Nashville has hot chicken, Austin has barbecue, but ooey gooey pimento cheeseburgers—a true Southern staple—proudly belong to Columbia, South Carolina.
It’s a little known secret of South Carolina’s capital city that the pimento cheeseburger—the most delicious form of burger to exist—was invented in Columbia by J.C. Reynolds at the long-gone Dairy Bar in 1954. Residents honor him every time they sink their teeth into that perfect combination of toasted bread, hot beef, and warm, melty pimento cheese. There are two schools of thought on the accoutrement that adorn the burger: one classic with lettuce, ketchup, and pickles, maybe sliced onions, too. The others introduce more bespoke ingredients like fried jalapeños and pecan-smoked bacon. Which way you veer is up to you, but once you get that first taste, you won’t look back.
This hidden-in-plain-sight restaurant is known for two things: not having a lick of signage and its famous pimento cheeseburger, which even has presidential status. George W. Bush once stopped by to enjoy one of their warm, melty pimento cheeseburgers, which get a healthy crunch from lettuce and pickle. Look for the expanse of red brick right along the sidewalk on Rosewood Drive and you’ll have found one of the best pimento cheeseburgers in town.
One of the few places in town to get that authentic walk-up dairy bar experience, RDB has a classic pimento cheeseburger heaped with Southern gold that nestles in well beside crinkle fries and milkshakes named after great Carolina baseball players. Right in the middle of the Rosewood neighborhood, it’s an easy walk on a warm night for folks to burn off the calories.
When your burger arrives with a giant steak knife holding it together from the top down, you know it means business. A fluffy toasted bun barely contains hand-shaped ground ribeye, fried jalapeños, a big helping of pimento cheese, and crispy bacon for a texture explosion that brings people from miles around for one of these at this Cayce establishment.
Nope, it’s not the same as the chain, but this longtime Meeting Street staple still draws a large lunchtime crowd. Many of that crowd want the pimento What-A-Burger, which rings in the most affordable of the bunch at $3.29 for a no-frills, hot, cheesy burger that’s fit to eat in the car.
Each burger here is named after an area of the Lowcountry and the two pimento cheese choices sound as heavenly as their namesakes. The Isle of Palms is appropriately fancy with pimento cheese and tingly-warm jalapeño bacon while the Caw Caw Creek burger heats it up even further with jalapeño pimento cheese, pickled green tomato, smoked bacon, and grilled onions. Don’t forget to ask for lots of napkins at this establishment of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives fame.
Bar, Craft Ale Bar, Pub, Restaurant, American, $$$
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Down below the streets of Columbia lurks the Berger Burger, the Whig’s answer to a pimento cheeseburger, made with spicy pimento cheese, bacon, grilled onions, mustard, and ketchup. It’s best enjoyed when the sun is still up in the afternoon but you’d never know it down in this moodily lit bar with a tiny kitchen cranking out unexpectedly good eats.
Aptly named the Carolina Burger at Henry’s, this burger comes with a slathering of house-made pimento cheese and plenty of bacon atop eight ounces of Angus beef to crate a salty treat that’ll have you reaching for one of the many craft beers from the restaurant’s menu. Three locations around town make it hard to be too far from this magical burger.
The fanciest of the bunch, this monstrous burger is packed with smoked pimento cheese, pecan bacon, and a dill pickle slice. The neighborhood hangout has indoor and outdoor seating, plus plenty of craft beer options and really, really good fries.
The handmade beef patty is the star of the show at this cozy little diner on B Avenue in West Columbia. The extra cheddar-y pimento cheese is offset with a simple array of lettuce, tomato, and onion slices for some vegetal crunch.
Only at lunchtime can you get 10 ounces of ground beef, expertly blackened and topped with a signature French Quarter pimento cheese, and a classic lettuce, onion, tomato, and pickle combination to top it off. Also, the restaurant’s $5 glasses of lunch wine hit the spot before heading back to the office on a weekday.
This everyman’s pimento cheeseburger in the Irmo area costs a mere $4.69 and comes with chips and a pickle. You know this is a long-run mom-and-pop lunch spot when you can make it a basket with fries and slaw for an additional $2.50.