By Eric J. Wallace
The show-stopping chef has closed his popular Portsmouth restaurant and retired – for now.
(Language alert: You’re about to get full-on Syd.)
Chef Sydney Meers, the iconic, bombastic maestro of Stove, the Restaurant, was eating dinner at home in Portsmouth when he had an epiphany so strong he couldn’t resist sharing it immediately.
He turned to his longtime friend and marketing aide, Robin Russ, and said without a hint of warning, “Look, I’m ready to retire. In two weeks, I’m gonna close the restaurant.”
Russ froze, fork in midair. She immediately tried to dissuade him, or at the very least persuade him just to sell the place, but Meers, 67, had made up his mind.
“And when I’m done with something?” he says. “I’m, like, done.”
Shrugging, Russ alerted the world via social media and within an hour, the restaurant’s phone was ringing nonstop. Two days later they had to take it off the hook; by late April, Stove was booked for its final run.
On closing night, Meers cooked to a packed house. The 32-seat room turned over three times, proving that the beloved fixture of the Tidewater culinary scene could still attract a crowd. A big man with a mischievous smile and kindly Southern drawl, he has a laugh that punctuates his sentences like an invitation for glee.
“That last night I looked over at Keith” – a former dishwasher Meers had trained to be his sous chef – “and it was so overwhelming, I said, ‘Damn if this ain’t perfect!’ ” he cackles. “It was just like when I opened my first restaurant in Norfolk almost 30 years back. They say things run full circle, and that was my full-circle moment.”
When Meers shuttered Stove in mid-May, he also closed a prestigious culinary career that spanned more than 50 years and four Tidewater area restaurants.
After opening The Dumbwaiter in downtown Norfolk in 1989, he helped pioneer an epicurean movement by bringing fine local-sourced farm-to-table eats to the area some 15 years before it was trendy. His new Southern cuisine and old-school, do-it-yourself philosophy was celebrated by a number of magazines and inspired the James Beard Foundation to name him a Best Chef in America semifinalist in 2016.
“He was a pioneer,” says food writer Lorraine Eaton, who covered Tidewater’s restaurant scene for several years and co-wrote a Food Lovers’ Guide to Virginia. As she wrote in her book, Meers’ strength was his ability to combine his lowcountry Mississippi roots with the best Tidewater offerings while infusing a dose of Creole here and there.
Add a flamboyant and fun-loving personality, and dining rooms and bar areas that’d be at home in culture capitals like Austin or Portland, and Eaton says it’s understandable why Meers became one of the area’s best-loved chefs.
Meers grew up in Senatobia, Miss., and was introduced to the art of cooking by his grandmother. The owner of a cafe near I-55, she was affectionately known by truckers as Ma Johnson.
“I was a tiny little thing, not even in school, and my mother would get called in to help out with the lunch rush,” says Meers. “She’d set me down on the counter – but that was boring. So, I’d wait ’til everybody got busy and sneak into the kitchen and hide under one of the tables and just watch the action. Of course, Grandma got hip to that pretty quick and told me why don’t I bring my butt on over and help out. After that, I guess it just got into my bones; I was cooking with her all the time.”
Ma kept a small garden and made everything from scratch. Working with her in the kitchen established the foundations for the approach that would make Meers famous: Source your ingredients close to home and do everything you can in-house.
“Back then, we went to the grocery store for toilet paper, flour and a butcher,” he says. “Otherwise, it came out the garden.”
After graduating from high school, Meers repaired air conditioners by day and cooked in the evenings at a cafe owned by his parents, the Calico Cat. But it wasn’t long before he felt constrained by Senatobia. He describes the problem with characteristic, no-holds-barred language: “People there were eaters, not diners – they’d never been to a fancy restaurant in their lives. Most places had guys that just slapped shit down and cooked it well-done, and that wasn’t for me.”
By luck or fate, Meers’ brother-in-law invited him to Birmingham, Ala., in 1975 to take over cooking duties at a restaurant he was helping to launch. The city was experiencing a revitalization boom. Better still, Meers says, none of the partners knew anything about how a kitchen worked, so he would have the run of the place. He gleefully seized the opportunity.
“It was this fabulous little upscale barbecue joint in downtown that was really humming,” he says. “We had a little four-burner stove for making sauces and cooked everything else in the pit or on the grill. If it couldn’t be grilled, we didn’t serve it – which I absolutely loved.”
Meers experimented with traditional Southern flavors and tastes, and sought to, if gently, expand his customers’ palates. He developed his own sauces and began a lifelong love affair with his “secret weapon,” the smoked tomato.
For about two years, things went well enough.
“I showed up for work one day and there were these guys in suits standing outside,” Meers says. “I started to tell ’em we were closed, but then one of ’em flashes me a badge. I saw that and said, ‘Oh, shit, you must be here for my brother-in-law. Well, come on in. That sum-bitch owes me a whole lotta money. I’ll brew us up a pot a coffee and tell you whatever you wanna know!’”
The partners had been running a brothel upstairs. Tipped off about the raid, they’d fled the night before.
Meers arrived in Tidewater on the day Elvis died, Aug. 16, 1977. Flat broke and wanting out of the Deep South, Meers had joined the Air Force and was stationed at Langley.
There he was lucky enough to capitalize on the culinary ambitions of a nearby admiral. Seeking to improve the Navy’s cooking, the admiral had worked out a deal with Johnson & Wales University to have instructors teach weekend classes at a naval facility. The classes were open to all servicemen, so the Air Force paid the bulk of Meers’ tuition.
“All of my instructors were European and worked at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation,” Meers says. “I felt so fortunate to be cooking with them. It was like I was in Paris and Italy and Germany studying under the real thing.”
Meanwhile, he quickly learned that Ma Johnson was more than just some country cook. “They were using all these classic names for things that I’d been doing since I was, like, 10. I said, ‘Well, son of a bitch if Grandma won’t one hell of a cook!’”
When Meers left the Air Force in the early ’80s, he had a plan: To pull six- to eight-month stints at a handful of Tidewater’s best restaurants, then open a place of his own. But all that fell apart when he went to work for the author of Death by Chocolate, chef Marcel Desaulniers, at the Trellis Restaurant in Williamsburg.
“At that time, it was the hottest restaurant in the whole world,” says Meers. “He knew Julia Childand was a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. I tell you what, that man was an institution; he was the real deal. Once I got there, all my big plans sort of got put on hold for a minute.”
By 1987, Meers was preparing to move on. Leasing the first floor of a small building near Italian staple La Galleria on College Place in downtown Norfolk, he spent the next two years working on and off to fund the buildout. When The Dumbwaiter opened in 1989, it had 44 seats, including the bar.
“It was incredibly special; every object in the place was just so him,” says Gail Hobbs Page, owner and head cheesemaker at Caromont Farm. She opened The Dumbwaiter as Meers’ sous chef.
Tables and chairs were purchased individually or in clusters from auctions. Salt and pepper shakers were commissioned from potter friends. Every last detail was attended to. “His mom actually came up and hand-sewed the tablecloths and upholstered the chairs in this beautiful soft blue. … Everything just looked so amazing. And with our menu – we were years ahead of anyone in the region.”
The Dumbwaiter opened the night before Halloween and was slammed. Like a scene from a chef’s worst nightmare, the dishwasher didn’t show.
“At first the bartender was doing dishes, but then we got so busy I said, ‘F— it, just stack them things up!’ ” says Meers. “By the end, we were sticking dirty dishes under tables, in closets, wherever we could find space.”
After three-plus turnovers, he and Hobbs Page washed until 4 a.m. Exhausted, he passed out in the restaurant’s bunkette.
Over the next 28 years, Meers established himself as a forerunner of Virginia’s culinary elite. The Dumbwaiter expanded after a move and helped spearhead a renaissance in downtown Norfolk.
When it closed in 1999 – Meers says construction in the area was causing too many problems – he took a sabbatical before launching Cowboy Syd’s in Newport News. In 2006, looking to return to a smaller venue and free himself of investors, he opened Stove in the Port Norfolk neighborhood of Portsmouth.
The location let him work across the street from his home, boutique smokehouse, and petite ferme – a garden about the size of a small housing lot. With a smaller dining room, Meers says, he focused on crafting intimate and whimsical meals. “You could come eat the way I eat,” he says.
In addition to growing much of his own produce, he made country hams and sausage on-site. Glasses featured a hand-drawn logo of a cartoon stove à la The Far Side. Hanging his own paintings, sculptures and mixed-media pieces on the walls – as well as a collection of exotic mounted animal heads and taxidermy – Meers treated the restaurant like an extension of his home.
“You’d walk in there and say, ‘Holy shit, what is this place?’” says Charles Thain, executive chef and owner of Blue Seafood & Spirits in Virginia Beach.
Entrees changed daily and sometimes hourly, and included delectable offerings like grilled yellowfin tuna with purple potato-celery hash, mustard crème fraiche, pan-roasted wild mushrooms and crisp basil. Or perhaps a sautéed filet of rockfish topped with grilled shrimp and served over a bed of smoked tomato, roasted garlic and fennel.
Meanwhile, write-ups for dishes read like conversations with the chef. For instance, steaks were footnoted: “we house age our strip loins. once ready we trim the steak so you get a gorgeous piece of big ole meat,” while the dessert, Nut Coco Nut, was served with “hub’s virginia peanut caramel sauce I make, oh and with a touch of whiskey.”
The quality of his cooking, and his antics, have made Meers a cult hero for a generation of Virginia chefs.
“When I was going to culinary school at Johnson & Wales [in Norfolk], we all knew who Sydney Meers was – he was, like, the rock star,” Thain says. “He owned his own place and served exactly what he wanted, how he wanted.” Thain met Meers in person when Meers paid a visit in 2007 to the Eastville Inn, where Thain was then cooking.
“A waitress kept coming back into the kitchen and telling me, ‘There’s this guy out here that’s raving about the food – he’s funny as shit; you’ve got to come out and meet him,’” Thain says. “When I stepped into the dining room and saw it was Sydney Meers, I about passed out. I couldn’t believe that’s who it was. That was just – it was like I’d been blessed by a saint; I felt so crazy honored.”
These days Meers is “just chillin’” and enjoying the time to do whatever he wants, though he doesn’t consider himself, like, retired-retired. Instead, he prefers to say he’s “taking a big-ass vacation, baby!”
But with Meers, it’s hard to know exactly what that means, especially when the vacation will include duties like ramping up marketing for his Cowboy Syd’s sauces. He also plans to sell country hams, sausage, smoked tomatoes and more at local farmers’ markets. And don’t forget pop-up dinners with area chefs, including Thain.
And in a year or two, should he get the itch, here’s what he’s really going to do.
“I’ll get myself a cute little 16-foot room and open on weekends when I feel like it. If you drive by on a Friday morning and see a white flag, that means we’ll be open; a black flag means we’re closed. A sign on the door will say, ‘If you have food allergies or any special preferences, carry yourself someplace else.’ You’ll sit down and there won’t be any menus. I’ll cook whatever I feel like cooking and serve it up. When the check comes, that’s how you’ll know it’s over. Then you can either go on home or hang out at the bar and we’ll have us some drinks!”