John Rivers has built a successful restaurant empire from right here in the Orlando area, starting with his first, tiny 4 Rivers Smokehouse location in Winter Park that grew into an empire throughout Florida and even beyond. We love 4 Rivers for barbecue, and I will get around to reviewing it here eventually, even though we’ve been there countless times over the last decade.
Mr. Rivers founded The Coop (https://asouthernaffair.com/), his Southern home-cookin’ restaurant, back in 2014, also in Winter Park. I made it our goal to be there on opening day, and my wife and I were within the first 20 or so people lined up for lunch that first day. At some point they started serving breakfast, and one morning a few years back, we met John Rivers, the man himself. We had to gush a bit over how much we love 4 Rivers and The Coop, and I can tell you he could not have been friendlier, more down-to-Earth, more humble, or more welcoming. He even treated us to breakfast that morning, which he did NOT have to do. He does a lot of charitable work with these restaurants as well, and is an all-around mensch.
Anyway, The Coop serves some of the best fried chicken in Orlando and all kinds of down-home Southern sides and other dishes. Chicken and waffles? Chicken and dumplings? Roasted chicken? Shrimp and grits? Fried seafood? Pimento cheese? Biscuits? Cornbread? Delicious breakfasts? Decadent desserts? You name it, they have it.
I have lost count of the times we’ve been there since it opened five years ago. I have also brought my best friend from Miami there, and lots of co-workers as well. This review is based on our two most recent visits.
Even though I love a good fried chicken thigh, The Coop’s roasted chicken is quite good, so I’ve been ordering it more often. You can get a quarter- or half-chicken a la carte, or with two or three sides and a biscuit or cornbread. I always get collard greens at The Coop and 4 Rivers. Theirs are some of the best greens I’ve ever had. They are slow-cooked with smoked pork, and I always add some generous dashes of pepper vinegar to them. I can even drink the juice when I finish those greens, it is that delicious. That square thing below is actually a biscuit, and it is flaky and rich. Feel free to add butter, jam, syrup, or dip it in your meat juices or barbecue sauce, but it doesn’t need anything.
Thighs and legs are my favorite parts of any bird, so I always go for the dark meat quarter chicken (or sometimes the half, if I’m hungry enough). The skin is attached, brushed with barbecue sauce or some kind of sweet glaze but not smoked like the chicken at 4 Rivers. It is always moist, juicy, and tender. I asked for it with a side of Alabama white barbecue sauce, which might look like ranch and smell like ranch, but BROTHER, it ain’t ranch. It is creamy, peppery, tangy, and subtly sweet, so it goes well with any kind of chicken, especially with that skin.
I also chose the side called “Hoppin’ John,” a Southern stew of rice, black-eyed peas, tomatoes, onions, peppers, and okra. It is always okay, never quite as good as I think it’s going to be, but some people go gaga over this dish.
My wife loves fried catfish more than anyone I’ve ever met, so she vacillates between ordering fried chicken and catfish at The Coop. She ordered catfish both of our last two visits, which comes with grits and hush puppies. These are grits cooked the real, traditional way, as “NO SELF-RESPECTIN’ SOUTHERNER USES INSTANT GRITS.” The Coop takes pride in its grits!
This was from one visit:
And this was from a different visit. This time, the hush puppies came out later, hot, crispy, and fresh. She’s not so big on hush puppies, which is great, because I ate them, dipping them in the remoulade sauce that came with the catfish. (She has never been into condiments or sauces or dipping things in other things, whereas I obsess over that.)
As for me, I switched things around and created a new dish. I’m not wild about grits, believe it or not, which is ironic because I love the way shrimp is prepared in shrimp and grits, that classic Low Country cuisine dish from the Carolinas and Georgia, stewed with salty, smoky andouille sausage and sometimes tasso ham. Totally kosher, am I right?
I had a crazy idea, but I didn’t know if they would let me get away with it. I asked if I could get the shrimp with something other than grits, and the patient girl told me that some people get the shrimp ladled over white rice. I had other plans that day, and asked if I could get the shrimp over macaroni and cheese! (The Coop has really nice, creamy macaroni and cheese, by the way. It is never dried-out.) She indulged me, and this is something they should seriously add to the menu, because it was forking amazing. In fact, inspired by my bravado and culinary creativity, the older gentleman in line behind me requested the same thing! Dear readers, have I become a dreaded “influencer”? Say it ain’t so!
And they always have beautiful cakes there, so my wife got this piece of chocolate cake wrapped up to go, which she loved.
So yeah, come to The Coop for the excellent fried chicken, but stay for everything else! Just don’t bother showing up on Sundays, because it is closed. Of course, now I have incepted the idea into your heads that you will crave Coop food on Sundays, as we too often do.