MOUNT HOLLY – Lunchtime finds the Southern Kitchen restaurant humming like bees making honey, with every table filled and the kitchen door swinging open and shut.
Owner Kristen Robeson works the room giving out hugs to regulars and passing out free samples of homemade pimento cheese. Despite the packed dining room, she is in no hurry as she moves calmly through the crowd giving each table its due.
“It’s all about the customer,” Robeson said with a smile.
The restaurant is a lovely blend of Southern charm and cuisine that all but ensures y’all will want to give it a try.
Robeson always enjoyed feeding people from old family recipes. As a college student, she made homemade chicken pies and sold them as a side job. After college, she worked in the magazine publishing business but later found she had lost passion in that career path. She happened to drive past a restaurant on Catawba Avenue and felt a distinct draw.
“It was like a magnet was pulling me through the door,” Robeson said. “It wasn’t even for sale, but I went in and just asked to talk to the owner.”
Eventually she bought the place and made it into her own. The decor is country chic with black-and-white cow art, a corner hutch with old cookbooks, a varnished ceiling with inset lights and hand-painted tea pots.
The menu is good old Southern country cooking with all the fixings. It is open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday from with breakfast all day.
There are Pure Comfort Side Dishes with names such as Mac & Cheese Feel Like a Hug, Broccoli Every Day, Mama Said and Uncle John’s Plantation Green Beans, which are parboiled and then sautéed with diced tomatoes and crumbled smoked applewood bacon.
There are also sandwiches, wraps, salads, burgers and hotdogs. Plus, there are homemade casseroles and slow-cooked specials each day; customers can check out daily specials on Facebook or Instagram.
The veggie plates are loaded with options such as sweet potato casserole, fried okra, potato salad and pasta salad, and all are served with homemade cornbread or a biscuit with local honey and homemade butter. The portions are huge, and to-go boxes are often necessary.
“Some seniors complained that it was actually too much food,” said Robeson. “So I’m happy to make a smaller plate for them any time.”
The recipes for the food come from friends and family and are held in a three-ring binder. Some are on crumpled plain paper, and some on lined yellow paper with handwritten additions, marks and notes in the margins.
“I’m going to get these recipes in a better system soon,” Robeson said. “But for now this is what we use to create all the food.”
So the menu is a beautiful blend of family, tradition and Southern favorites. Plus, the majority of items are made in-house, such as: dressings, sauces, potato salad, chicken salad, casseroles and so much more. They even grow their own herbs out back. Robeson considers the dining room an extension of her own house.
“When you come here, it’s just as if you came to my home,” she said.
And it does feel homey, the customers greet each other by name and move tables together to stay awhile and chat.
And what would a Southern restaurant be without proper sweet tea?
Mark Mills of Gastonia is a regular at Southern Kitchen. He and Robeson get into an in-depth discussion on sweet tea, which is served in mason jars with a wedge of lemon.
“See, tea is an artwork,” Mills said. “This here tea is just the right amount of sweetness. It’s about perfect.”
By and large, Southern Kitchen will remind you of your MeeMaw’s cooking. And if you Northerners don’t have a MeeMaw, then you can just come to the restaurant and get a home-cooked, Southern meal at a place that feels like family.