Bryan Mitchell didn’t grow up in Georgia or South Carolina, so the kind of cooking we’re used to isn’t something he had growing up.
“I had never really had mac and cheese except for Kraft mac and cheese,” he said. “We had lima beans, but they were in a can. We had sweet potatoes, but they were called yams and they were in a can. We had green beans and they were in a can. I never saw my mother work with vegetables except to cut up lettuce for a salad.”
Those who know Mitchell as the former owner of the Cotton Patch downtown and the current owner of Eli’s American, which opened in 2015 in Columbia County, may find this admission shocking. After all, both of Mitchell’s restaurants have been known for their polished but casual interiors and for serving food that has been described as elegantly southern.
He may not have grown up with good southern food, but Mitchell says his love of it comes from his inclusion into his wife Cathy’s family, who have been in the Columbia County area for about 300 years.
“I get a lot of my understanding of all things southern from the real southern ladies and gentlemen I know and have had the pleasure of being related to,” he said, adding that they’ve shown him over the years how to make the most of what you have. “A lot of southern cooking is based on not having the finest ingredients but using what you have and making it fine. Fried chicken is poor people’s food because that’s all they had. But you can make fried chicken into a gourmet dish because it really is if it’s done right.”
Fried chicken, in fact, has made it onto the menu at Eli’s only this week in anticipation of the restaurant’s new brunch on Saturday and Sunday mornings. But it’s not just any fried chicken. Named Chicken Wallace in honor of former Cotton Patch employee Mike Wallace, who died several years ago, the dish includes pecan and honey fried chicken, sweet and savory because of the addition of chicken stock and Sriracha, with Belgian waffles.
The dish is one more in a long line of successful collaborations between Mitchell and long-time employee Delores Harden, or Miss D as everyone knows her, who’s worked for him for 20 years and grew up cooking in her mother’s restaurant.
“She’s been cooking in restaurants for 45 years and I would put her up against anybody,” Mitchell says, adding that Delores has developed all the spice mixes, rubs, breading and more that they use for dishes in Eli’s kitchen. “She’s just a wizard.”
Other favorites that the two have come up with include the restaurant’s popular pimento cheese grits and new favorite Soul Rolls.
“I just said I wanted something that looked Asian but that was made with totally southern ingredients, so she just came up with it,” he said of the dish that includes Jimmy Dean sausage, smoked ham, pimento cheese and collard greens. “It’s got protein and cheese and a leafy green, so it kind of looks like a real spring roll or egg roll would, it’s just different.”
Mitchell said their fried pecan pie came about when the two were just playing around with ideas in the kitchen, “and now it’s legendary, almost.”
The two know when not to mess around with a tried and true formula, however. Their chicken salad is just that.
“The beautiful thing about our chicken salad is that it’s just simple chicken salad,” he said. “We’ve resisted the urge to throw in grapes and pecans and all the fruit du jour. It’s just white-meat chicken, a little bit of pickle relish and some Duke’s mayonnaise. People have been eating it for years.”
Then there are the burgers at Eli’s, which, like the fried pecan pie, have become the stuff of legend. There are five signature burgers on the menu; all are good, and one has even made it onto exploregeorgia.org’s list of 100 Plates Locals Love. The Dixie Burger is a half-pound beef patty topped with a fried green tomato, pimento cheese and buffalo cream sauce.
All of these dishes are served in a setting that very much evokes the classic south. Whereas the Cotton Patch had a distinctive New Orleans feel, Eli’s has a two-story columned façade that Mitchell affectionately calls the verandah, a place he very much looks forward to using once the weather cools off a bit. The interior is almost clubby: dark walls, leather booths and lots of repurposed architectural elements and refinished furniture.
The latter elements come courtesy of Cathy Mitchell, who started Trends and Traditions many years ago and currently has a booth at the Romantic Farmhouse.
“She buys and sells antiques and she’s really good at refinishing, doing these distressed finishes and faux finishes,” Mitchell explained. “I like the architectural antiques; she likes furniture. I just buy the weird stuff and she figures out how to use it.”
The end result is a restaurant that looks fancier than it actually is, and the Mitchells are proud that Eli’s is a locally owned restaurant in Columbia County where diners can get an excellent meal and a drink at the bar without paying a fortune. They can also hear music on Friday nights and reserve the banquet room for special occasions.
And, like any good southern host, Mitchell and the folks at Eli’s will almost guarantee that you’ll take something home with you.
“We give you a ton of food,” Mitchell laughs. “I don’t want anyone to leave without feeling they got an awesome deal. Plus, when you take it home, you’ll be thinking about me tomorrow and you’ll probably tell somebody about it. And it’s a southern thing, too; whenever you visit someone’s house, they try to send something home with you.”
4446 Washington Road, Evans
Open Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m.-8 p.m.