and shady forests. I eventually got to Furman University and took a spin around campus before returning.
I had one last stop to make before heading out though. I needed to check out the travel gear, browse the games, and pick up some retro candy at the Mast General Store outlet. (See Sheila’s profile of another Mast General here.) Even if you’re not buying anything this store is worth checking out, but anyone from age 3 to 103 is going to find something that catches their eye here. Have a rest in a rocking chair outside when you’re done. These days, there’s always a crowd to check out.
If You Go:
At $49 a person, the At the Chef’s Table Culinary Tour is a terrific value. You get five stops, with more than just a bite or two, and great background along the way from a guy who also leads history tours and has a book about the city published.
To ride the Swamp Rabbit Trail, hit the city bike stand if you’ll be out for less than an hour. A better option for longer jaunts though is Reedy Rides downtown. They have comfortable, well-maintained bicycles that’ll be good for exploring all 20 miles if you want, then riding around the various neighborhoods if you want.
For information on the city, see the Visit Greenville website ahead of time, then stop by their visitors center for information and a good printed guide. Check out this budding Carolinas Travel blog from a local resident.
Find a great hotel for your stay here.