The first time I ask Clayton Rollison why he called his restaurant Lucky Rooster, he says it is one of those stories that can't be told in mixed company. The second time, he sighs, takes a swig of his sugar-free Red Bull (it was 4:00 and he couldn't stomach another cup of coffee) and motions for me to lean in closer.
"OK, there's no fucking reason we call this place Lucky Rooster," Rollison says. "We wanted a name that was easy to remember, that didn't pigeonhole us to anything, and that we could do whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted in the restaurant. I mean, what the fuck is a lucky rooster anyway?"
He explains that he and his buddy were pretty drunk when they came up with the name—an amalgamation of a few random ideas, including the fact that Rollison's kids call his mom "Lucky" and that past employees tend to call him a "cocksucker"—but Lucky Rooster stuck when he opened in 2013 on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
"So usually when someone asks what the name Lucky Rooster means—it's usually couples—we will just say 'I'm terribly sorry, but it's one of those stories we can't tell in mixed company,'" he says. "Whatever they come up with in their minds is way worse than anything we could tell them."
It's this lack of convention that has made Rollison successful on the sleepy little island. In a place better known for fried seafood and sugary slushie drinks, he's forged ahead doing upscale American cuisine and, with the help of bar manager Marea Reyes, a really smart craft cocktail menu.
"I grew up on the island and a lot of the restaurants are really similar," Rollison says. "And when I got back, no one was doing cocktails in this way,"
It's a menu filled with modern interpretations of speakeasy-era drinks and a few tongue-in-cheek nods to the beachy surroundings, like their take on a Mai Tai (Angostura 5-year and Silver rum, lime juice, dry curaçao, house almond orgeat, and mint). Top-notch spirits line the shelves, and are then sometimes mixed into the bar's selection of draft cocktails.
It's a head-on collision of classic and cutting-edge, made possible thanks to Rollison and Reyes' collaboration.
"When you walk into Lucky Rooster, you definitely feel like you are walking into a big city bar," Reyes says.
The two would know.
Rollison is a South Carolina-born, Culinary Institute of America-trained chef who developed his love for well-composed drinks when working at Gramercy Tavern and then Nashville's Hermitage Hotel. Reyes started bartending at 19 in the Hollywood Hills, where she connected with both the Maglieris (of Whiskey a Go Go and Roxy fame) and Rande Gerber, and then made the jump into cocktail competitions.
The two missed each other by four months at the Hermitage, but Reyes packed her bags for Hilton Head once a mutual chef friend connected the two.
"I think Clayton and I are on opposite sides of the spectrum as far as cocktails," Reyes says. "I am definitely more on the trendier side with infusions and syrups, while he is definitely more old-school. Here is where we kind of meet in the middle."
She points across the copper-top bar to their cocktails on draft as an example.
"Everything on the draft list is all spirits, so it's not something where we can add any juices or anything that would sit the canister and go bad," Reyes says. "This really opened up my eyes to bringing in a bunch of old-school stuff to the forefront, like in our 'Brooklyn.'"
Rollison gives a brief rundown: All the New York City boroughs have a cocktail. He says the Manhattan is perhaps the best known, and he won't let me print what he said about Long Island ("Think of my kids, please," he pleaded). Lucky Rooster's draft Brooklyn takes the typical rye, vermouth, and maraschino liqueur and ups the flavor with Solerno Blood Orange and Angostura bitters.
"It's a classic cocktail where we have used some more modern spirits to give it new life," Rollison says. "And I think for a 100-percent spirituous drink, it's really approachable for people to consume."
The approachability of Lucky Rooster's cocktails is important to Rollison because, first and foremost, they are a restaurant with 120 seats to fill. That's where having craft cocktails on tap—a contentious area for some bartending purists—is a necessity.
"So first off, it's not like when you go to Vegas and they are squeezing vodka sodas off with one punch of a button—that's not what we're doing here," Rollison says. "If you're watching Marea work at the bar, you don't mind the fact that your drink took eight minutes—but if you are out on the patio or in the dining room, you don't care what she's doing to get that cocktail to you."
He continues: "So we needed an effective delivery system to keep interesting drinks accessible to the guest on the timeline they expect."
And it seems that the success of Lucky Rooster has inspired other restaurateurs—as well as one of their own bartenders, who's set to open his own place soon.
"It's definitely changing," Rollison says. "For a small island there are some people who are set to be doing some really cool stuff that is definitely cocktail-heavy."
Reyes adds: "And it's definitely due here."
But for now, they both can agree that it feels good to rule the roost.