Manship Wood Fired Kitchen has been so fully absorbed into Jackson’s food community that it is easy to forget just how young they really are; November marks just 4 years since they first opened their doors. But entrepreneur and Managing Partner Steven O’Neill had a very distinct vision. He guided the restaurant’s development from day one and shaped it into such a cohesive whole that it feels as though it’s been here forever.
It started with the bar. “I wanted to have the best bar in the south,” O’Neill says. With a background in bartending and spirits, O’Neill is a “Level 1” Sommelier and a self-described “huge whisky nut.” He designed the bar himself, not only selecting every bottle and brand but also creating the layout, structure, lighting, and storage. The attention to detail is astonishing. Despite having over 1,000 bottles, there is nothing the least bit overwhelming, heavy, or cluttered about the bar’s aesthetic.
Speaking of those 1,000 bottles, Manship’s spirits list is definitely a highlight. The carefully chosen tequilas, vodkas, and gins—over 30 of each—represent a great balance of local distilleries, traditional favorites, little-known gems, and a variety of flavor to appeal to any palette. Then there is the rum menu, which offers customers over 100 choices from all over the world, and the amaro selection, which is enough to keep one busy trying new things for weeks. And for customers who prefer a glass of wine or glass of beer, the 400-label wine list and 100-label craft beer menu don’t disappoint.
All of this may seem impressive, and anywhere else it absolutely would be. But at Manship, even such an astonishingly thorough bar selection pales by comparison to O’Neill’s baby: the whisky menu.
Customers can choose from nearly 700 whiskies at a wide range of price points, including two barrels (yes, barrels) that were hand-selected by O’Neill and crafted exclusively for Manship: a single malt from 4 Roses and a small batch bourbon from Elijah Craig. And for the true connoisseur, the top shelf options include obscure, unique whiskies personally sourced by O’Neill from all over the world. If you really want to make it a memorable evening, try the 1978 Hirsch: it rings up at $250 per shot.
As much as he may have wanted to, though, O’Neill couldn’t spend all of his time on the bar. He also devoted a great deal of energy to crafting the architectural feel and décor for the space to make sure it perfectly fit his vision.
“We’re in Belhaven,” he explains. “So we wanted to mirror that architecture; the long shotgun, the high wainscoting and the chair rail, design elements you would see in an early 1900’s craftsman home.”
Even the art on the walls displays his signature touch: it’s from Jackson-based artist Josh Hailey, and O’Neill selects fresh pieces himself every few months. “[Haley’s] dad actually owns a local drug store, Beemon [Drugs] over on Northside drive,” O’Neill says excitedly, clearly just as personally invested in his restaurant’s artwork as he is every other aspect of the experience. It’s easy to see why; the pieces are not only striking, they’re the absolute perfect fit for Manship’s design, and they’re from a local craftsman.
That local connection is important to O’Neill. His vision and drive extends beyond Manship’s walls and into the surrounding neighborhood, where he spends his free time working to improve and protect the community as a board member for the Greater Belhaven Foundation.
“A lot of what we do is rebuttal of encroachment,” he explains. “Developers trying to come in and take land to do things with that don’t fit our vision. To keep development controlled in an aesthetic value that increases the value of our neighborhood and doesn’t make us like everybody else.”
This isn’t just a desire to control his neighborhood the way he controls his restaurant, though. O’Neill’s commitment to this work stems from a longstanding passion for economic development. “I’ve always had a love for Jackson,” he says. “Which is one of the reasons Alex and I opened our business in Jackson. One of the best contributions we could make is to put our tax money where it’s needed.”
Perhaps the only aspect of Manship where O’Neill relinquishes a bit of this control is the menu. He knew that the ambitious vision he had for the restaurant would require a partner just as committed, just as ambitious, and just as visionary. He needed someone he could trust to take the reins as a partner.
He found that person in Executive Chef Alex Eaton. Like many of Jackson’s well-known restaurant partnerships, Eaton and O’Neill are a bit of an “odd couple.” But they’re the perfect pair to take an idea like Manship from dream to reality. With such an astonishing bar menu and such well-crafted design and décor, it would be all too easy for even truly excellent food to somehow feel like a disappointment by comparison. But not at Manship. Eaton’s creations in the kitchen are nothing short of masterpieces, easily able to hold their own and even outshine the other highlights of the Manship experience. As employee Stephen Quarles puts it, “It just blows my mind, some of the things that he takes that are so simple and just makes them consistently spectacular. It’s like magic or something.”
These words ring true not just of the food, but of the entire experience start to finish. Manship Wood Fired Kitchen is truly one of Jackson’s finest restaurants, a local gem to be proud of.