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Mise En Place, Columbia contenders to fill void left when Valencia Garden closed

In pondering who will "fill the void" now that the famed Valencia Garden's 82-year-old run has ended, I chose those three words carefully.

You can't replace an institution, only hope to be a viable alternative. Even if the Valencia owners set up shop somewhere else, it might not be the same. Here's why:

1) The CBS factor: CBS is code for "see and be seen." Valencia's main dining room drew the politicos and power brokers and put them in full view, fueling speculation and innuendo better than a grocery checkout line gossip rag.

2) The straw: Don't underestimate the influence of proprietor David Agliano. He knew all the players by name, even if they had never met the man or dined at his place. He paid attention to detail, and smartly guided the seating in "the room," stirring it nicely.

3) The parking: Influential people want to go where they can get in and out. Valencia's parking made that possible.

4) Proximity to power: It's not simply that Valencia was close to downtown. It was close to County Center, City Hall and the courthouses.

5) Ambience/cuisine: The white linen cloth decor lent class, but the pricing points on the Spanish/Cuban selections didn't scare you away. Plus, it was open to the public, unlike the private clubs, and well established, unlike some newer places.

So given those qualities, here are my frontrunners:

Mise En Place. This is my top pick. Although people can hide in the lower-level seating, it's upper-level dining room already carries a high CBS rating. It's an easy drive from downtown and it has the parking. Plus, proprietor Maryann Ferenc doesn't need a scorecard, and wants it to be the place where deals are done and arguments made.

"We've already had our foot in that door, to some degree," Ferenc said.

But no Spanish cuisine.

My suggestion? Have "Valencia Days" maybe twice a month in the restaurant's Lafayette Room banquet space — a nice open area — and serve up some arroz con pollo and plantains.

Columbia-Ybor City. A close second. Even more of an institution than Valencia, it has the cuisine, the ambience and the parking. But it's multiple dining areas don't offer as many CBS possibilities, even though you can spot notables in the patio area.

220 East. One of the first people to find the padlock on Valencia last week turned to this Davis Islands locale. It doesn't quite have the CBS feel, and parking can be tricky (use the side streets). No Spanish cuisine, but great food and it has some notable regulars like former Mayor Dick Greco.

Spain. It has the cuisine and the bright open room. What it needs is a point person to stir the crowd and greater popularity. Parking also is a challenge, but it is a short walk from City Hall.

Malio's Prime. The new Malio's has a downtown location, but parking is a challenge and pricing points are above the norm. Most important, the linear design doesn't lend itself to the CBS crowd.

Of course, as the community grows, iconic gathering spots give way to varied choices and less tradition.

"We're a big city, and as we become a big city you lose a lot of that atmosphere, that homey feeling," Greco told the Times' Justin George. "Those things, like people, pass away. It is what it is."

Sometimes, I hate progress.

That's all I'm saying.

Mise En Place, Columbia contenders to fill void left when Valencia Garden closed 06/08/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 8, 2009 9:14pm]
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