The latest estimate from the U.S. Census says Columbia County now has 109,000 people.
And every single one of them this week will be waiting on a table at your favorite restaurant.
Actually, that's not entirely true: Just 91,000 of them will be. A recent market study finds that 16 percent of Columbia County residents leave town during Masters Week, also sometimes known here as "spring break." So at least those 17,000 or so people won't be competing for your spot.
There's more good news, too. Whether you're a resident or just happen to be staying in the home of one, the sometimes-bleak view of dining out this week is mostly wrong.
As Columbia County Chamber of Commerce Director Karen Chrjapin contends, the wait on a table in a Columbia County restaurant is about half of what it will be this week in Augusta.
How bad are those waits? Well, you've seen the ticket-brokers with their motor homes parked on Washington Road, right? Some of those guys are already waiting in line for a table at Carrabba's. If your name hasn't been on the list since mid-March, forget about it.
The opposite often is true out here. As many of the more-enlightened locals and worried restaurateurs know, fear of long waits often means no wait at all.
That's because as spring break approaches, some residents act like there's a tornado coming. They raid the grocery stores for bread and milk before hunkering down at home until Masters Week passes.
The result? Some of the restaurants paradoxically see lighter crowds. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, they're so popular no one goes there.
So, once you've decided to venture out - either because you're a visitor, a resident entertaining guests, or because the grocery stores were out of milk and bread - where do you go to sample food that is uniquely Columbia County?
Well, when you find it, tell me. I'll go the week after everyone leaves.
Just kidding. Seriously, here are my ideas for a few Martinez-Evans restaurants you either might not have tried or haven't heard of - and, most importantly, that don't exist anywhere else because they aren't franchise chains:
-- The Sidetrack Bar and Grill. While Chuck Large and his folks might be a little more crowded this week, perhaps owing to their Washington Road location, the Sidetrack is one of the county's older restaurants and still does a fine job. The hamburgers are great and the prices are reasonable, and Chuck would get all whiny if I didn't mention him.
-- Osaka Sushi. Not one, but at least seven places in the Martinez-Evans area serve sushi (not counting the stuff in plastic boxes at the grocery stores). My favorite is the tiny Osaka Sushi, in the little strip center behind Evans Diner and down the sidewalk from Garlic Clove (another great restaurant). Ginza, just down Washington Road, has more of the Japanese food diners around here are accustomed to, but also has a great sushi bar.
-- Ruth's. Like the Sidetrack, Edmund's Barbecue and Mott's Barbecue, Ruth's Restaurant is a redneck institution for this part of the world. I prefer breakfast, but Snow and the staff do a great meat-and-three for lunch, too. Sunrise Grill, across the street at West Town, is great, too.
-- Rhinehart's Oyster Bar. Yeah, I know; it's already so popular that no one goes there. But during Masters Week, while the Rhinehart's on Washington Road is stacked 10-deep in sunburns and golf shirts, our Rhinehart's on Belair Road is usually approachable - and the food consistently is excellent.
That's just a tiny fraction of our great non-chain restaurants in Columbia County. Check them out this week, unless you've really got a hankering for that bread and milk.
Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to email@example.com, or call 706-863-6165, extension 106.
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