The local dining experience is a tempting smorgasbord of flavors and experiences, according to residents. Even though Aiken is small by city standards, it has a variety of choices that aren't limited to fast food joints and big chain restaurants.

“Aiken has an excellent selection for its size, and that has a lot to do with the Winter Colony and the people who come and go with the horses,” said Billy Benton of Fox & Hound Realty. “There are so many places where the owner is either meeting you at the door or is in the back cooking. The independent establishments are what really make Aiken very, very special.”

Benton and Jane Gunnell, president of the Aiken Opera Society, dine out together often and enjoy visiting old favorites and trying out new eateries. The well-known breeders of Carolina dogs are especially fond of the restaurant at The Willcox on Colleton Avenue.

“The Willcox is a lovely place, and the people who own it are plugged into the community,” said Gunnell, who founded and served as the president of the Legal Support Center in Virginia. “The clientele is such that you know 70 percent of the people when you go there, which is always fun, and there are a lot of younger people there, which is fun, too. The food is very good; the filet and the lamb chops are excellent. The pate with the wine sauce (chicken liver pate with port wine gelée and toasted bread) is the best thing that we've gotten there.”

According to Benton, “a place that has turned out nicely” is The Red Pepper in the Centre South Shopping Center on Silver Bluff Road.

“They had fabulous mussels (a seasonal special) the other day, and the quiche is good,” he said. “They've got an outside patio with a tiki bar kind of thing going on, and it attracts a very congenial kind of crowd.”

Benton also recommended the Swamp Fox on Chesterfield Street for its “tasty” shrimp and grits, Magnolia Natural Market & Café on York Street for its quiche and soups, the New Moon Café on Laurens Street for its “great coffees” and Malia's on Laurens Street for its “great steak salad.” He said he also likes the General Elliott Inn on New Bridge Road because “the bar is wonderful and the way they cook food is excellent.”

Gunnell is a fan of the Stoplight Deli on Laurens Street.

“They have the best sandwiches in the world,” she said. “They have all fresh stuff. You don't feel like you've gotten a sandwich that's been made for three hours or meat that's been in the refrigerator for six weeks.”

Both Benton and Gunnell called the hamburgers at City Billiards on Richland Avenue “the best” in Aiken.

“The hamburgers take you back to the '60s,” Benton said. “They're not frozen patties.”

Said Gunnell: “They're thick; the meat isn't packed together. They're like the hamburgers you would grill at home.”

Cot Campbell, president of Dogwood Stable, adores Prime Steakhouse on Richland Avenue.

“I'm a steak man, and I love the professionalism of (owner and chef) Randy Stamm,” Campbell said. “The steaks are good and so is the lobster. It has a nice atmosphere, and the service is wonderful. It's like being at Gallagher's in New York.”

Campbell's other favorites are Linda's Bistro on York Street and Malia's

Linda's Bistro “is a cute place and the food is delicious,” Campbell said. He described the meals at Malia's as “great and well-served.”

Don and Fran Bush, who own Booklovers Bookstore with their daughter, Angela Poe, like to eat at Auten's on Pine Log Road and Zorba's Island Bar Restaurant on Silver Bluff Road.

“Auten's has really good Southern home cooking,” Fran Bush said.

“The people there are so friendly,” Don Bush added.

Zorba's “has some of the best pizza in town,” Fran Bush, “but my personal favorite is the chicken parmesan. It is so incredibly good.”

For Don Bush, the top choice at Zorba's is the super sub, which has ham, salami, bacon and melted mozzarella in it.

“We split it,” he said.

Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard.