By Maya Martin
Photos by Joey Brent
Sitting on the Courthouse Square in downtown Oxford is a two-story, exposed brick building that serves some of the finest Southern food in the region.
City Grocery celebrates 30 years of feeding Oxford and the greater community with memorable dishes and setting.
It has garnered constant recognition features from esteemed publications such as The New York Times, Southern Living, USA Today, Bon Appetit and more as a fine Mississippi establishment. The restaurant’s cooking team has also been repeatedly invited to cook at the James Beard House over the years since its inception.
Award-winning chef, restaurateur and City Grocery founder John Currence never could have imagined City Grocery to have the legacy it has created. He never planned to settle down in Oxford with his creation.
“I had helped open restaurants in the past, but I wanted to open one for myself to check that best,” he said. “I thought I’d be in Oxford for a few years, sell my interest and move on. Go back to New Orleans or New York or somewhere. Fortunately, things turned out the way that they did and I’m still in Oxford.”
Although it was a goal, Currence said he didn’t have “any business” opening a restaurant.
“I didn’t know about any one thing to create a restaurant that was in any way thematic or ethnic. I was just dangerous enough armed with enough knowledge of a number of things to open a place where I could draw from my own experience.”
A Southern man through and through, Currence called on his experience with Creole-French and Cajun cuisine to inspire the familiar yet upscale menu at City Grocery. Not to be looked over, the menu features influences from Asian, Italian, French and Southwestern fare as well.
From the home-cooking he experienced growing up in New Orleans, Louisiana to his travels through Europe, the City Grocery menu takes Currence’s back catalog and condenses it into something that pleases the community.
“I just did things I knew would make people happy and created a menu with enough stuff on there that everybody that came in could at least find something they wanted to eat or something that sounded interesting,” he said.
What better place to show off your culinary experience than Oxford? Back in 1992, Oxford was not the gastronomic hub it would soon become, but that time created a situation ripe with opportunity and curious eaters.
“There was nothing going on in Oxford and there was enough of a young, professional clientele that was hungry for something,” Currence. “And once we got those doors open, there was no looking back.”
City Grocery changes the perception of what Southern food is. To Chef Currence, Southern food is infinitely more than its stereotype and does a disservice to the cultures that define it.
He lists Creole-Italian, Italian, French, German, Caribbean and West Africa as strong influences on what we know to be Southern food.
“Southern food has been completely misunderstood by people for years,” said Currence. “They want to cubbyhole it in the corner of ‘Southern food is fried, it’s unhealthy. They cook vegetables and meat by letting it stew all day long.’ Southern food is an incredible tapestry of different immigrant populations that moved to the United States and tried to create the dishes of their homeland with the ingredients that were available.”
Now take that same concept but elevate it. Familiar and recognize dishes receive an upgrade at City Grocery, “elevating [their dishes] above qualification as regional and ethnic cuisine,” the restaurant’s site reads.
Some would credit Currence and City Grocery for making Oxford the foodie town it is today. The chef recognized that recognition with some hesitance but
“People level that barrel at us and it would be wrong of me to say that we weren’t a part of it,” said Currence. “We certainly were. The establishment of the Southern Foodways Alliance certainly helped elevate that and I think our dedication to opening quality establishments which we did sort of hand over fist for a long time.”
Although the food is a standout aspect of why City Grocery has stood the test of time, but to Currence, the service plays just as big of a part.
“Our dedication has always been as much to service as it is to food,” the chef said. “Sadly, there this connotation that dining is all about food. ‘What did you think about the food of this place? What did you think about the food of that place?’ As far as I’m concerned, the service plays a much more important role in the experience of dining out than the food does.”
According to him, a spectacular server or manager can overcome the experience of a bad meal. Customers are willing to give the restaurant another shot than to one with good food and terrible service. The experience is all about the customer.
“And I love that,” said the chef.
Currence taps into the need to establish a connection with the people they feed. Creating the ideal dining experience coupled with fantastic food and eager pool of customers is an assured way to keep the doors open for a long time.
When you walk into City Grocery, it should feel like visiting a friend’s home for a well-cooked dinner.
“We’ve always set up the restaurant so that people would feel welcome and included no matter their walk of life, their income, their race, religious preference or sexual preference,” said Currence. “We’re an enviroment about inclusion. We take care of people.”
And as much as City Grocery cares for the people, the people in Oxford are taking care of City Grocery. People Square Books owners Lisa and Richard Howorth have been one of City Grocery’s biggest supporters, ones who fell in love with what City Grocery was doing and went all in, stated Currence.
“That became the place where they brought everybody when [Richard] came to town to do a reading or a signing,” he said. “Everybody was brought to the bar for a welcome drink and an intro to Oxford.
“It was sitting on the balcony of Square Books sipping coffee and working on menus and recipes before we opened City Grocery that, quickly, I realized how significant that place would be and how significant it would be to our success. It’s important to grow these relationships because [the Howorths are] the real trailblazers for Oxford.”
That kind of support and appreciation has helped City Grocery keep running, strong and with no end in sight. Now it’s all up the restaurant’s team to keep that fire burning and to give the community what they are craving.
“The future for City Grocery are very much the guys running that kitchen,” Currence said. “Nic Swogger and Eric Tait are the brains behind the kitchen right now and Jennifer Nelson who is running the front end of the house have brought a new life into the Grocery. I think it is, right now and without, the best the restaurant has ever been.”
To learn more about City Grocery, visit the website at www.citygroceryonline.com/city-grocery.