If you order the highly requested buttermilk fried chicken at The Root Cellar in Lexington, you’d better be hungry.
“It’s two trimmed, tenderized 5-ounce chicken breasts, marinated in buttermilk and seasonings, and served on a bed of Keisler’s Mill yellow grits and with a side,” said owner Blair Sims.
An area restaurateur who worked for U.S. Foods for many years, Sims is trying to bring “modern food with Southern roots” to Lexington with The Root Cellar, which opened this summer.
To make that happen, Sims hired Phillip Crowe as head chef. Crowe made a name for himself in Lexington as chef at his father’s long-standing Lexington Arms restaurant, which closed in 2013 after 32 years. Together, Sims and Crowe created a sort of upscale Southern menu featuring favorites such as pork chops and chopped steak (a whopping 12 ounces), using high-quality meats such as pork from Carolina Heritage Farms and, when possible, locally sourced fruits, vegetables and grains.
“Our Keisler Mill grits are made with Lexington-grown corn,” Sims said. “They mill it Sunday afternoons and bring it to us Monday mornings.”
Unexpected menu items such as the Southern eggroll – made with homemade pimento cheese and pulled pork rolled in a spring roll, fried and served with Root Cellar barbecue sauce – also have proven themselves crowd pleasers.
After just a couple of months in business, Sims and Crowe have learned to adjust to their customers and will soon roll out some menu changes accordingly. That includes replacing pickled shrimp with a jumbo shrimp cocktail and adding barbecue ribs, creamed corn and a Root Cellar Cobb topped with pulled pork, avocado, hard-cooked egg and buttermilk chicken tender.
The menu also boasts a whopping 14 sides, from baby limas and sweet potato casserole to cornmeal-dusted fried okra and Sea Island red peas (the same variety used by Husk chef Sean Brock in Charleston).
“We do everything basically from scratch, kind of like your grandma would do it, but we try to give it that modern-day twist,” Sims said.
How did The Root Cellar get its start?
Though Sims and his brother, Henry, contributed to the Lexington restaurant scene when the two opened Uno’s Chicago Grill on Sunset Boulevard in 2003, Sims still felt something was missing in the area.
“We live here and have been in the restaurant business a long time, but we have struggled trying to figure out where we want to go eat,” said Sims, an Orangeburg native. “There’s a lot of good restaurants in Lexington – there’s just not a whole lot of independent operators.”
When Sims and his wife, Ashley, found out Steve and Karen Lollis were retiring and selling their 30-year-old Stephano’s restaurant on Columbia Avenue, the two jumped at the chance to start a place of their own.
“I thought this was a good location and a good-size place for us,” Sims said.
The Root Cellar carries a daily lunch special such as liver and onions on Tuesdays and meatloaf on Wednesdays, as well as weekend specials that are typically seafood-focused (recently, a champagne grouper and shrimp and scallops fettuccine).
And if you like banana pudding, you can’t missing the banana pudding pound cake, a made-from-scratch treat with pound cake in lieu of the vanilla wafers, topped with creamy banana custard.
“It’s by far our biggest dessert seller,” Sims said.
What does the place look like?
Though Sims kept the same basic floor layout of booths and tables as Stephano’s, he’s added modern touches such as galvanized metal lettering and accents and warm earth-tone colors.
Who eats here?
While The Root Cellar still draws a lot of Stephano’s longtime Lexington residents, it also draws its fair share of families in the evenings and couples on the weekends, Sims said. He is hoping more millennials and professionals will soon push through the restaurant’s small, consistently packed parking lot and make the eatery a local lunch favorite, as well.
The Root Cellar
WHERE: 420 Columbia Ave., Lexington
WHEN: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday
COST: Salads, sandwiches and burgers average $11; entrees range from $13 (for the highly requested buttermilk fried chicken) to $24 (for the sterling silver ribeye).
INFO: (803) 359-5436, www.facebook.com/rootcellarsc