A couple weeks ago, we had a full-on Memphis meltdown after some nerd from Nashville began trolling us with a series of misspelled tweets and non-applicable GIFs (full disclosure: I am Nashville-born and mostly Nashville-raised, and this cretin offended even me). It was absolutely maddening, but here's the deal: That guy doesn't get it and never will, and that's just fine with me because that means he stays the hell out of Memphis and the hell out of bars like the Big S Grill. The Big S is Memphis through and through and embodies all this city has to offer, and it does it all in a tiny, unassuming house next to the train tracks.
1179 Dunnavant is stuck in time. It doesn't look like it has changed anything about itself since the '60s except for the name (formerly it was known as the Hawkins Grill). Indeed, the telephone directory hanging by the front door looked older than I am.
The Big S has six barstools, five tables, and three booths, keeping it intimate. We sat at the bar, where there were holes worn in the fabric from years of boot toes pressing into the sides. The place was dim, lit only by a few red lights. My buddy and I looked at each other. The Big S Grill was a winner.
There are a handful of things that make a bar: the music, the people, and the drinks. A bar doesn't require anything more than that, which is why it baffles the mind that so many bars are terrible. The Big S Grill scores a 10/10 in every category. The jukebox is packed with soul classics, and not one patron in there was under 60. But the drink of choice in the Big S is where the Memphis really comes through. We were served two 40-ounce bottles of beer with a chilled rocks glass and a napkin. A chilled rocks glass and a napkin! I dare you to find a better setup than that.
My friend and I were one of several people in there, but every other patron was an older gentleman. Just like with Ashton Kutcher, the headwear was evenly split between fedoras and trucker hats, but unlike Ashton Kutcher, none of these guys' hats made them look like assholes. In fact, any one of those guys could've been my own grandfather, sitting there with a trucker hat perched on his head, barbecue sauce running down his arms as he ate his pulled pork sandwich at a gritty neighborhood bar. The Big S serves their barbecue from a smoker out front, and although we didn't partake, we were the only ones in there not eating. It looked and smelled incredible.
Like many of these lesser-known dives, the Big S Grill allows folks to bring in their own liquor for a small fee. At a table nearby, three men were passing around a bottle of Svedka. The bartender had brought them beer mugs full of ice in which to make their mixed drinks. A whole beer mug for a vodka drink? Giddy up! My friend noticed one of them wearing a Memphis Tigers shirt and remarked, "I like your shirt." The man replied, "You like the blue? You gotta like the blue if you're in Memphis." While the rest of us entitled jerks have been arguing about the Tigers since halfway through the Pastner era, the loyalty of the men of the Big S Grill has never even faltered.
We paid our tab, a beyond-reasonable $9 for two 40-ounce beers, and as we stood up to leave, the owner walked over and introduced himself. The Big S Grill has been run by the same folks, more or less, since the 1960s. This guy has surely seen the best and worst in people over the years, but greeted us as warmly as he would greet his own grandchildren. He called out, "Y'all come back now, you hear?" — just like in the movies — as we were walking out.
The next time we run across some Nashvillian — or any other city's less-than-stellar example of a citizen — who wants to hurl racial slurs and lame jokes at Memphis, don't let him win. Be glad that he's off making some other city's population dumber. Be happy that he doesn't understand. Be thrilled that we're taking the highest road, all while sitting in a low-ceilinged bar drinking beer with grandpas.
The Big S, 1179 Dunnavant (775-9127)