The spring of 1992 saw the birth of what was soon to become an Oxford landmark…
Housed in a Reconstruction-era livery stable on the Courthouse Square, City Grocery began serving north Mississippi’s most innovative faire with Chef John Currence at the helm of his first restaurant venture. Nearly thirty years later, Currence and company have seen a slew of openings under their instruction including Bouré, Snackbar, Big Bad Breakfast and Main Event (City Grocery’s Catering Company).
John, a New Orleanian by birth, began cooking in Chapel Hill, NC under the tutelage of Bill Neal at Crooks Corner, one of the Eastern Seaboard’s premiere Southern, fine-dining institutions. Under Neal, John began his training in the unusual cross of classical French technique and traditional Deep Southern American cuisine. After 2 years with Crook’s, John moved to Aurora, an upscale classical Italian venue, also in Chapel Hill, working as assistant to the resident pasta chef. In 1989, at the behest of Larkin Selman (chef and co-owner of Gautreau’s) John returned to New Orleans to fill the position of sous chef at the opening of Gautreau’s. During his time there, Gautreau’s would be recognized by Food & Wine as one of the top 10 restaurants in the country. After 18 months with Selman, John then moved on to the position of executive-sous chef with the Brennan family at the soon-to-be-opened, classical Italian restaurant, Bacco. During the 8-month interim period between starting with the Brennans and the time that Bacco actually opened, John received rigorous managerial and mass food service training at Mr. B’s Bistro. The decision to ultimately part ways with the Brennan family was a relatively difficult one, but John felt that the time had come to explore the avenue of ownership in the fine-dining arena.
City Grocery came as the perfect realization of the concept John envisioned. Housed in a late nineteenth century livery stable on the Oxford square, the hardwood floors and the exposed brick walls provided the perfect backdrop for the vision he held. Casual elegance is the theme around which City Grocery has been built. Service that is well informed, professional, attentive and attractive without being pretentious or stuffy and food that is flavorful, fresh, accessible, creative and plentiful without all of the architectural absurdities that much of the contemporary fine dining frequently implies and not tied to any particular ethnic theme. Dishes designed around the classic technique in which John was schooled with a backbone of local and seasonal ingredients to personalize the offerings on the menu.
Since its 1992 opening, City Grocery has expanded service from dinner 5 nights/ week to dinner 6 nights and lunch 6 days/ week, balancing downstairs’ fine-dining service and upstairs’ more casual bar service. Both the restaurant and bar have been hailed coast-to-coast as one of the finest establishments in Mississippi in publications such as The New York Times, The Atlanta Journal/ Constitution, The Los Angeles Times, The London Times, Southern Living, The Memphis Flyer, Seattle Daily, American Airlines’ In-flight, Esquire, USA Today, Bon Appétit, Food and Wine, Playboy etc. Perhaps the finest flattery to be bestowed upon City Grocery was the invitation to cook at the James Beard Foundation in New York City in the summer of 1995. This acknowledgment by THE authority on American dining was the affirmation that City Grocery was, in fact, a more than formidable contender in the American dining scene. The spring of 1996 saw the filming of the Great Chef’s of the South in the City Grocery kitchen and the City Grocery Team returned to the James Beard House in the summer of 1997, the summer of 1999, the winter of 2001, and again in the summer of 2003. July of 1999 saw City Grocery featured in Food and Wine’s cover piece as in the fall of 2002 in Bon Appétit. Fall 1999 brought the first Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence to City Grocery in recognition of the restaurant’s wine list, program and education; recognition which has been garnered every year since. Spring of 2005 saw Currence nominated for the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Chef Southeast, along side of 4 of the South’s most talented guard. He was nominated again in the spring of 2007 and 2008.
As much of Currence’s time as is dedicated to the kitchen at City Grocery, he has not been able to be pinned down there. John served for years on the Board of Directors of the Mississippi Restaurant Association and served as President/Chairman of the Board in 2000/2001. During his tenure, the Association was one of the first in the country to establish a statewide culinary educational program in Mississippi public schools-a program, which continues to thrive and grow each year. He has worked very closely with the National Restaurant Association for as many years on a federal level with lobbying for legislation germane to the restaurant industry. He has worked for the last several years as organizer of a local farmers’ cooperative and market which has re-established a bi-weekly venue for local farmers to sell their goods in the Oxford community and has developed a network for local restaurants to have access to those local products. A deep interest in the arts led to a couple of years as president of the local arts council and a nine year project assembling the funds for and overseeing the construction of a community performing arts center. The eighteen months following hurricane Katrina found Currence mostly in New Orleans leading the rebuilding of Willie Mae’s Scotch House in the Treme neighborhood of the city, which was the subject of a feature-length documentary called, “Above the Line: Saving Willie Mae’s Scotch House”
As flattering as it all may be the owner and management continue to push themselves to loftier aspirations. The walls of the dining room are a constantly changing exhibit of local artists. The kitchen continues to bring in as interesting and unusual ingredients as are available to experiment with. The dinner menu changes every 6 weeks, the lunch menu every 8 weeks and the wine list is updated and expanded weekly. It makes for a constantly new look to the offerings at City Grocery.