Andrew Dys

Lordy, look who’s 40! Iconic Rock Hill White Horse restaurant still galloping

The door flies open as the clock strikes exactly 5 p.m. not 4:59 or even 5:01 and the bar and even the people eating at the tables in the dining room yell: “Skeeter!”

Skeeter who has worked all day as much as 60 feet off the ground with no fear slides in with a smile and wave and talking loud enough to wake the dead. The beer is in his hand in about three seconds and he looks at it as if the beer is the greatest thing ever invented – because it is.

Already inside the White Horse are the Master Blaster and Jethro and Sunshine and Jim Bob and other names too nefarious for explanation. The dining tables are filled or filling with regulars and not regulars below pictures of Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, who shot the bad guy with glee, and Marilyn Monroe.

Everybody is happier than they have been anywhere else that day.

Most tables and booths have nameplates from people who sat there so often and so long and wanted to tell the world where they kissed and got engaged and were loved.

It is the only place in Rock Hill where politicians and judges and a Winthrop crowd of professors and students and maybe a good old boy just out after one mistake cost him 30 days at the county jail might be sitting at adjacent tables or elbowing for room at the bar.

Cheers was a fictitious bar in Boston on TV. Rock Hill’s White Horse is real.

“The whole restaurant is Cheers,” said White Horse owner Marsha Pursley. “The people eating in the dining room and the staff and everybody. You can be here some nights and really – everybody here knows each other.”

The White Horse sits on Camden Avenue, a half a beer away from the Winthrop University campus. It is the Rock of Gibraltar and a cathedral and oasis all in one. Its menu is nearly the same as it was when Ronald Reagan was president.

The Berlin Wall fell and the White Horse stood. Hurricane Hugo blasted through Rock Hill and the White Horse ran with it. Recessions hammered independent businesses and chains came, drinking laws and social changes hammered at places that sold beer so cold it would freeze your lips and the White Horse ran on.

No there is no other building in Rock Hill that looks like the White Horse. It is roundish and squarish somehow at the same time. It’s even pointed on top. It has two statue white horse heads inside and a logo of a just about half-nekkid Lady Godiva woman atop a horse that has caused some double takes over 40 years. It is a place where the owners and workers and customers have given uncountable thousands of dollars over the years to countless charities.

It has a bar but it is small. It is a restaurant first and foremost and the grinder tastes just like it did when bell bottoms were in and hair was big.

The White Horse gallops on.

“The customers, the staff who stayed so long for 15, 20, 30-plus years, they are the White Horse,” Pursley said. “I started working here right out of college 15 years ago. I never left. Now I own the place.”

Saturday, to honor the tens of thousands who have passed in and through and eaten so many steaks and burgers and pizzas and every other thing that can be fried or baked or grilled, there will be a throwback 40th anniversary. Some domestic beers will start as low as $1. There will be craft beers, too, and live music and a tent and heaping tables of food at throwback prices, too.

Most of all, there will be laughter and hugs and thank yous from the White Horse to a city that has embraced it for 40 years.

“We just want to thank everybody,” said Pursley, who bought the place in 2014. “I have a great family. But this is my family, too. Everybody who works here and comes here.”

The thank yous will go back four decades.

Former owner Tommy Sacco is first in line to thank people. Sacco started washing dishes at “The Horse” in 1978 at age 15 and never left even as he was getting a biology degree a short walk away at Winthrop. He then became a partner in 1986 and was sole owner from 1998 to 2014 when he sold it to longtime employee and friend Pursley.

Sacco, who somehow is now 53 years old after so many years working at a restaurant at all hours of the day and night, said loyalty at the White Horse has set it apart for so long. The original was part of a chain based in Charlotte that at one time long ago had 10 locations, but the Rock Hill version of the White Horse, long independent, is the only filly to make it to the finish line without breaking a leg and having to be shot to put it out of its misery.

“We were local, we cared about our local customers and made sure we took care of them and they always came back,” Sacco said.

The White Horse started in 1976 in an old house at the corner of Charlotte Avenue and Cherry Road, where a chain pharmacy now stands, and a couple blocks from the current location, There was a little kitchen and refrigerator and a dream. In 1976 in a Rock Hill that was far smaller and slower, selling alcohol to go with food could be the kiss of death.

“We didn’t have a fryer at first, didn’t have a grill, we just had this little place and made it work,” Sacco said.

The White Horse survived because it has always had food, and good food. Yes, the thirsty could always get a drink, too. In 1989 after Hurricane Hugo, when thousands had no power and could not cook, the White Horse fed the multitudes. A few drinks were poured. A few thousand drinks.

“We were slammed for two weeks or more,” Sacco recalls.

The new building was an expensive dream that caused Sacco nightmares and sleepless nights but it was designed and built in the 1990s and remains a draw that looks like no other place, anywhere. The horse and the logo ride on.

So Saturday, the place expects hundreds, maybe thousands, of customers who have been there once, twice or 147 times in 40 years to come back and hoist one, and eat, and hug.

And figure out the next 40 years.