When a Bar Keough sign went up at 247 Cooper but the windows remained covered, it was enough for the Flyer to name the space "Best Unopened Bar" in the annual Best of Memphis staff picks. Kevin Keough, owner of Café Keough Downtown, finally opened the doors in late 2019, revealing an intimate, eclectic space with a prize jukebox, recognizable staff, and what I believe to be the world's only bar food menu featuring tartine.
On the night we visited, Keough himself was there to monitor additional repairs on the Claremont jukebox that looms from the rear of the bar. It houses 100 45s from Keough's extensive personal collection, and he changes them out regularly. Currently, it's home to some fantastic '80s alternative and at least one Van Halen record, which we assume is responsible for breaking the jukebox in the first place. One dollar gets you 10 plays at Bar Keough, and a bonus for old jukeboxes is that no one can skip your track to play "Funky Cold Medina" 15 times.
- Photographs by Justin Fox Burks
- Mike Hutsell at Bar Keough
It's not just the music that sets the place apart, though. Bar Keough is nothing fancy until you notice the thoughtful details that make up the décor. The red diner-like counter that serves as the bar, for example. The Zenith speakers peeking out from behind whiskey bottles. The light fixtures above, which Keough tells me he ordered from Belgium from a German dude with an Italian name who designs racecars. This last fact fills me with remorse that the light fixture has already lived a more exciting life than I.
The drink menu itself is also beautiful in its simplicity, containing such college-kid classics as the Madras and Green Tea interspersed with "I'm an adult now" drinks like the Old Fashioned and French 75. Then there's the most welcome addition of the Tom Collins, which I drank only before I was old enough to drink, but you better believe I sampled one at Bar Keough.
Bartender Mike Hutsell says his favorite drink to make is an Old Fashioned, and I'm delighted to see that he still uses the unnaturally pink maraschino cherries, which I've really started to miss ever since they began disappearing from bars in favor of that snobby-ass Luxardo cherry. There's also a small wine list, local and domestic bottled beers, and Miller High Life ponies, for those who would like one more but do not deserve a full beer. On draft, there's Newcastle, Stella Artois, and Guinness, which is a small, but mighty mix of beers. Fans and haters (who are really just closeted fans) of White Claw alike, join me in thunderous applause! Bar Keough also carries the coveted water beers.
Our go-to move is to have a couple drinks each while writing about bars we go to, but Hutsell was having none of it. "This is a safe space for more than two drinks," he says. This checks out. Bar Keough is nestled on the corner of Cooper and Peabody, a quick walk from Central Gardens, Cooper-Young, or the Overton Square areas. It's important to note that it's also stumbling distance to the CVS — because who knows what can happen to one's body after a few Bar Keough Blue Hawaiians.
While Hutsell is normally bartending for happy hour, it's Scott Miles who does the heavy lifting for larger crowds on Friday and Saturday nights, when I can personally guarantee you the Smiths and New Order will be played.
"I'm just winging it as I go," Keough says when I ask what big plans he might have for the bar's future. He's already tinkering with the menu and curating the jukebox's next rotation. He's here, just days before Christmas, kicking it with Mike Snodgrass, area jukebox junkie and restoration expert. He's still on the prowl for more 45s, a process augmented by his newly acquired skill of dinking records (look it up, pervert).
As I finish my final drink, the jukebox lights up and kicks back on. Bowie's "Let's Dance" blares. Bar Keough is going to be just fine.