For a relatively small city (population 134,000) in the most conservative state on the Eastern Seaboard, Columbia has a surprisingly fervent gay nightlife scene. A couple of the town's most popular gay bars are directly within view of the stately capital building, and you'll find a few more mixed but gay-friendly bars and hangouts in the hip Five Points neighborhood, not far from the campus of the University of South Carolina. If Columbia isn't exactly a gay mecca, it does nevertheless rank among the more gay-welcoming destinations in the state, and it hosts the annual South Carolina Gay Pride celebration in late October each year.
Here's a sampling, in alphabetical order, of fun, gay-friendly places to drink and dine in this friendly city and hub of South Carolina politics and education.
On Friday nights, queer folk pack the dancefloor at Art Bar (1211 Park St.), an inviting, carnivalesque space that includes giant robots, graffitied bathroom wisdom, string lights, and other kitschy paraphernalia. The rest of the week, the bar draws a fun mixed crowd to its live shows, karaoke (on Wednesdays), and happy hours. It's located near downtown Columbia's two gay bars (Capital Club and PT's 1109), so definitely worth a stop any night of the week.
One of the oldest gay bars in the Southeast, and the oldest in Columbia, the laid-back and friendly Capital Club (1002 Gervais St.) is right around the corner from PT's 1109 and a block from the state capitol building - it's along a stretch of Gervais that's been a big part of the city's recent gentrification, and you'll find several notable restaurants and mixed bars along this block and continuing south for a few more. This is a good place to mingle at the bar and chat with locals - there's a long bar on the left as you enter, and plenty of cozy spots to sit and chat. It's a good place to kick off a night of revelry, perhaps before heading to PT's 1109 to dance.
Located in the heart of the bustling and collegiate Five Points retail and entertainment district, boho-funky Drip Coffee (729 Saluda Ave.) is open until 10 pm most night (6 pm on Sundays) and is good fun as a place to mingle with friends, get work done, sip honey-vanilla lattes and other tasty espresso drinks, and enjoy light cafe fare, such as pancetta breakfast sandwiches and peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches on raisin bread - the kitchen makes a point to source as much as possible from local farmers. In addition to coffee, Drip carries a nice selection of craft beers and wines by the glass. There's also a downtown location (at 1441 Main St.), but it's not open as late and isn't quite as much fun for people-watching - still, it's handy if you just need to fuel up on caffeine.
Some of the best, most innovative food in the city can be found just a short walk from both the Capitol and the city's gay bars. Motor Supply Co. Bistro (920 Gervais St.) has been serving outstanding farm-to-table fare in the Congaree Vista area since 1989, years before the district's transformation in the late '90s and early '00s. The eclectic handwritten menu changes daily, based on the availability of fresh ingredients, which are all sourced from local farms or made in-house. You can find such dishes as local strawberry, house mozzarella, and pear salad, and a fresh-fish catch over green garlic puree with citrus gremolata. The comprehensive, award-winning wine list matches the overall quality of this fine establishment, that's a favorite for a date night or special occasion.
Literally in the shadows of the South Carolina capitol building, PT's 1109 (1109 Assembly St.) is arguably the most popular all-around gay bar in Columbia, with a good-size dance floor, plasma-screen video monitors, great drink specials, and a nicely equipped sound system. There are drag shows at various times, along with a variety of parties, from political fundraisers to events supporting Gay Pride and other community organizations. If you're feeling peckish, note that Takoushi, next door, is a nice option for Japanese food.