The creator of 4 Rivers Smokehouse brings gussied-up Deep South cuisine to Winter Park. The fried chicken has customers lining up, but there’s a lot more to love about the homespun menu.
I’m dyin’ tryin’! Please send help,” John Rivers pled to his friend, who happened to be Dan T. Cathy, chairman and CEO of Chick-fil-A. Rivers had just opened The Coop, a counter-service Southern food restaurant in Winter Park — and the fried chicken he’d spent months perfecting was a bust.
“The stuff coming out was nothing like what we’d developed,” Rivers says. Within 10 minutes, a Chick-fil-A guru at the chain’s Atlanta headquarters diagnosed by phone that the chicken was miscolored and soggy because the fledgling kitchen was “doing it all wrong.”
Rivers, one of the region’s most successful restaurateurs, laughs about it now. “We had the wrong equipment, the wrong oil, the wrong holding system — everything.”
The poultry problem was unexpected. The founder of the wildly popular 4 Rivers Smokehouse mini-chain had traveled throughout the Deep South, testing fried chicken and other regional specialties in up to a dozen restaurants a day. Then he’d tinker with “iteration after iteration” in his test kitchen.
(Rivers adds that the best classic Southern fried chicken he sampled was, inexplicably, from a Birmingham, Ala., Mexican restaurant called Little Donkey. Go figure).
Humbled, the man who had elevated barbeque to an art form immediately swapped out all the equipment, installing, among other modern wonders, a fryer that automatically fills with fresh oil after every five drops.
Even after the fix, however, customers complained that the batter was too thick and too peppery. So he reworked that, too.
Rivers’ goal with The Coop was to create a menu of country classics with “integrity but an interesting little spin,” and to feature only items that are “exceptional.” Clearly, sub-par fried chicken would not do.
It’s fair to say, however, that the fowl faux pas has been resolved. The people have spoken, and they’ve said, “I’ll have the fried chicken.”
Today, you’ll see metal buckets filled with crispy, golden wings, drums and thighs on most tables at The Coop. But fried chicken is only a fraction of what the restaurant has to offer.
After paring 260 recipes down to 50 or 60 — Rivers cut out soul and Cajun foods completely because his offerings “weren’t exceptional” — The Coop puts out consistently delicious and subtly gussied-up versions of the foods that Rivers’ grandma served in her Charleston home.
The setting, a sprawling space on Morse Boulevard, was at one time home to O’Boys Bar-B-Q, a now defunct eatery that provided many Rivers family dinners when the kids were young.
The look is country, not kitschy, with mismatched tables and chairs picked up on Craigs-list and eBay. Signs instructing guests on where to form lines and other house rules use the term “pretty pretty please.”
On the dining room walls hang pictures of chickens with name plaques beneath them.
Explains Rivers: “When you go to a grandma’s house, it’s typical to see pictures of her kids and grandchildren on the walls. We were going that route with family pictures. Then I thought, ‘Nobody cares about our families.’ So I got great pictures of chickens and put name plates on every one.”
Although ordered and served at a counter, the food is plated on colorful china and accompanied by real silverware and cloth napkins. “My grandma wouldn’t have served food on a tray,” Rivers says, so neither does The Coop.
Like the fried chicken, every menu item tends to have a backstory.
Mom’s Meatloaf, for example, was first made with beef and pork until Rivers learned that the pork portion “turns” after it sits for a spell — which it might well do in a restaurant setting.
So he switched to all beef, using panko breadcrumbs to lighten it up and a bacon wrap to add a bit of a pork boost. He then topped it with a glaze made from sweet ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and brown sugar.
“After trying a fancy meatloaf, I ended up with one that’s basically what my wife made for our kids when they were growing up,” Rivers says with a chuckle. The sauce is so popular, he adds, that guests often order it for their fries.
Whatever your entrée, I’d suggest creamed corn as one of your sides. The kernels are sautéed with basics like onions, salt and pepper, then mixed with a “melted down” cream cheese diluted with a bit of cream. It’s extremely fresh-tasting.
Add some cornbread, which is a bit sweet with a crispy crust. The kitchen crew heats bacon grease in a cast-iron skillet until “blazing hot,” then pours in the batter and bakes it. Crusty on the outside, moist on the inside, it’s a terrific rendition of this classic.
If I could have only one dish at The Coop, it would probably be the banana pudding. It tastes exactly as banana pudding should taste: a bowl of real mashed bananas that just happens to be smothered in whipped cream and topped with vanilla wafers.
The secret? The Coop bakes bananas in their peels, then blends the interior with sugar and folds the mix into vanilla pudding.
You might also want to experience Deep South cuisine culture via chicken and dumplings, fried catfish and grits, smothered pork chops, candied yams and fried okra. Calorie-counters can choose roasted organic chicken.
Rivers says he started a second restaurant concept not only for business reasons but also because he felt “pent up” once the 4 Rivers Smokehouse menu and concept were established and proven.
“I’m not an operator,” he says. “My ability to do creative things was limited. This was a chance to become alive in the kitchen again.”
So don’t be surprised to see a few more Coops, some Coop retail products, and — who knows? — maybe a third restaurant concept. It seems a given that Rivers won’t allow himself to stay cooped up.
610 Morse Blvd., Winter Park, 407-843-2667, asouthernaffair.com, Entrees $6.99 to $14.99