If the pandemic has shown us anything about the restaurant industry, it is that it’s full of people whose very makeup is equal parts persistence and an optimism that things will get better, as well as a healthy dose of not knowing how to say no. One of those people is chef Chris Coleman, whose new restaurant, Old Town Kitchen and Cocktails — located in Rock Hill, South Carolina — promises a return to the dining experiences of yesteryear. And while opening a restaurant during the pandemic may seem crazy to some, this wasn’t even Coleman’s first go at such a venture, as he opened the Goodyear House in Charlotte in late January 2020.
When the Goodyear House opened, they only had 48 days before the pandemic shut them down. According to Coleman, the worst part of it was having to let go of the staff that had only recently come together to start this new venture. Despite the uphill battle that was opening a restaurant at the beginning of the pandemic, Coleman said he hadn’t lost hope. “There was never a doubt that we were going to reopen though,” Coleman said. “that’s just who we are — we don’t give up.”
For most, being able to reopen and survive would be more than enough. For Coleman and his business partners, though, it wasn’t.
“We believe in biting off more than we can chew sometimes, and we also saw the pandemic as a chance to recalibrate our business,” Coleman said. “We always had the idea of expansion.”
The pre-COVID goal was to open five new restaurants in five years, and they weren’t going to let the pandemic diminish that. What was somewhat unexpected, but quickly embraced, was the idea of opening a spot across the state line in South Carolina. But when a mutual friend mentioned the space in the technological park in Rock Hill, Coleman said they went to look to see if they would be able to take advantage of the opportunity. After visiting, they fell in love with the architecture and with the direction that part of town was heading. The fact that the space that would become Old Town Kitchen and Cocktails was in an old mill building just sweetened the deal.
They signed the lease in December 2020, got their plans back in February and were ready to open in May.
The goal of Old Town, Coleman said, is to provide “authenticity elevated” and take its cues from the small neighborhood restaurants that Coleman grew up going to.
“This was before chefs were rock stars. You just went out to have a good meal — you didn’t go out to be impressed and critique everything,” Coleman said. “You went out for a good burger or a good steak. It’s where the servers knew your name and drink order, and you always ordered your favorites.”
Those places, he added, aren’t in favor anymore and are falling by the wayside, as more people are looking for an experience that has to hit on every level. “That is kind of heartbreaking.”
“We wanted to bring that kind of space back and elevate it just enough to capture people’s imaginations and make them want to come back.”
Coleman designed the menu to both showcase the past in a new light.
That comes to life in shared plates such as barbecue pork rinds with a French onion dip and a whipped pimento cheese ball with Triscuits and pickles. A variety of burgers, sandwiches, and salads are available as well as a Southern classic, a meat and (rotating) veggie plate, with the likes of fried catfish, country fried steak, and beer can chicken all making appearances. The goal, Coleman said, was to not overthink it, to make great food and drinks, and to be a place the people of Rock Hill and beyond would want to come back to over and over.
“We’re having fun. The public is enjoying it and we’re hitting on the nostalgia that I think everyone didn’t realize they wanted until they’ve come in. We’re putting out sexy food — as much as country fried steak can be sexy.”