The Lamplighter Lounge is lit only by lamps. No overhead lighting casts its unflattering light on this hole in the wall or its patrons, located at 1702 Madison. The Lamplighter Lounge recently changed hands, coming under ownership of Chuck Vicious, a longtime bartender. While Chuck and co-owner Laurel Cannito have made a few changes, the Lamplighter remains as dependable as its lamps: a shining light that attracts barflies.
"We're the type of bar that you either love it or hate it," says Thomas, the engaging and charming man behind the bar when my friend and I visited. I get what he's saying, but he sells the Lamplighter short. The people who hate it would hate any old Midtown dive. No one is at the Lamplighter for a carefully curated wine list; they're there to rage at a rock show, drain several pints of PBR, and blast cigarettes even though they're trying to quit. If one takes proud ownership of their vices, then, yeah, they're going to love it.
In addition to its lovingly dingy interior, full of furniture that looks like it was commandeered from a 1970s insurance office that closed up shop, the Lamplighter proceeds to check a lot of dive bar boxes. There's PBR on tap, of course, but also PBR in bottles (you know, if you're a snob about cheap beer). There's smoking allowed inside. Kitschy, smoke-stained posters adorn the walls, and the sign directing you to the restrooms reads, "The Boardroom." Check, check, and check. The most notable change under Chuck is the removal of the pool table, freeing up more space for bands to play. Not a bad idea, especially considering that as I recall, that pool table had a lot of stories to tell, and most of them didn't involve actual billiards. A pool cue is still affixed to the wall. "As a memorial," Thomas says. The most welcome change, however, has been the removal of the carpet from the floors. "As a blessing from Midtown Jesus," I say.
- Photographs by Justin Fox Burks
- Thomas pours a PBR
The Lamplighter, like any good dive, allows you to bring in your own liquor and pay for a set-up fee. When it comes to alcohol, they only serve beer. There are plenty of local and domestic beers available. Amazingly, they now offer La Croix, so all of Memphis' weird seltzer nerds can pound flavored waters in a bar, as absolutely no one ever intended. They also offer a variety of hot teas and pour-over coffee, which is intriguing in a place like that. It brings together in seamless combination two of Memphis' favorite things: coffeehouses and dens of iniquity.
Thomas, wearing a Jeff Gordon shirt and recommending Long Road ciders to several patrons, is an untapped talent in the bartending world. He works both Sunday and Thursday nights; on Thursdays he also hosts karaoke. I've never witnessed Lamplighter karaoke, but I've been to enough dive bar karaoke nights to have a firm grasp of what kind of performances patrons will witness. When asked about other 2018 amenities they have to offer, Thomas says, "Well, we've got wifi and an auxiliary cord!" Rejoice, everyone! While you can still spin some vinyl behind the bar, you can now also plug in your iPhone and force others there to listen to your own lackluster musical selections! Someone down the bar from us adds that the Lamplighter boasts a new PA as well. It's welcome news for anyone who's been to a show there, as sometimes bands stumble on the line between loud, creative genius and sounding like they're taking the stage inside a construction dumpster. Again, you're not at the Lamplighter expecting the acoustics of the Orpheum. You're there to listen to loud music and accidentally spill beer in your friend's purse.
We're joined later by a wedding party, welcoming its first out-of-town guests for a weeklong Memphis affair. Their guests, from halfway around the world, receive their first introduction to Memphis in the form of the Lamplighter Lounge, a round of cheap beers, and a selection of board games (they're playing Connect Four). The bride, faithful to the Lamplighter, wouldn't have it any other way. Lord knows those lamps have been shining on a lot of folks, welcoming them to Memphis, for a long time.