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Owner of Porter's Grill, a former Rock Hill landmark, dies

By Jie Jenny Zou
jzou@heraldonline.com
GT015KNJP.3
Andy Burriss - aburriss@heraldonline.com
Johnny Porter told stories about his longtime restaurant, Porter’s Grill, as the building burned behind him in 2010. Porter died Thursday.

The last owner and operator of a Rock Hill landmark died on Thursday morning, leaving behind family members and barbecue-filled memories dating back to the 1950s.

Johnny Porter, who last ran Porter’s Restaurant off U.S. 21 near the Catawba River, died at age 90 at Westminster Towers in Rock Hill, where he had lived for two years.

Porter was the third-generation owner of the family restaurant, which was also known as Porter’s Grill and was famous for its drive-in stalls and 60-cent deluxe barbecue sandwiches.

“He was very sharp-minded to the end,” said Ric Porter, 66, the oldest of Porter’s five children. “He was a well-known and well-loved man.”

Born in Rock Hill and raised in a house beside the restaurant, Porter was described as a generous man who took up the family business when he returned home after serving in the military during WWII.

The establishment opened its doors in 1919 as a country store and started selling barbecue in 1921, just a year before Porter was born. The family acquired two acres of land in the fledgling area that would house the restaurant, a small motel, and several other businesses. At the restaurant’s peak, local regulars and travelers along U.S. 21 packed its 22 drive-in curb spots.

Ric Porter said the restaurant took a hard hit it and never recovered when Interstate 77 was built nearby, sucking much of the traffic the family had relied on for patrons.

By the late 1970s, the restaurant shut down, later becoming a pet store and other businesses. But Ric still remembers the days when his father prepared a large pot of stew outside the restaurant for homeless people. In the days before television, Ric recalled, his father told war stories and other tales by the stew pot.

In March 2010, a fire started in the basement of the old restaurant, which was slated to be demolished later that month to make way for the Catawba River Bridge and road widening.

Porter and his wife, Hazel, continued working in the restaurant business, buying and operating an eatery in Chester before retiring. “He had a lot of irons in the fire,” said Ric.

Hazel, 83, lovingly described her husband as “Mr. Macho” and just a “good restaurant person.” The two married the same year he returned from the war.

She said it was Porter’s long family history in the restaurant business that made him the restaurateur he was. “He was raised in it.”

Services will be held on Monday at 2 p.m. at Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Rock Hill.

Jie Jenny Zou •  803-329-4062
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