Photos by Cameron Flaisch
Amid the clinking of silverware against plates, the friendly murmur of suppertime banter and the ever-present, mouthwatering smell of slow-cooking meats, Johnny Mitchell’s Smokehouse has earned its place as a staple restaurant of the South, coaxing diners near and far to tuck in around the table under the classic, little red roof.
In the warmly lit dining area, it’s not uncommon for restaurateurs Jill and Johnny Mitchell to sit down with patrons and talk awhile, whether it’s about life, memories or the inspiration behind the latest creative item on the menu. At the Smokehouse, customers feel as if they are transported back in time to their grandmother’s table, no matter where they’re from.
Johnny Mitchell describes himself as a native-born son of Atlanta and comes from a long line of fine cooks of Southern cuisine, while Jill Mitchell hails from California’s San Joaquin Valley, the result being that their dinner tables are stacked with the smoky flavors of different cultural influences.
“We mix classic barbecue and new flavors, and with the influence of my growing up in California, that’s a fun combination,” says Jill. “We love to play with our food, so there’s always wacky, creative stuff on our menu.”
One creative plate is the Johnny Mitchell’s Smokehouse Brisket Quesadilla, which is currently on Georgia’s “100 Plates Locals Love” list. The tender, smoked brisket served in crispy, golden quesadillas with three homemade salsas and sour cream is a flavor-packed southwestern barbecue fiesta that makes diners swoon.
“The green salsa is my favorite with that,” adds Jill. Johnny smokes the meat all night, seven days a week, in a big smoker out back, on hickory and local wild cherry wood. Another unique dish the restaurant serves is smoked tofu.
“That tends to blow people’s minds,” says Jill. “It’s marinated and smoked, so vegans can have a barbecue sandwich, too. Just put sauce on it, and you’re eating barbecue. There’s always one vegetarian person in every family and people freak out because they don’t know what to feed them, but here, there’s something for everyone.”
Wanting to offer a cornbread of sorts, the Mitchell’s opted for preparing authentic Johnny Cakes, a classic cornbread made on a griddle. There’s also toast slathered in a garlic-parmesan butter, and one piece is never enough.
“We recently launched the Tri Tip which is California style barbecue,” Jill says. “It’s roast beef essentially, but it’s what California people think of when you say ‘barbecue.’”
Their pork barbecue, of course, is the classic choice, and with five of Johnny’s signature homemade sauces, barbecue has never tasted so savory.
The Mitchell’s have a blast experimenting and trying new things while helping others expand their taste buds’ horizons. Each month, they hold a Chef’s Table, which is a dinner pairing menu, and in August they highlighted Indian cuisine.
“It had eight courses and everything from chicken tikka masala, mulligatawny soup, and lamb korma,” Jill said.
But the Johnny Mitchell’s Smokehouse menu in all its creativity wasn’t always what it is now. Jill says it’s taken more than 10 years – and three restaurant locations – for the Smokehouse to grow and evolve.
It’s been more than 30 years since she and Johnny started their restaurant adventure at the Dining Room in Lake Arrowhead, some-thing Jill says they never actually wanted in the first place.
“We never wanted to run a restaurant be-cause we are both smarter than that,” she laughs. “We got tricked into it. We bought our partners out at Lake Arrowhead and they bailed on us. We were the last ones standing. We were in so deep, we couldn’t get out then.”
Together, they learned through trial and error how to run a restaurant in a gated community.
“It was really hard because the gate could turn people away. Being open to the public inside a gated community was … special.”
But Jill says these challenges taught her and Johnny how to create a community within the community.
“There are lifelong friendships flourishing now because people met their neighbors at the restaurant,” she says. “They tell stories about that. It had a meaningful impact on their lives to have a place within their community to go and be entertained and meet people.”
Having inherited “a really terrible” Italian menu, once they bought out their partners, Johnny and Jill began working on the menu patrons love to this day. After Lake Arrowhead, the restaurant moved to Euharlee.
“We had already created the Johnny Mitch-ell’s Smokehouse brand with the little red roof, and the little building out there had a red roof and a broken brick floor,” Jill says. “It was really great; we were out there eight years. Everything we had learned about creating community helped us survive because we were the only restaurant in the area. We had to brand ourselves as a destination worthy of people driving out there to eat.”
But after nearly a decade of success in Euharlee, a failed septic system sent the couple on a search for a new location once again. Now, they have landed in Cartersville where they feel the most at home, Jill says.
Johnny Mitchell’s Smokehouse has a two-fold mission. One is to create community and serve food infused with love. The second is to nurture a staff of hard workers and prepare them for the workforce beyond the restaurant floor.
“By definition, working at a restaurant is ‘what you do in the meantime,’” Jill explains. “We help people get where they need to be. We are a first-time employer and we are a second-chance employer. It puts people on their feet, helps get them through school and move on to their next thing. They learn everything they need to be a good employee for their next employer, and when they graduate in their field, I hire them again. Being of service like that, I think, is invaluable for both parties. You get to impact lives and change people.”
It seems that creating communities and impacting lives weren’t necessarily the top two items on their to-do lists when Johnny and Jill fell into the restaurant business, but it happened nonetheless. Jill recalls a day years ago when she felt the full force of her calling.
“One lady wandered in; it was a day that we were not really open. It was years ago,” she says. “She was so lost and so lonely, and we took her in and fed her on a day the restaurant wasn’t open. And she never knew (we weren’t open) until the very end. I just am so grateful that my life can have an impact like that.”
There’s a difference between a job and a vocation. Through three decades of tweaking menus, changing locations, building their mis-sion, trucking through the hardest times and coasting along the best, the owners of Johnny’s Smokehouse know there’s no place they’d rather be than serving up a delicious meal, with you at their table.
“It turns out this is what we’re meant to be doing,” Jill says. “That helps when things get really hard, to know you’re doing what you were meant to do.”
Visit Johnny Mitchell’s Smokehouse online at johnnymitchellssmoke-house.com