Some parts of that vision are completely “old school.” For example, all of the barbeque Old City serves is smoked for hours in massive steel smokers that use hickory and oak hardwood.
Over the course of a week, Old City sells between 2,000-3,000 pounds of chicken, pulled pork, brisket and ribs. That is enough to keep the smokers going from the early morning into the afternoon and evening, five to six days a week. They run so long that it is nearly impossible to pass by the restaurant and not get hungry from the lingering smoke smell in the air.
“I was always adamant about having an area to cook the barbeque outside with hardwood as opposed to an indoor smoker powered with gas,” Vernon said while explaining why he picked his facility. “It was a specific property I was looking for and this really fit the bill.”
For as much as Vernon and his crew thrive on tradition, that does not keep them from being innovative and pushing culinary horizons. With menu items such as tacos filled with various smoked meats and any number of pickled vegetables and coleslaws, the choices go far beyond a typical barbeque joint.
While Vernon’s background was originally in real estate, he cut his teeth in the restaurant industry working in his cousin’s establishment, Rx Restaurant and Bar, in Wilmington, N.C. There he learned how to run a farm-to-table eatery.
“I learned a lot of extra steps that enhance flavors,” he said of his experience in Wilmington. “We are a scratch kitchen. The only thing we don’t make in house are the buns and the crackers. Everything else is made in house.”
Vernon referenced the Old City’s “Porkbelly Bites” as an example.
“They are kind of a cult favorite,” he said of the appetizer. “They come in as raw pork belly, they get dry-cured for five days. Then we cook them in these pans so that when they are in the smoker they collect all the fat and sort of confit themselves. Then we press them, cut them then deep fry or or sear them. It sounds like a lot but all of those steps are necessary to create that amazing bite.”
The attention to detail permeates to every aspect of the restaurant. The bar is stocked with craft beers from breweries both near and far. The list of available bourbons has around thirty different labels.
“I always love telling people that there is no microwave in this building,” says Old City General Manager Adam Terrien. “Even for the staff. There is no microwave for their employee meals. You have to sauté it or throw it in the oven. Here, we cook.
The success of Old City is not just limited to the restaurant. The Old City food truck, which made its debut in October 2020, has bolstered the restaurant as the world dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The truck helped Old City reach a wider audience by setting up shop five days a week at the Newport News Shipyard as well as rounds of the local breweries at night and on weekends. The side venture proved so successful that Vernon says he has two more food trucks on order.
Going forward, Vernon and Adam and their staff are looking to continue on as they have been, bridging the gap between tradition and innovation.
“We are trying to touch on different areas of food that I like and that our chefs like,” Vernon said. “We want to take barbeque and present it in a way that is perhaps familiar, but then again perhaps not.”