The first time my husband Tony and I made dinner plans with Tyler and Victoria, Tyler left us this message: "You bring a magnum of white; we'll bring a magnum of red." So who better than our friends to help us sample pub grub and drinks at recently opened bars in Memphis?
Stop number one downtown on a recent Saturday night was Ground Zero Blues Club, the new sister to Morgan Freeman's original juke joint in Clarksdale, Mississippi. It was about 7:30 p.m., but already the place was loud and friendly, thanks to the Terry "Harmonica" Bean Blues Band. And better yet: There was no cover charge so early in the evening.
"I can't believe I don't have to stay up late to hear this kind of music," Tyler said. Victoria loved the tables covered in oilcloth and the vintage Christmas lights strung across the restaurant's ceiling. "I was expecting a blues theme park," she said, "but this place feels authentic."
Like the club's décor, the menu was a mix of Delta favorites updated with unexpected flavors: Asiago cheese on the fried green tomatoes; pecan butter on the baked sweet potato; apple wood-smoked bacon on the BLT.
"I'm calling it juke joint nouveau," explained Mac Edwards a few days later. Edwards, former owner of McEwen's on Monroe, trained the club's kitchen staff and developed the Memphis menu, importing a few favorites from Clarksdale such as Mississippi "caviar," Rotel dip, and the club's signature "Getback" sauce, a mayonnaise-based mix of chili, garlic, and onions.
Also doing double duty are the pulled shoulder and baby-back ribs from Pig-N-Whistle. "They do them muddy with dry shake and barbecue sauce," Edwards said. "People love them."
Our group concurred, eating the baby-back special to the bone (a rack for $12) and deciding that Ground Zero had it all: good food, authentic blues, ice-cold martinis, and people like Ann Budle and Wayne Maxey sliding across the dance floor. "We're just friends," said Budle, with a sheepish grin. "But we've been dancing together for 23 years."
Ground Zero Blues Club, 158 Lt. George W. Lee Ave. (522-0130)
Our second Saturday-night stop was Memphis Mary's, the latest reincarnation of the pub/restaurant/ballroom at the corner of Madison and Danny Thomas. We parked right in front and soon understood why. The bar is closed to the public on Saturday and Sunday nights because the adjoining Stop 345 books private parties.
No problem, though. Operations manager Rook Gordin let us in, sat us down at his red-tile bar, and mixed up signature drinks: Bloody Marys made with Tad Pierson's smoky barbecue Memphis Mary mix.
Folks who live in the neighborhood know all about the drinks, which are featured on Bloody Mary Mondays for $3 each. The promotion is part of a slow but steady reintroduction of a bar like Paddy's Memphis Pub, operated by the late Pat Kelly in the same space.
"When we redid the place, we went back to green," Gordin said. "It was our homage to Paddy's."
For now, Memphis Mary's is open for business Mondays through Fridays, beginning at 5 p.m. Politics are part of the bar's agenda too. "We started watching the debates and the primaries, and pretty soon the whole neighborhood was here," Gordin said.
Next up is a fund-raiser for Congressman Steve Cohen on Sunday, July 6th. "Everybody is welcome," Gordin said. "We expect between 300 and 400 people."
Memphis Mary's, 345 Madison (507-2720)
Our last bar of the evening was supposed to be a new place near Folk's Folly in East Memphis called Hound Dog Lounge. Or not. It turned out that the lounge was a lodge, not for juicing up people but for pampering pets.
Fortunately, we weren't the only drive-by customers to misinterpret the sign for BrownDog Lodge (even before our night of drinking).
"Other people have done the same thing," said owner Chip Brown, laughing. "But we are a luxury hotel, spa, and day care for dogs, not for humans."