Published on June 15th, 2022 | by Randy Weeks0
The View From The Balcony: The Soul of City Grocery
What does it take for an independent, stand-alone restaurant the caliber of City Grocery to last and thrive for thirty years, when most independent restaurants close in fewer than five? I tried to do some research on this, but with my lackluster relationship with statistics, I couldn’t find many figures that came close to answering my question. So, I turned inward to my own experience.
Of course, the person at the top—John Currence—sets the tone for the entire operation. The buck starts and stops with him. He is the conductor of the City Grocery Symphony Orchestra and has the final say regarding all things City Grocery. If you don’t think that’s important, you should crawl back into that hole you’ve been living in for another thirty years.
A great symphonic experience begins with a great composition. If the musical score you have to offer doesn’t please the ear, little else matters. The members of the orchestra are just as essential. If all the instrumentalists are mediocre, Beethoven’s Fifth won’t sound as spectacular as it was meant to. If one string player screeches on a loud, high note, it could mar the total experience for the concertgoer. Then there’s the audience. The best of audience members gets engaged in a performance and savors the sounds of the symphony. The orchestra can feel their energy, positive or negative. When the symphony, the conductor, the orchestra, and the audience are all in harmony, it is a glorious dance. And when placed in a beautiful, acoustically sublime concert hall you have the pièce de resistance.
It is the same with City Grocery. With John Currence as the composer and conductor, he directs chefs and other kitchen workers in taking the raw materials of food and creating a magnificent menu of culinary magic. The wait staff, under the watchful eyes of expert managers, serve up plate after plate of epicurean delight, paired with the finest of libations, to a waiting audience of excited and soon-to-be-satiated diners, seated in one of the loveliest of lovely banquet halls.
The upstairs bar performs in kind. Friends and soon-to-be friends gather to share a copious range of potions, as well as stories old and new. Laughter and the clinking of glasses make their own symphony under the masterful direction of the bar staff (Sir Coonie and the Knights of the Long Table as I like to call them), who know their regular patrons’ names and have their favorite drinks ready, sometimes even before the bargoer reaches the top of the stairs.
Then there is The Balcony, for which I have a special affinity. I moved to Oxford in 2011 and visited City Grocery’s upstairs bar on more than a few occasions. After major life changes, The Balcony became my refuge. I was welcomed and taken in by a host of regulars, including the entire Whiskey Wednesday crowd. I cherished the open heartedness they and others showed. When my older brother took his own life four years ago, my family of the upstairs bar helped carry the load with me.
Throughout those seven years I have been loved by and shown love to people from all walks of life and all places around the world. There are no strangers at City Grocery unless one chooses to be one (think Cheers). Writing this column, thanks to Newt Rayburn and Nature Humphries, with the permission of John Currence, has been one of the greatest delights of my life. Most importantly, I have friends like never before. I am accepted for who I am, with all my corny jokes, colored sunglasses, cocktail parasols, and other assorted accoutrements.
This is the soul of City Grocery: that it is a place of safety and joy where all are welcomed and people are real, where the food and drinks are par excellence, and where the hearts of the family are quintessentially golden.
…and that’s the view from The Balcony.
Randy Weeks is a Licensed Professional Counselor, a Certified Shamanic Life Coach, an ordained minister, a singer-songwriter, and an actor. High on his gratitude list is all things City Grocery. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.