Columbia is one of those cities with a curious network of roads, often giving a traveler several options for getting where they want to go. Ever cut through the surface streets of Forest Acres or Shandon to get around? Ever ask two different people how to get somewhere and get two different, but correct sets of directions? How about instead of the highway, taking River Drive and Broad River to get to Greystone? Options are nice, but sometimes they can obscure the destination. A lot like our paths in life.
It’s easy now to see that Dianne Light is one of those rare people who find themselves right in the middle of something they were meant to do. But the path there wasn’t always so clear. With the success of her iconic restaurant on Devine Street, it may be hard to believe that there was a time when Dianne delved into the fashion industry, partying with Oleg Cassini in New York, or nearly forsook the restaurant business altogether for a burgeoning successful career as an interior designer. Generations of Columbia restaurant-goers (and others) are glad she didn’t stray too far.
Maybe it’s in her blood. Dianne’s father was in the restaurant equipment business and she would sometimes go with him when he called on places such as the Market Restaurant in Columbia, or Mama’s Tea Room in Charleston. While waiting for him to finish his business, she would chat it up with the owners and managers, or watch the chefs’ busy cycle as they directed activities in their kitchens.
Although she had been close to the restaurant business, she didn’t take a job in the industry. Instead, her first foray into the business world was when she and a girlfriend took a memorable trip to New York City, happened to strike up a relationship with Mr. Cassini at a fashion show, and returned to Columbia to open a dress shop and beauty salon on Devine Street. She now admits to her lack of experience in the fashion industry, but that didn’t deter her from making the most of it and having a blast.
Her path swung back to restaurants when her former husband got involved with Columbia mainstay, Labrasca’s Pizza. Dianne was soon co-owner of one of the most popular pizza joints in town, and she dived right into it. She recalls her first night waiting tables – three men left her a generous tip; and when she found it, she chased them into the parking lot thinking that they had forgotten the cash. After awhile, she opened another popular restaurant named after her and her daughters, Jennifer and Suzanne – Jesudi’s.
Diane eventually sold her part in the business and decided to try something new. She took a sales job with a company that sold carpet and other interior décor items. It may have been her assertiveness that prompted a local advertising company to ask her if she would design the interior of their new building. It was something at which she had no formal training, but she wanted to push her career to the next level. Without hesitation, she stated that she could do it. Her boss gave her the go-ahead and the project was a success.
Sometimes the path finds it’s way back. After a few successful years, Dianne took another opportunity and became co-owner (with her brother) of The Loft in the Five Points space now occupied by the Village Idiot. While it was not exactly a restaurant, The Loft became a successful nightspot with Columbia’s trendy movers and shakers in the ‘80’s.
That experience undoubtedly primed Dianne to take the next opportunity that came her way, and she opened her own restaurant, Dianne’s, on Assembly Street. Even with her connections and experience, the restaurant struggled at first, but Dianne was determined to make it work. There eventually came a time when she needed a salad-maker. Without doing much checking, she hired a guy who just happened to find himself in Columbia without gas money to get back to Los Angeles.
Two paths converge. Billy Prato, who held a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, had been visiting friends when an opportunity popped up for an easy job at Dianne’s. He planned to work a few weeks, gas up his car, and hightail it out of Columbia. That was about seventeen years ago. Dianne noticed one night that her new salad-maker was running the kitchen – and doing a good job at it. She made Billy an offer (which he couldn’t refuse) to stay on as her Executive Chef. He made some strategic changes to the menu and streamlined, among other things, the procurement of ingredients and supplies. Dianne worked outside the kitchen hosting and waiting tables and the restaurant soon became an unmitigated success.
Despite the success, Dianne was never satisfied with the restaurant’s location near the Soaps laundry at Whaley and Assembly. After a few years, she found their current location on Devine Street (formerly Griff’s and The Peddler). While Chef Prato mastered the kitchen, she used her people skills outside in the dining room and tapped into her interior design talent; and together they produced what we now know as Dianne’s on Devine.
It’s all about walking the same path. Chef Prato had always dreamed of opening his own New York-style deli, and Dianne worked with him to see it come to fruition. They found a Pickens Street property (formerly the Purple Cow grocery) and opened the red hot and aptly dubbed lunch spot – DiPrato’s. Recognizing a good thing when they saw it, they made an offer to the Cow’s former co-owner, Miss Flo, to stay on and prepare her popular southern recipes such as black-eyed pea salad, tomato pie, and her delectable pimiento cheese.
Dianne’s has long been known as the place to go in Columbia for a special occasion meal. After all, you can’t just go anywhere and find Chef Prato’s Crab Stuffed Filet Mignon. But as a wanderer from Minnesota once said, “the times they are a’changin’.” So Dianne, in keeping with the times, has recently set up a baby grand piano in a corner near the bar, and hired some musicians to transform part of her restaurant. A few sofas, new round tables, and light jazz soften the atmosphere after dinner a few nights a week. When Dianne’s patrons return, as they inevitably do, they still find elite fare in a classy atmosphere, but they also get to enjoy a relaxing new rendition of Dianne’s on Devine. Let’s hope this path continues for a long time to come.