Photos Rob Smith

Despite his opinion of himself, Eric Tant is more than just a fat boy at heart. He is a passionate chef and restaurateur who loves his hometown. As the owner of beloved John Henry’s Grill and Melinda’s, he aims to reinvent Rome as a premier foodie destination.

Together with executive chef Andy Miller, they elevate the local culinary scene with high-quality ingredients and a fresh interpretation of old southern dishes. Inspired by family, southern cuisine, and coastal charm, both restaurants speak all things south; just like Mama says, “Welcome home. Are you hungry?” 

Having studied at Johnson Wales Culinary school, Tant received the best education from the instructional chefs and the foodie epicenter known as Charleston, South Carolina. By day, he learned technique and kitchen management, but by night Tant fully immersed himself in the diversity of culinary influences in one of the largest ports in the Southeast.

Johnson Wales taught him the best of French and Italian techniques. In contrast, Charleston inspired his passion for authentic flavors, fresh seafood, and undeniable homesickness. Tant would return to his roots and family, continuing his culinary apprenticeship at Barnsley Gardens Resort. Under the expert guidance of then-Executive Chef Charles Vosburgh and Executive Sous Chef Clint Shade, he would begin cultivating his dream of building a restaurant of his own.  

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When in Rome 

For years, Tant followed the careers of his favorite chefs: Thomas Keller, Bobby Flay, and Frank Stitts, all world-renowned for their uncompromising demand for quality ingredients, simple compositions, and classic execution. Drawn to the potential of Rome’s culinary scene, Tant decided in December 2019 to join the fray. “We are fortunate to have restaurants with a passion for quality food and good flavors.

They care about what they are bringing to the community. Harvest Moon, Aventine, and Fuel are just a few highlights of our foodie scene that go beyond your typical turn-and-burn restaurant. They care about the community and what they provide for Rome. It drives me nuts when I hear someone say, ‘you have to drive to Atlanta or Chattanooga to have a great dining experience.’ We can do the same thing here,” says Tant. With John Henry’s Grill, he was determined to bring a menu to Broad Street that would impress the chefs he admired. 

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Eric Tant

John Henry’s Grill 

Tant acknowledges that to be successful in Rome, you may have to reinvent yourself to a degree. Reinvention is precisely what happened when John Henry’s grand opening occurred on the heels of a global pandemic. “Our opening was a rollercoaster, mainly because of Covid-19. When I signed the lease for the building in December 2019, I thought,’ there’s no better time to open a restaurant,’ Then March 2020 hit.

We were scheduled to open the first week of April, but Covid restrictions made us delay until May. Then we couldn’t open at full capacity. There were other headaches because of Covid as well. We couldn’t gather in a group, so we had to rethink our training procedures and reassess how we serve and keep people safe,” describes Tant. The restaurant would eventually welcome full operation and found success despite its initial hiccups. 

Family and home read throughout John Henry’s Grill, from the friendly reception to the handmade pine furniture. Tant’s hardworking father, John, and unfalteringly patient grandfather, Henry, inspired the restaurant’s name. The enduring values of both great men are what inspire its culture. “They would do anything for anybody.

They always stood by me. I respected the way both of them lived by example. My grandfather, Henry, told me, ‘Every day try to do good. Every day, treat people like you want to be treated. And if you’re going to do something, do it 110% and make sure it’s done the right way.’ These are the words of advice that built the foundation of the restaurant. I take pride in the team that makes John Henry’s what it is today,” says Tant. 

Southern with a Twist 

 

Ultimately it is the food that brings people into the restaurant. Though characterized as a chop house, customers would likely riot if John Henry’s were to change their salad bar. “It has been the keystone of the restaurant since day one.” says Tant, “People love it. There’s nothing else like it in town.” Customers also gravitate toward John Henry’s for its quality steaks.

Tender filets and juicy Ribeyes grilled to perfection, and the delicate pecan-crusted sea bass reminds customers how great it is to be a carnivore. John Henry’s serves old family recipes with a modern twist; heirloom tomato bruschetta, smoked gouda macaroni and cheese, brisket tacos with Cajun aioli, and jasmine corn risotto present unique fresh flavors to homestyle classics. The atmosphere is friendly and hospitable with a large event space upstairs that can host private parties. 

Melinda’s Coastal Southern Kitchen 

 

Melinda’s is more than a sister restaurant to John Henry’s; it’s a perfect mate. Named after Tant’s beloved mother, the restaurant’s warmth and charm are an ode to her giving nature and talent in the kitchen. The atmospheric details of exposed brick and original wood plank floors give a historic ambiance reminiscent of old downtown Charleston.

This southern coastal kitchen bestows an intimate dining experience with a simplistic modern space. Blackened shrimp with a chorizo cream sauce served over smoked gouda grits, southern fried Cornish game hen served with corn and honey, and ginger roasted carrots are samples of the dynamic flavor profiles offered on the menu. This restaurant elevates Rome’s culinary scene by allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves and serving as a springboard for exploring new flavors and cuisine. “

The smaller space lends itself to more flexibility in the kitchen. We can offer slow roasts and delicate braises. We rotate our menu regularly to take advantage of growing seasons and seasonal availability of seafood. This offers our customers the freshest and most optimal flavors,” explains Tant. 

Explore Something New 

Melinda’s monthly wine tasting is a must-see. It’s gained such momentum that its dining room books up weeks before the event, resigning customers to wait on a list, ever hopeful of gaining access to an unforgettable evening. On the fourth Thursday of each month, Melinda’s presents a six-course meal featuring traditional dishes from countries worldwide.

Wine and spirits expert Jared Moss from United Distributors Incorporated expertly pairs each course with a complementing vintage from the featured region on the specialized menu. Flavors new and exotic dance on creative plating. Wine tasting is a social event perfect for a night out with friends or a romantic dinner with that someone special. 

Rome’s culinary landscape is changing. John Henry’s Grill and Melinda’s Coastal Kitchen join the growing list of restaurants encouraging residents to stay close to home and support local businesses. 

 

Visit John Herny’s at:

 
Visit Melinda’s Coastal Kitchen at: