The warm little restaurant, a little out of the way, run by a chef-owner who juggles stirring pots with chatting to diners - it's a tiny genre, but it does exist.
And Erin's in Rock Hill is a fine example.
Erin McManus was managing a Rock Hill shoe store when it closed in May '08. She decided to do what she'd always wanted: open a restaurant. She had no training; it was "just a passion." The way she could swing it? Serve dinner in a bagel shop after it closed for lunch. She began in May '09 and it went pretty well, well enough that she could move into her current location about a year later. It's another shared space, this time in Kinch's, in the city's Old Town. Southern-casual Kinch's closes at 2:30; McManus and her folks come in at 3, put white linen, fresh flowers and peppermills on the tables and open at5.
It's simple food. McManus stresses fresh, local and organic in that order, she says. Pork and lamb come from Underwood Farms and others; strawberries from the Bush-n-Vine in York, fish from a guy who goes to St. Augustine every week and drives it back to her. She's started getting pasture-raised beef from her brother-in-law.
And her well-modulated voice takes on a preacherly tone when it comes to seasonality. "I have people say 'I'd just like a nice piece of salmon and asparagus.' I say, 'Well, there's no salmon now on the East coast and you can have asparagus - in May!'"
A night's menu might include a pork chop (and usually does), grilled fish (mahi-mahi on a recent night), whole snapper, strawberry crunch salad with an option to add steak, grilled portobello cap (there's usually a vegetarian entrée) and filet mignon.
Preparations are simple, as are sides: excellent mashed sweet potatoes, collards that are tender yet toothsome and wonderfully flavored, grilled thin green beans with garlic. Portions aren't huge, and neither are prices; entrees run about $10 to $16, with the steak topping out at $23.
You can also choose family-style dining, with seatings at 6, 7 or 8 each night. That's $22 per person, tea and coffee included, along with three or four salads, two meats, six or seven sides and a couple of desserts. Family-style is where she's introduced some of her most popular items, things she doesn't think would have survived if people hadn't sort of had to try them - like squash strata, which she describes as macaroni and cheese with squash instead of the pasta.
The fare can tend to the rich (cheese is the dominant appetizer) and there's plenty of butter and cream in lots.
Occasionally, there's a misstep: I had an overcooked piece of fish once, and though my pork chop had marvelous flavor, it needed a bit closer trimming.
The service, informal and chatty, suits the interior - simple, with concrete floor, low wainscoting and beige walls studded with some historic photographs, golf memorabilia and - is that the Three Stooges? (Yes.)
Family ties extend into the kitchen: McManus's son does some cooking and his roommate and girlfriend both help out. McManus's friend Joe Raines helps her in the kitchen; Joe's wife, Jamie, waitresses. If you're lucky, as we were, you'll overhear a diner telling about the time Daddy killed a goat with a baseball bat.
The feel of a small place, a little out of the way: It matters.