Sometimes coffee just won't cut it. Whether you're gathering some friends to celebrate a birthday or looking to take the edge off after an especially sad exam performance, Columbia has a restaurant that fits the bill. Check out some of the area's most buzz-worthy drinks and make this weekend one to remember — or forget.
Tios' margarita tower
It's a Friday night, you're with a group of friends and you're wondering where to go for a couple of cheap drinks. That's where Tios Mexican Cafe & Cantina, a popular college spot on Sumter Street facing the Horseshoe, comes in.
Tios' margarita tower contains three liters of the classic cocktail – or, if patrons are feeling a little more adventurous, they can try one of four other flavors, including strawberry, raspberry, melon and watermelon. There is also a blueberry flavor, which has blue curacao and is most popular among customers who want a tarter drink.
According to Tios bar manager Miga Tsegmid, the margarita tower's success can be tied to its uniqueness in the local area and as a fun way to spend a night out with friends.
Mae Chinnes, a fourth-year public health student, said the margarita tower offers convenience in both splitting the tab and a good drink.
“Last weekend, I had people coming in from out of town and people I was meeting up with on campus, so we decided this was a convenient spot and it'd be a good place to grab a drink because we could all split a tower," Chinnes said.
Talia McCool, a second-year public health student and Tios server, agreed. Since starting her job at Tios early last year, McCool has seen many customers come in and order towers because they're an easy way to get more bang for their buck.
Another Tios customer, fourth-year civil engineering student Nick Haerens, said while he hasn't frequented Tios until recently, he's had a margarita tower both times he's gone this semester. He thinks the social feeling that comes with the tower is a major reason for its popularity.
Grill Marks' spiked shakes
FreakShakes, ShakeTails and BeerShakes are what bartender Katelyn Hinnant said sets Grill Marks apart from every other burger joint.
The Vista restaurant prides itself on three things: its burgers, shakes and bar — though the shakes and bar aren't mutually exclusive.
ShakeTails replace milk with liquor. The four flavors available are Irish, Russian, roasted piña colada and s'mores, a customer favorite.
"We actually put marshmallows on the top and toast it with a torch," Hinnant said.
The s'mores ShakeTail also has vanilla vodka, chocolate and graham cracker in it.
Although the s'mores ShakeTail has a fun presentation, Hinnant said her favorite is the Irish, made with coffee liqueur, Tullamore Dew whiskey and créme de menthe. She said the bartenders put cream at the bottom and it floats to the top.
For those who prefer beer over liquor, Grill Marks also has BeerShakes, which combine whichever porter or stout is available on draft with vanilla ice cream. Right now, Grill Marks is using the Palmetto Espresso Porter in its BeerShakes.
The two BeerShakes on the menu are the Carolina Car Bombe, made with Tullamore Dew whiskey and Baileys Irish creme, and the Perky Kilt, made with Maker's Mark bourbon, espresso, Splash Trader Vic's and macadamia nut liqueur.
Hinnant said the shakes are made with house-made vanilla ice cream and whipped cream.
For those looking for a non-alcoholic choice, FreakShakes are the most popular drink according to Hinnant, who describes them as "normal, huge, creamy milkshakes."
There are six FreakShake options: cookies & cream dirt, chocolate brownie crack, salted caramel & Heath bar crunch, freaks-ahoy!, strawberry cheesecake and sundae-freakday.
Besides milkshakes, the Grill Marks bar also offers spiked floats, signature cocktails, beer, wines and a variety of Moscow Mules.
Coa's smokey piña
Coa Agaveria y Cocina opened two years ago with an idea to be the first high-end tequila bar in Columbia. Nic White, a Coa bartender, said the bar aims to please those who truly appreciate tequila, in all of its forms and flavors.
One drink in particular, the Smokey Piña, highlights exactly how versatile tequila can be. Made with Mescal Sombra, pineapple juice, honey, chipotle, lime and hellfire bitters, the Smokey Piña has a “complex, but simple” flavor, according to White.
He described it as “sweet" and "easy to drink.” Do not be fooled by the hellfire bitters ingredient, though: The Smokey Piña is not a spicy drink. In fact, White said the drink tastes just like a dessert, or like he is “eating a pineapple off the grill.”
The drink gets its smoky flavor from the Sombra Mezcal spirit. Tequila is a type of mezcal, the difference being that mezcal can be made from dozens of varieties of the agave plant, while tequila can only be made from the blue agave plant. Using different agave plants gives mezcal a "more earthy and smoky” flavor than traditional tequila, White said.
However, what sets Coa’s drinks apart is the always fresh and house-made ingredients according to White. Bartenders usually arrive anywhere between an hour and a half to two hours before the bar opens so they can prepare all of the juices and other ingredients, such as the chipotle used in the Smokey Piña. This ensures the drinks keep a certain lightness about them and are not overly sweet and syrupy tasting, as some store-bought mixes are, White said.
The star of this restaurant is the over 80 types of tequila and mezcals it offers, ranging anywhere from $6 to $240 for one shot. Located right next to the Aloft Hotel in the Vista, Coa comes fully armed with a creatively authentic Latin cuisine menu.
Bone-In BBQ's Sloe and Steady
Last year, Bone-In BBQ’s owner Scott Hall was asked to open the first restaurant in the BullStreet District, a developing area tucked in the corner of downtown Columbia. Formerly a food truck, Bone-In BBQ has grown into a full-service restaurant and bar that offers karaoke nights, catering and happy hours.
Bone-In’s cocktail menu changes every season, and all the drinks are created by bar director and general manager Jason Davis and his bartending staff. This season’s menu rolled out Sept. 20.
“The overwhelming theme of this menu is a fall spice kind of thing, ‘cause that’s what I think of when I think of fall,” Davis said.
The Sloe and Steady on this year’s menu is a returning favorite from last year, containing Plymouth Sloe Gin, Allspice Dram, lime juice and honey. Davis said the drink is extremely popular, and it’s actually one Davis created before he even worked at Bone-In BBQ. He considers it one of his favorite creations.
A seasoned bartender, Davis said he comes up with new cocktails often, and inspiration can come from something as simple as a name or a glass he sees. When he creates his seasonal menus, he said he likes the drinks to be distinct but themed. Sloe and Steady is the only cocktail on this year’s menu to have citrus and berry notes.
“It’s a very fall-flavored, spicy gin drink,” Davis said. “I try to build it, as well, within the menu so they all hit different notes, different flavors. They don’t overlap very much.”
Davis said his process for creating drinks varies, but he generally likes to alter the components in some way. For example, for his Tusk cocktail, he uses iSi cream chargers to pressure-infuse pistachio and cocoa nibs into the bourbon.
“I like to start with ingredients and then go from there. A lot of times, I’ll see something and it’ll spin off into a new idea,” Davis said. “Most of my drinks are largely alcohol in the glass, with the occasional citrus or some type of juice, but augmented in some way.”
If you ever want to try out one of its signature custom cocktails, drop by Bone-In's happy hour, every weekday from 4 to 7 p.m., or karaoke night, held every Friday from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.