John Rivers rules—again. The barbecue king’s venture into fried chicken, catfish and other down-home cuisine has produced pretty much perfection.
For nearly a year, drivers along West Morse Boulevard in Winter Park have encountered an unusual sight—people standing in occasionally very long lines to enter a restaurant. Those familiar with John Rivers will remember similar throngs queuing for smoked brisket and St. Louis ribs at various 4 Rivers Smokehouse locations. But this time the crowd is waiting at The COOP for fried chicken, catfish and grits.
So with his eighth Smokehouse recently opened in Tampa and another on the way in Tallahassee, the question must be asked: Isn’t the barbecue king satisfied with barbecue?
“I love being the barbecue guy,” Rivers says. His ’cue empire has grown since 2009 from a converted tire store in Winter Park to locations throughout Central and North Florida. “People just assume I grew up smoking. But I had to learn to smoke, and unlike barbecue, it didn’t take me 18 years to figure out how to do chicken and dumplings.”
The deeply Southern atmosphere at The COOP matches family-style food with downhome surroundings. Mismatched tables and chairs afford ample room for folks nibbling on Rivers’ versions of chicken and dumplings and shrimp and grits—actually, nibbling doesn’t quite fit when the portions are this large. Rivers really likes to feed people.
|Low Country shrimp and grits features andouille sausage.|
“This is the food I grew up eating—which is evident by the amount of weight I’ve put on since we opened,” Rivers says, pointing to where diners line up cafeteria-style to choose their food ’n fixins. It’s no accident that the first thing they come to is the well-laden dessert case.
The staples of Southern home cooking are here: fried green tomatoes (on a BLT—the B should be for brilliant); house-made pimento cheese; meatloaf; beef stew. Creamy white grits are organic Anson Mills from South Carolina, eggs are from Lake Meadow Naturals in Ocoee. The creamed corn, a COOP exclusive, is fast becoming a must-have local favorite. The kitchen makes a new batch of hand pies every day (peach was on tap the day I was there), and the bowls of fresh banana pudding are big enough to be a meal themselves.
But the standout is the fried chicken, from a $7.99 two-piece plate to a 24-piece bucket for $36.99. Alive with ground black pepper, the juicy, flavorful meat has a just-crunchy-enough coating that peels off in crisp bits to savor on its own. It’s worth standing in line for.
Rivers spent a year traveling from the Carolinas to New Orleans with his team to distill Creole, Southern and soul food into something translatable to the COOP menu. “This restaurant gives me a chance to create new recipes, and the menu changes seasonally—I came up with 260 recipes when we first started out,” Rivers says.
Most of those recipes are inventive winners, like the chicken and biscuit bites ($3.99). Low Country shrimp and grits ($12.99) dresses plump Gulf Coast shrimp and bits of smoked Andouille sausage in a dark pepper sauce for a great combination of flavors. The chicken n’ waffles ($8.99), like The COOP’s other “something n’ something” dishes, is enormous—the peppery breaded tenders rising above crispy/tender Belgian waffles like proud sails with a splash of signature bourbon maple syrup—because what’s dinner without sweetness?
The COOP: A Southern Affair
Rivers marinates big filets of mild fish in buttermilk before drenching them in a seasoned cornmeal coating to make a crunchy yet moist catfish and grits ($9.99-$12.49, depending on the number of sides). And the result of his research in New Orleans is a very creditable Po-Boy ($12.99), with plenty of shrimp, oysters or catfish wedged into good French bread and dressed properly with lettuce, tomato, pickles and mayonnaise.
Aside from loving the food, Rivers saw an opportunity to enter the market between the elevated Southern food served at Cask & Larder and Soco, and fast food from places like Popeye’s. “I really like all those places,” he says. “But I saw nothing in the middle, a good family establishment for people who enjoy that style of food.”
The COOP might not be called a sophisticated restaurant, but as your Southern neighbors would say, it is mighty fine dining.
Indulge First Thing
“I love breakfast,” John Rivers says, and the early morning offerings at The COOP are proof. Massive “Big Ol’” cinnamon buns, giant three-egg omelets stuffed with pecan smoked bacon or smoked pork, and sweet potato-and-pecan pancakes are options. Waffles come drenched in chocolate or topped with chicken tenders, and don’t forget the moist buttermilk biscuits and thick sausage gravy. You won’t need lunch.