There is no single piece of furniture in the American South with a history as fraught as that of the lunch counter, but in Rock Hill one particular lunch counter has come full circle; instead of dividing a town along racial lines it now serves as a place for everyone to gather over good food. It has found new life as the centerpiece of Kounter Dining, and its story is as important to the restaurant as the food.
On January 31, 1961, nine young Black men walked into McCrory’s Variety Store in downtown Rock Hill and sat at the lunch counter. The nine men were arrested and went on to serve 30 days in jail. Eight of the men were students at nearby Friendship College and the group became known as the Friendship 9.
Nearly sixty years later one of those men, David Williamson, Jr. walked back into that same space as it was being renovated. The lunch counter had been stripped to its original surface, the very surface that had been forbidden for people who looked like him.
“It was surreal,” Williamson said. A humble man, not prone to waxing poetic about the past, Williamson can be matter-of-fact about his role in history, but seeing that counter transported him straight back to 1961.
“It was unreal, but as far as being afraid, I wasn’t afraid,” he says about the sit in. “I was more afraid after we went to jail and got out. That’s when it really hit home about the things that could have happened.”
The men knew they’d be arrested and had planned in advance to stay in jail, a strategy known as “Jail, No Bail”, first developed at a 1960 SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) conference in Atlanta.
Fast forward to 2019 and chef Rob Masone, a Rock Hill native, was looking for a spot in his hometown for a new concept. Masone’s playful food had brought him success in the industry and he was eager for a homecoming. While working in Florida he learned that a space was available in downtown Rock Hill, but it wasn’t until he returned to South Carolina that he realized the significance of the building. It was the old McCrory’s Variety Store.
“We learned about it, of course, in school growing up,” Masone, who is white, says of the sit in and the Friendship 9, “and we went to church right around the corner from here, so we drove past every Sunday morning.”
The counter itself was still there, and as Masone and his team went about planning for the renovations he wrestled with how to honor it.
“It was covered with a facade for probably 30 plus years,” he says. “You couldn’t see the original counter.”
It wasn’t until a sit-down with Williamson that he realized what he needed to do. He had already removed the facade as part of the renovations when the two sat at the counter to talk.
“He was talking to me,” Masone recalled, “and he was just rubbing his hand on the laminate, just subconsciously, and at that point I knew. I can’t do anything with this except ... try to preserve the actual countertop.”
Masone brought in a specialist to epoxy the countertop as-is. “I mean it’s beautiful,” he says of the counter. “It’s tacky pink laminate from the 1960s. We left the nail holes, the coffee stains — everything.”
“It was the same countertop,” Williamson remembered. “It took me back to that moment.”
Today the counter is the heart of the restaurant. It fronts a cooking station where dishes get plated, desserts get blowtorched, and a sort of culinary show happens for those who are lucky enough to snag a seat. (Masone says that it is the most requested seating in the restaurant.)
While the counter is old, Masone’s food is certainly new to Rock Hill. Dishes like chicken and waffle sushi, pan-fried halloumi, and a lobster gnocchi aren’t what locals might be used to finding on a dinner menu. The Spaghetti O’s and Meatballs entree is actually lamb meatballs with anellini pasta, orange-scented ricotta, forest mushroom cream, and crispy basil. 1960s diner fare this is not.
“We do fun, funky, familiarized foods with a twist,” Masone says. The best selling dish on the menu is the bacon-wrapped meatloaf that comes with “Funion dust” and a cilantro crema.
For each diner who is aware of the space’s significance in the Civil Rights movement, there are also those who have no idea. Masone insists that his staff know the Friendship 9 story, so much so that it’s a part of the employee handbook. Staff guide guests through the history of the building and the lunch counter, leading to revelatory moments that just wouldn’t be possible elsewhere.
“There are so many people that don’t know about it,” Masone says, “about what happened here and what these gentlemen did to help spark a movement.”
“We’ve had tables that started crying,” he adds.
That dedication to history is as important to Masone as his food. “Listen, we’ve got a fun, funky, cool restaurant, but one of my goals is to make sure we keep pushing this history into the future, and to make sure people don’t forget what happened here,” he insists.
Being able to not only honor the past but also engage the present is also important to Mr. Williamson.
“It’s like blending the old with the new,” Williamson says of Kounter. “You never want to forget your past, the history of the place, but you also want to move forward and embrace the future.”
Today in Rock Hill you can pull up a seat at the counter, give one of those decades-old coffee stains a little rub, and be thankful that the counter and all the food that passes over it are accessible to everyone in no small part because in 1961 nine men sat down in those same seats, knowing that they weren’t welcome, and demanded equal treatment.