Posted by The LunchMen Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Lunchmen are delighted to bring you a special guest post from loyal reader and commenter "Hooley," who has graciously provided this long overdue review of a true Columbia institution. Enjoy!

After their humiliating, first-round knockout in the Lunchmen’s March Madness Showdown, I’m here to stick up for Rockaway Athletic Club (a/k/a "Rockaway's"), whom I had winning the title in my bracket. This Columbia institution, this nigh-holy temple of burger artistry, this phoenix-from-the-ashes jewel in our capitol city’s lunchtime crown BOUNCED in round one? My friends, this transgression will not stand.

I’ve been frequenting Rockaway Athletic Club since it was a no-sign, secret-knock kinda place, when you had to “know someone” to show you which door was the entrance. And then it burned down. Seriously.

After they rebuilt, gone was some of their previous speakeasy charm, but the great burgers, pimento cheese fries, onion rings, and occasional seafood remained. Still no sign, though, unless you count the occasional cardboard box panel with their specials written on it wedged into the patio fence by the back door.

Let there be no doubt that the burgers are the stars of the Rockaway’s show. I’m sure I’ve had a couple hundred of them over the years, and I can’t recall a bad one. While you can choose several types of cheese (including their homemade pimento cheese), grilled mushrooms, and assorted veg, my personal jam is the bacon/Swiss burger. The burger itself is always juicy and tender. The bun is soft and fresh, and the toppings are nicely flavorful. For my money, it’s the best burger in Columbia.

Even with such an extraordinary burger, a man cannot live on burgers alone. I’ve explored the rest of Rockaway’s menu a bit over the years. The grilled chicken sandwich, onion rings, and hot dogs are all quite good. And you definitely shouldn’t miss the pimento cheese fries. The fries are crinkle-cut, my favorite style of French fry, and the cheese is smooth and creamy when melted. Make sure you only order the cheese fries if you dine in because they do not travel well. One last thing about the pimento cheese: you can order a side of it to put on anything. On a recent visit, I tried it on a baked potato, and it was excellent.

The knock against Rockaway’s I always hear is their poor service. Now I don’t doubt that’s the case because I’ve had a couple slow, inattentive servers there, but in my overall experience, the service has been just fine. Certainly nothing worth complaining about. In fact, on my most recent dinner visit, the food was at our table within ten minutes of ordering it, and our drinks were constantly refilled to the point of my girlfriend saying she wished our server would STOP refilling her drink. I guess I’ll just say I’ve heard the horror stories of bad service, but I haven’t personally experienced any service poor enough to remember.

With Rockaway’s you get awesome burgers and sides, ample parking, lots of seating options, and service that’s either great (my experience) or not great (Internet consensus). For me, it doesn’t get better for lunchtime in Columbia than a bacon/Swiss burger and pimento cheese fries from Rockaway’s. I’m still a little shaken up they got eliminated in the first round of the lunch bracket. Big thanks to the Lunchmen for letting me come on here and work through my issues.



  1. Rabbit Says:
  2. Hooley,

    Like you, I remember the pre-fire RAC. I also recall with great fondness the period after the fire and before the new building, when Rockaway transferred their menu over to sister restaurant Pizza Man. For most of my college career we spent many evenings at the Pizza Man enjoying thin crust pizza, pimento cheese fries, and draft beer. Those were the days indeed.


  3. Another cool aspect of the post-fire, pre-new place period was that back then the Pizza Man still had Reggie delivering. Getting a Rockaway burger delivered to your house...now that was livin'!

  4. north2south Says:
  5. Sorry, but you are living in the past. Perhaps at some point RAC had the best burgers in town, but no longer. Today their burgers are outclassed by ones at Cock n' Bull, Backyard Cafe, Murray's, and Pawley's.

  6. skunktails Says:
  7. I can't speak on Cock n' Bull bc I'm a slave to shrimp burger, and I've never been to Murray's (Lunchmen - are you guys sleeping on that place too???).

    But Pawley's? Backyard Cafe? Is that some kind of horrible joke? Pawley's needs to back down the size of their burgers and improve their bun game. Their concept and ambition have gotten in the way of simple execution. If Backyard Cafe is the place I think it is - in an old house way out from town - you need to go south2north bc your credibility is shot down here. That place is the president of the boo list.

  8. north2south Says:
  9. Pawley's was at the end of the list. Very good toppings, and good--but admittedly not great--burgers. Still better than Rockaway's, in my opinion. And you are just plain mistaken about Backyard Cafe. I went back just the other day. If you haven't had their "backyard burger," preferably medium rare, you are missing out on one of the best burgers in the area. I can't speak to the rest of their menu.

    P.S. Hunter Gatherer has a good burger, too.

  10. Willie Says:
  11. Rockaways is always good... at making me ill later. I have instituted a rule for my friends to disallow my entrance there after football games, regardless of reason or sobriety.

  12. Anonymous Says:
  13. Rockaway had great burgers 6 years ago, now they are nasty. I put up a fight every single time the Publican tries to force me there.


  14. Anonymous Says:
  15. I have found a new great burger for a great price at an old time favorite, Yesterday's in Five Points. They started the new hand made burger and are using CAB fresh ground beef. Try one and you don't have to take out a loan to afford one like Pawley's overpriced burgers. Just like Rising High they start great then start using inferior products.


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Rabbit, Tank, and The Publican are three dudes just trying to get through the work week here in Columbia. Rabbit is a Columbia native, Tank is from Charleston, and The Publican hails from Greenville. Rabbit's favorite lunch spot is the No Name Deli on Elmwood, where you may find him putting down a grilled chicken salad and a side of vinegar pasta. The Publican usually wants to find food to cure his all-too-common hangovers. Tank claims no favorite lunch spot - he lives for the thrill of the hunt.


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