Thirty years ago, Oxford, Mississippi, wouldn’t have made any list of American dining destinations. According to locals and visitors and critics alike, John Currence merits much of the credit for changing that.
When he opened City Grocery on the Oxford Square, John explains, “[it] was almost entirely unpopulated, besides Square Books. There were little boutique dress shops and a shoe store that were all run by septuagenarians, octogenarians. The post office had just moved off The Square. Sneed’s Hardware moved out, and that became a Hallmark store. It was all shopping. The Downtown Grill had opened, and that was the place [to eat] on The Square.”
John had worked his way up in some well recognized kitchens, including Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Gautreau’s in New Orleans, when his friend and former co-worker Palmer Adams invited him to visit Oxford for a weekend. “Oxford was exactly as far away as I could go on a tank of gas and get back in time to work on Monday,” he laughs.
Originally, John was baffled by Palmer’s suggestion that they open a restaurant in Oxford, but he gambled on the idea that some locals would like more than what was then available. Once he moved to town, John met Randy Yates, who would soon run the bar at City Grocery.
He describes Randy, who has long owned the much beloved Ajax Diner, as the hardest working person in the industry in Oxford. Their partnership proved fortuitous given City Grocery’s hardscrabble beginnings. Randy remembers opening the bar with almost no air conditioning and not nearly enough chairs. “We decorated the walls with stuff from our houses,” he reminisces.
John developed a menu that he admits was a bit schizophrenic. “It was a totally weird hodge podge of Asian, stuff that I loved when we traveled around Western Europe, Italian food that I cooked when I lived in Chapel Hill, Southern food that I learned from my grandparents, stuff that I worked on at Crook’s, Creole French that I grew up with in New Orleans, classic French…I mean, it was just totally all over the place.”
John admits that he never thought he’d be in Oxford more than a few years. Randy says that back then, he couldn’t even imagine being alive thirty years later. But customers responded to the quality ingredients and solid execution at City Grocery, and against all odds, an Oxford mainstay was born.
There’s much more to City Grocery’s longevity than the food, though. Server Terry Moon, who has worked for City Grocery nearly two decades, shares the restaurant’s secret ingredient: “People say they came here for the food, but the experience is why they’ll come back again.”
This emphasis on experience has been a cornerstone of John’s philosophy from the start. “The experience is being welcomed into a club. Acknowledging a guest the second they walk in, holding the door for people as they leave and telling them thank you, stopping in the dining room if there’s a guest and letting them go by, table touches, managers visiting tables, these things matter so deeply,” he says. “More than the food.”
Furthermore, John trusts his staff to execute this vision whether or not he is immediately present. “[John] is so busy now opening all these restaurants,” Terry explains. “People like Meghan Anderson and Locke Phillips and myself and Coonie [John Spreafico] and Jennifer [Nelson]–he has sort of handed it to us, being the leaders, and embraced that. It’s our baby.”
In day-to-day operations, that trust looks like Terry bringing complimentary champagne and helium balloons to a regular celebrating her 86th birthday. Or Jennifer taking a seven year-old budding ‘foodie’ on a tour of the kitchen during service. Or Coonie corralling the rare group of unruly drinkers at the upstairs bar so they don’t detract from others’ experiences.
In contrast to other award-winning restaurants, these efforts keep City Grocery feeling like a hometown establishment, largely because the staff adhere to a strict policy ingrained by John from the start: “Treat locals like rock stars and rock stars like locals.”
For example, Coonie describes the sense of community at the upstairs bar. “You see the same faces. When somebody comes up there, if they’re by themselves, they know they’re gonna find somebody up there that they at least recognize. So it’s not like going and sitting at a bar by yourself. You know that this is base, and you can come here and feel at home. Even if you are by yourself, you’re not by yourself because you know the bartenders, and the bartenders have been here for so long. We make a conscious effort to introduce the new people to our regulars. And they get to know everybody.”
In the dining room, Terry recently had the distinct pleasure of serving Dolly Parton and her entourage. “I got everyone’s names and where they were sitting, then looked at Dolly and said, ‘Excuse me, Miss, and your name?’ Dolly rolled her eyes and that was the initial connection. That’s the little things I do.”
City Grocery’s dedication to the local community goes far beyond the dining room and the bar. During the first arduous months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the restaurant group also went above and beyond to support Oxford’s hospitality workers who suddenly found themselves without work or income. For months, they provided industry workers with gift cards to local grocery stores and delivered boxes of nonperishable goods straight to their doorsteps.
This was again in keeping with John’s original vision of his flagship restaurant: “If we were going to be successful, we had to weave ourselves into the community as deeply as possible and as sincerely as possible. And that meant giving back. That meant taking care of people.”
While he may have laid the groundwork and instilled the core values at City Grocery, John Currence emphasizes, “I get credit for the work of other people. Coonie and Terry are the gold standard for ambassadors. Jennifer and Halie [Johnson]…Liz Rainey, Jeffrey [Grimes]…there are so many people I could list off. Randy was the first of them. As much as we’re a restaurant group, we’re a relationship group. It is all about people. Everything is about making people feel special in one way, shape, or form.”
City Grocery will hold its Dirty Thirty House Party Saturday, June 18, featuring Blue Mountain, Rocket 88, Jack Sonni & Leisure Class, and more. $20 advance purchase includes entrance, draft beer, and entertainment. Food and full bar will be available for purchase throughout the event. Doors open at 2 pm.