DIVE IN: WHERE TO GO FOR BEER + BURGERS IN MEMPHIS RIGHT NOW
Researching this one was fun, folks; I won’t lie. It also coincided with research for a book I’m writing about Memphis. Here’s a sneak peek:
In the milieu of Memphis dive bars, you might find pool tables or a jukebox; karaoke or local and touring musicians who’ll talk to you while they’re packing their equipment in and out. It’s a world of markered bathrooms and low to no light that cops the occasional cameo in a Craig Brewer film. Memphians embrace their dive bars like a stranger grips you in a drunken hug. When you really want to lose yourself among the locals, dive on in:
I could recap here for you the stories that circle around the world about Earnestine & Hazel’s. But you’d rather go in and read the newspaper clippings hung on the walls, talk to the bartenders and let the place tell you itself.
Eat/drink: A Soul Burger (served with Golden Flake chips) and a Ghost River Golden Ale. The beauty of this burger is its simplicity. It’s not big enough to eat you; it’s not dressed to excess, or to impress via hoity-toity toppings. It’s just a standard-sized bun, thin patty, onions, cheese, pickle and something the bar calls “Soul Sauce.” Our table couldn’t agree on the ingredients, but we unanimously deemed it perfection in the context of this burger.
Listen: To whatever the ghosts are playing on the jukebox (that’s a bit from the Earnestine & Hazel’s canon). On my first visit, I showed up early – around 8 p.m. on a Saturday night. The jukebox wasn’t even playing yet. Out of the silence, “Green Onions” started grooving. I didn’t take it as a haunting so much as a purely Memphis moment. (The legendary jukebox ranges far beyond soul to North Mississippi Allstars and Talking Heads, but oddly, not to the Rolling Stones, who were rumored to have based “Honky Tonk Woman” and “Brown Sugar” on this bar.) Sunday nights, live jazz takes over from 7-10 p.m.
See: The upstairs. I like to go early when no one’s up there, except maybe Nate the bartender prepping for the late-night rush. The hall stretches out long – lights low; paint peeling – to small rooms packed with cast-off furniture, ancient electronics and windows that frame that frozen-in-time feel of South Main Street: Central Station, The Arcade Restaurant, the trolley swaying on its track. No wonder the scene’s shown up in so many movies.
Earnestine & Hazel’s is open daily, 11 a.m.-3 a.m. 531 S. Main St., 901-523-9754
The Holding Pen at Hog & Hominy
We’ve talked about Hog & Hominy here before (at the time, creators Michael Hudman and Andy Ticer were hinting at starting their own dive bar). Well, they’ve gone and done it. You can argue that it isn’t a true dive because it’s a gleaming-new space, but as with all Hudman/Ticer projects, their hearts are in it and it tastes so good. They call it The Holding Pen, and it’s connected to the rear of Hog & Hominy.
Eat/drink: I had every intention of ordering the soul burger Andy and Michael thought up for The Holding Pen, named for John T. Edge and dressed with pickled lettuce, caramelized onion and mustard. But I arrived last Sunday to a brunchy menu, and went with the closest thing: steak and eggs – where rare, tender, impeccably seasoned steak stood in for the burger; grilled, crusty bread stood in for the bun; an earthy-red hot sauce stood in for ketchup and crispy home fries made the obvious accompaniment. As long as we’re making substitutions, know that Hog & Hominy’s pool table is a bocce ball court. Ask for the bocce set and hustle the crowd if you’re any good.
How it works: There’s a close relationship between Hog & Hominy and The Holding Pen. Pretty much anytime Hog & Hominy is open, you can ask to sit out back in The Holding Pen, and even order off the Hog & Hominy menu. (Similarly, you can order the John T. burger inside Hog & Hominy at lunch Monday through Saturday.) The major differences are these: Even with heat lamps, The Holding Pen is somewhat seasonal. For the full experience, you really want to hit it in good weather. You’ll know the time is right when you hear records spinning – Hudman and Ticer prefer to do it when it’s not too hot or too cold, since extremes upset the records. When you catch The Holding Pen “when it’s rockin’,” as they like to say, you might find someone shucking oysters, slinging Frito pie or meatballs out of the crockpot or serving pizzas from the brick oven. There’s a full bar out there, too, so order anything from Wiseacre on tap to complement.
See: First things first: You need to know how to get in The Holding Pen. Look for the bookcase to the right of Hog & Hominy’s kitchen (left of the restrooms). Push through it. Yes, it’s totally C.S. Lewis, and you’ll find The Chronicles of Narnia on the shelves. Once you’re in, the space is small but the bar is big. That works for me.
Listen: If you follow the Ticer/Hudman trajectory, you know the chefs’ families play heavily into what they do. Perhaps, then, it won’t disappoint you to know they’re raiding their aunts’ vinyl collections for stuff to spin in The Holding Pen…or perhaps it will, if you’re not a fan of “Purple Rain.”
Hog & Hominy is open daily for lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., and dinner, 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday hours are 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Late-night/full dinner menu hours are Thurs.-Sat. until midnight, though the bar and pizza oven stay fired up ’til 2 a.m. 707 W Brookhaven Cir., 901-207-7396
Burger bonus: The P & H Café
P&H stands for poor and hungry. Yeah – like that Poor & Hungry. You might go for Grizzlies or Tigers basketball on the flat screens. Or for a band, open mic, comedy or karaoke, depending on the night. You don’t need an occasion to go for food and drink. Pick from the handful of beers on tap to accompany your burger – I ordered a Yazoo Dos Perros with my Todd Melt (a patty melt with banana peppers and a side of pickles). As you can see here, I couldn’t even wait to photograph it without nicking a bite:
My neighbor’s standard is P&H’s veggie burger (it’s so plump, he sent it back once, assuming it was a beef burger). The seasoned and regular fries (we ordered both) got a thumb’s up. I’m going back ASAP for the stuffed burger, but which one? The Greek, with feta and capers? The Blues with bleu cheese and onion? Want to go with me and split? Tell me in the comments section below. (Tell me too what your favorite beer-and-burger combo is in West Tennessee. I’m always hungry.)
P&H’s kitchen is open Mon.-Fri., 4 p.m.-midnight and Sat., 5 p.m.-midnight. 1532 Madison Ave., 901-726-0906