The "New" Back Porch
The Back Porch on Gervais has been a South Carolina political mainstay in its own right for some time now, popping up almost daily on the soap opera that is our beloved blogosphere, and occasionally dipping its toes in more mainstream venues like Lee Bandy's "On Politics" column in The State newspaper.
Of course the Porch isn't a stranger to front page news either, like the time DOT lobbyist "Covey" Covington sparked a statewide firestorm from the Back Porch in 2004 with his accoustic performance of the clever anti-Sanford ballad "You're Not Too Bright," or when our favorite bad boy Sic Willie selected the restaurant for his infamous domestic violence interview with WIS-TV's Kara Gormley ... you remember, the one where he actually wore a Caterpillar hat and First Presbyterian Basketball Camp T-Shirt on statewide TV.
The Porch has been the site of three consecutive lobbyist Sine Die parties, numerous late night legislative dinners and has been graced by such big-time politicos as Gov. Mark Sanford, U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins, House Speaker Bobby Harrell, former Gov. David Beasley, Attorney General Henry McMaster and former House Majority Leader Rick Quinn, who joins House Judiciary Chairman Jim Harrison as one of the Porch's celebrity benefactors.
Not too shabby for a burger-and-fries joint with a unisex outhouse, right?
Well, in case you haven't been to the Porch lately, the term "burger-and-fries joint" no longer applies.
Thanks to the culinary stylings and big city saavy of new Chef Bill Shine, the Porch has undergone an extensive aesthetic, image and menu makeover that would make Joan Rivers blush - including the addition of a long side porch with six tables overlooking Gervais Street and major modifications to the now-famous "back porch" that gave the suddenly upscale eatery its name in the first place.
Inside, even its famed multi-colored "Romper Room" chairs are on the way out, enjoying "a life expectancy of two months," according to Chef Bill.
"Even at lunch I want people to have that dining experience," Bill says. "I want to feed sophisticated people good food in an upscale environment, and that's what we're doing now. I'm all about satisfying my guests. My job is to feed you, make you feel good and make you want to come back ... with several friends."
Mixing Lowcountry favorites such as his famed pork tenderloin dish with California-inspired classics like the Malibu Salad, Bill's influences run the gamut - Southern, Carribean, Asian, you name it. There's a delectable Seafood Risotto and Cornish Game Hen on the dinner menu, and lunch features six signature salads, the must-have Seafood Pizza, two shrimp dishes and Chef's self-proclaimed "other-worldly" pimento burger.
And for you red-meat diehards, FITS can speak from personal experience when we say Chef Bill cooks tender New York strips and melt-in-your-mouth filets with the best of them.
"The Fall menu will be a lot more Lowcountry," says Bill. "I'm constantly looking to update it and try new things."
Trying new things is certainly nothing new for the Chef, who not long ago shed his three-piece suit after fifteen years working mergers and acquisitions for Wall Street behemoth Goldman Sachs, a career that saw him cut multi-million dollar deals in faraway lands such as Japan, Thailand, Austrailia and Korea. After "damn near losing my sanity," however, Bill returned to his roots - taking early retirement and entering culinary school.
"(This) is what I always wanted to do in the first place, but my parents weren't having it," he says.
A plain-spoken New Yorker, Chef isn't fazed by the political proclivity of his new digs, saying "I'd cook for the Devil if he spent enough money in my restaurant." Nor did he particularly care when his new menu rubbed some of the Porch's regulars the wrong way initially.
"I expected and received some resistance," he says. "Vindication in this is that all the 'naysayers' still eat with me every day."
Of course, a big part of that is undoubtedly the Chef's skills in the kitchen, but we suspect another reason may be the Back Porch's strict adherance to the Albert Chen school of staffing - which means hiring a bevy of unbelievably attractive servers.
For example, take the pride of Richmond, Va., Emily Elizabeth Heatwole - a classic antebellum beauty who pursues a Masters in Social Work by day and effortlessly dodges the amorous intentions of Will Folks and many others by night. We hear Ms. Heatwole - who incidentally loves NASCAR and Bud Light - already has an agent in L.A.
"Nora, Sara, Emily, Taylor - they're all very good at what they do," Bill says.
"Yeah, she's 'da bomb' as we would say back in the hood."
Whatever your motivation may be, we strongly recommend giving the "new" Back Porch a visit the next time you're in downtown Columbia. It's located on Gervais Street, directly across from the Clarion Town House Hotel, roughly between the Vista and Five Points, and is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday.