Leapin’ Lizards!

21 menu proppedLinda Burton posting from Columbia, South Carolina – Home Meal Replacement. That’s the designation the Lizard’s Thicket country cooking restaurants give themselves, and it fits. As I stood at the counter to pay my bill, a woman just ahead placed her “To Go” order – green beans, squash casserole, cornbread dressing, and a triple portion of meatloaf. “I’ll be able to get it all on the table before my husband gets home,” she said, looking very pleased. She moved onto a counter stool to wait and I turned and told her about a restaurant in Tennessee that provided eggshells and potato peels for your garbage can, so you could convince your husband you cooked it all. “Honey,” she replied, “as good as this food is, my husband will know I didn’t cook it!” Apparently these are the sentiments of much of the population of Columbia; they enthusiastically support 15 Lizard’s Thicket “country 21 menu boardcooking” restaurants around the city, and, as I was informed by the manager of one, “49% of our business comes from Take Home.” But people like to eat in the restaurants too, hanging out with neighbors and friends in a comfortable booth facing the big blackboard on the wall that lists the 25 vegetables they serve (yes, macaroni and cheese IS a vegetable). And being waited on by a staff that seems to remember faces, and preferences.

Like the experience of the two ladies at the table next to me one day. From their conversation I learned that one visited the other at the nursing home once a week, and treated her to a weekly outing at Lizard’s Thicket. The server brought their tea right away, one sweet and one not; one with lemon and one not. She asked about their week, and brought a little extra 21 first mealchicken broth when she brought their food. Cozy, just like home. I spotted families there with a string of young’uns crowding into their booth; an older couple dressed to the nines on what was either a first date or a preciously preserved long marriage (he solicitously inquired what she wanted to eat and detailed her choices to the server, first carefully specifying hers, and then his). The place drew me back day after day; when you’ve been on the road for a year, is there anything better than a hearty serving of beef stew on a rainy day, or home-cooked green beans and cornbread dressing, served with conversation that’s just as warm, and satisfying, as the food?

21 Bob and Anna WilliamsLizard’s Thicket has been in business for 35 years now; they have 600 employees and serve about 13,000 down-home country-cooking meals a day. Bob and Anna Williams started out in a five-room house they converted into three small dining rooms and a kitchen; Anna battered the okra herself, and fried the chicken in a skillet. Today the children and grandchildren are involved in every facet of the operation of their 15 restaurants and the name “Lizard’s Thicket” is part of the lingo of the town. Newbies like me had to ask, of course. Why the name? The story goes like this: when Bob and Anna decided to open a restaurant, they planned to name it “Anna’s Country Kitchen.” Turns out there was already a restaurant by that name. 21 original signBob remembered seeing a place on a visit to Alabama named “Lizard’s Thicket,” so they settled on that instead. Good thing; it’s rather catchy, don’t you think?

Lizard’s Thicket also is big into catering, and promises they can take feed 40 or 4,000. Check their website for menus and hours and locations. Check it for job opportunities too (a great place for housewives or students to supplement their income) and for gift cards and t-shirts and mugs. “Country cookin’ makes ya good lookin’” is the theme; they invite you to post your own good-lookin’ photos on their Facebook page, such as “kids eating their veggies”! http://lizardsthicket.com/

21 msc sign and doorI made another interesting “local restaurant” discovery on my Sunday brunch quest in Columbia. “Motor Supply Company” says the authentic 1930’s sign, still hanging by the side door in the parking lot of a National Historic Register building that dates back to the 1800’s. It’s in the popular Congaree Vista area of town, just a few blocks from the State House on Gervais. But there are no motors inside; the walls are decked in Andy Warhol style; the place is bustling with a lively crowd enjoying what they call “Always Delicious Always Different” food. They aren’t kidding about the “different” part; the chef changes the food selections every day (twice!) and hand-writes the menu; it is posted online a half-hour before service begins.

21 msc art and peopleIt’s diverse – American, French, Italian and Asian – and it is home made; everything is done in-house. That means they make their own stocks for sauces, and do their own butchering and smoking. Owner Eddie Wales states the mission of Motor: to provide the finest made-from-scratch culinary experience in an upbeat cosmopolitan atmosphere. Eddie knows the business; he started out as a waiter at Motor when it opened in 1989; he purchased it in 2000. Chef Tim Peters has been at Motor since 2005; he buys everything he can from local, sustainable farms. Everything is up-to-the minute fresh; that’s why he writes those menus out twice a day, by hand.

21 menuMy handwritten Sunday Brunch menu on February 17, 2013, offered Pan-Seared Rainbow Trout w Champagne and Roasted Garlic Cream; House Smoked Prime Rib w Classic Bordelaise; French Toast w Macerated Blueberries and Chocolate Ganache served w Fresh Fruit. I chose the Buttermilk-Parmesan Biscuit smothered w Creamy Housemade Sausage Gravy. It came perched atop thick yellow stone-ground grits with scrambled eggs to the side and a tomato/asparagus garnish. And oh yes, I added one of Columbia’s Best Bloody Marys. Motor Supply Company, 920 Gervais Street, Columbia http://motorsupplycobistro.com/

Leapin’ Lizards! “Home Made” can mean so many delicious things!