At one time, finding anything other than fast food was something of a challenge in New Albany, Mississippi. While upscale eateries opened in Oxford, Tupelo and even Como, New Albany was largely behind, but that has recently begun to change, around the time that the Tanglefoot Trail was opened for hiking and biking, spawning a coffee bar and eventually redevelopment of New Albany’s downtown.
The Bankhead Bicycle Club takes its name from New Albany’s main business street, Bankhead, named for an Alabama senator who was instrumental in getting Highway 78 built between Memphis and Birmingham (the famous actress Tallulah Bankhead was the daughter of the senator in question). On our recent visit, despite the late hour, the place was fairly crowded, including a large group that were visiting the area from North Carolina. The restaurant offers both pizzas and hamburgers, but we opted for burgers and were fairly impressed. I opted for the BBC Bomber, a burger with white cheddar and crumbled maple bacon, which provided a degree of sweetness. It came on a square ciabatta bun, and was quite delicious, as were the french fries that came with it. My friend ordered the same , and said she was pleased as well. Service was prompt and efficient, and the fairly-dark surroundings were comfortable and pleasant. An after-dinner key lime pie dessert was the perfect ending to the evening. Bankhead Bicycle Club will definitely see us again.
A few years ago, the Commercial Appeal newspaper compared Memphis to Austin in an article, a rather strange and forced comparison perhaps, despite the fact that both are music cities. When it comes to business, economy and culture, the two cities are nothing alike, but Memphis often seems envious of the kind of weirdness and success that Austin seems to represent. At any rate, over the last year, Memphis has witnessed the opening of two music venues that resemble the way things are done in Austin, Loflin Yard and now Railgarten. The similarities between them prove to be more than coincidence, as some of the same people are involved with both.
Anyone who has visited Austin during South By Southwest has probably been to Amy’s Ice Cream or the 24 Diner, both of which are located next to Waterloo Records at the central intersection of 6th and Lamar near downtown, and the developers of Railgarten seem to have patterned their location as a merger of Amy’s, 24 Diner and an outdoor-type music venue such as Austin’s Container Bar. The decision is an inspiring one indeed. First of all, Railgarten offers great food in their diner, breakfast items at certain hours, and gourmet burgers, including the one I had with a fried egg on top for good measure. Next door to that is an ice-cream parlor, that features homemade milkshakes as well. There is a ping-pong parlor in a building to the east, outside a volleyball court, and a lawn with fire-pits, as well as an outdoor stage made of shipping containers which incorporates the Skateland “Roller Skate For Health” neon sign from the legendary Summer Avenue skating rink of long ago. A food truck provides eats and snacks for those enjoying the outdoor music. All told, the fairly-large complex offers something for everyone.
ADDENDUM: Unfortunately, after my visit, all kinds of trouble broke out for this place. Local code enforcement, responding to complaints from the residential neighborhood north of the restaurant, hit Railgarten with “Do Not Occupy” warnings in April because of their use of shipping containers (despite the fact that the area is zoned industrial), and because they allegedly did not have a permit for live music. Further complaints to the Board of Adjustment stated that Railgarten did not have sufficient parking for a venue of its size. (It is worth noting that Austin did not have a problem with the Container Bar using shipping containers as part of its permanent building). As a result of the controversy, the backyard at Railgarten remains closed during a City Council-mandated 30-day delay before the Board of Adjustment can make a ruling as to whether it can reopen. The diner, ping-pong hall and ice cream parlor remain open under curtailed hours.
When I saw that a place called the Dirty Crow Inn had opened in a former convenience store on Kentucky Street at Crump Boulevard in South Memphis, I was initially wary, as the menu out front was short on choices, with wings the most prominent feature (and I am not a huge fan of wings). But after reading a positive review of the burger there, I decided to make a special trip down on a Sunday evening to see what the fuss was about.
The Dirty Crow Inn is a “new” dive bar, if there can indeed be such a thing. It’s fairly small inside, with a quaint and homey feel, and posters all across the ceiling. There is also an outdoor deck with more tables and chairs, and a place for occasional live music. The primary difference from more traditional dive bars is the gourmet-leaning menu, with such things as soy-ginger wings and poutine fries. The rather simple burger is still a thing of beauty, with the buns toasted and buttered, and bacon and cheese added. If it isn’t the best in Memphis, it’s got to be in the top five, and the french fries that came with it were equally tasty. There are occasional special food features as well, of which the bacon-wrapped smoked shrimp was the most outstanding, and while there is no dessert menu, the Dirty Crow Inn has cupcakes from the nearby Pink Diva bakery. As if all that wasn’t cool enough, the kitchen stays open until 2 AM, so it is a perfect destination after the club, the theatre or the show. Here’s hoping that the Dirty Crow Inn will become another one of Memphis’ legendary hangouts.
When I headed out from Monroe on Sunday morning, it was still raining. Although I had hoped the rain would end, it really did not, and was still going on when I arrived in New Orleans. I stopped and ate lunch at a place called Dis & Dat on Banks Street, a burger concept opened by the same people who started Dat Dog. From there I made my way over to the Treme Coffeehouse, and enjoyed a latte, as the second-line I had hoped to see was not being held due to the rain. Instead, I called my homeboy Darren from the TBC Brass Band, and we ended up riding out to Pizza Domenica with him, and then to the Maison Bourbon for live jazz. Ultimately, we ended up at the Howling Wolf in the Central Business District, where the Hot 8 Brass Band plays every Sunday night.
It was an absolutely gorgeous, warm afternoon, and a lady friend and I decided to head down to Oxford, Mississippi for dinner, a browse in my favorite bookstore and perhaps dessert. It’s not uncommon for us to go to Oxford, but on this evening, we discovered something new, a boutique hotel called the Graduate, which has opened on the site of the old Oxford Inn on North Lamar, a block or so from the square. As a hotel, the Graduate, with about 9 stories or so, looks like something straight out of Miami’s South Beach, but what attracted us was a rooftop bar and grill called The Coop. The Coop is an elegant space, with indoor and outdoor seating, but in warm weather, the outdoor deck is the better choice, with its panoramic view of Oxford. As my friend and I entered, a recording of Junior Kimbrough was playing overhead, a good omen indeed. We were seated on the outdoor deck at a table, while the sun slowly set in the west over the town, an experience that really isn’t even available in Memphis. My friend enjoyed an appetizer and a glass of wine. The big thing at The Coop is sliders, which come 2 to an order. There are 9 types of sliders, including the standard hamburger type. They’re not particularly expensive, either, and delicious. The Coop also has truffle fries, and they come in a cup with parmesan cheese. Also quite delicious. Service proved to be prompt and cheerful, and the food good, despite the somewhat limited menu. And it’s worth it for the unprecedented vistas. From up there, Oxford seems like some romantic resort town. And perhaps that’s the point.
Downstairs, the lobby of the hotel is also decorative and beautiful. The desk simulates bookshelves, with hundreds of bookspines, complete with authors and titles worked into the design. The lamps around the desk are globes of the world, complete with country details. Faulknerian art work hangs on the walls. But off the lobby is another restaurant choice, Cabin 82, which is primarily a coffee bar, despite offering a limited menu of breakfast and chicken biscuits. Their breve lattes are absolutely delicious, and although Oxford does have other coffee bars, it is conveniently located for those who have had dinner at The Coop.
Because rain was predicted, the city of New Orleans had moved up the starting times of both Lundi Gras parades by an hour. That had managed to keep the Krewe of Proteus parade dry, but it did not suffice for the Krewe of Orpheus parade that followed. My homeboy Darren and I were posted up in front of the Krewe du Brew Coffeehouse, checking out bands from Talladega College and Alcorn State University, but when St. Augustine High School’s Marching Band came past (which was a band I had really hoped to see), a sudden blast of icy cold wind hit us in the face, and within a few minutes, it started raining, and not a few drops, but a downpour. My digital camera did not need to be exposed to water, and so we retreated into the coffeehouse. Eventually, the rain let up enough that we were able to make our way to an area under the Crescent City Connection bridge approach, where Darren said a lot of “band heads” gathered each year to see the bands. Because of the heavy winds, we weren’t entirely dry even under the bridge, but we were at least drier. The temperature had also dropped from 73 to 48 in less than a half-hour, but a festive mood continued under the bridge, where one group of revellers had even hired a DJ to play bounce music between bands. I was most intrigued by the use of flambeaux in the Orpheus parade, I suppose due to tradition, and also to illuminate the elaborate floats at night, although Orpheus is one of the newer krewes, dating only back to 1968 or so. The young men bearing torches brought a cheerful but somewhat mysterious ambiance to the whole thing. When it was finally over, we were thoroughly wet and cold, and set about the task of finding something to eat, which was easier said than done. Such places as were open were fairly crowded, but we managed to get into O’Henry’s on Carrollton and enjoy a hamburger before Darren got called to a last minute TBC Brass Band gig on the West Bank.
Over the last several years, a growing trend toward gourmet hamburgers has spread from America’s largest metropolitan areas to smaller cities and towns nationwide, but the trend largely missed Birmingham, Alabama, with just one gourmet burger bar opening over the last few years. But this summer has seen the opening of a new place in the Lakeview neighborhood called Jack Brown’s Beer and Burger Joint, the first foray out of Virginia for the Harrisonburg-based chain. I had occasion to try it on my way through Birmingham last week en route to the A3C Hip-Hop Conference in Atlanta, and I was quite impressed. The menu is rather simple, actually, a number of designer hamburgers, french fries, and beers. The burgers are made with wagyu beef, and I chose one with barbecue sauce, bacon and cheese, that was absolutely delicious, if a little small. The french fries were golden brown, crispy and plentiful. And there was a very unusual and tempting dessert- a fried oreo cookie, which proved to be something like a beignet with an oreo cookie inside. Prices were reasonable, and the atmosphere cheerful, in a dive bar sort of way. Jack Brown’s will definitely be my go-to on future trips to Birmingham, and they’re on their way to Nashville as well.
After the late afternoon listening session at Cutting Edge NOLA, I was in the mood for a burger, and after looking at all the various burger options, I decided to try Charcoal’s Gourmet Burger Bar uptown on Magazine Street. Charcoal’s is a large two-story restaurant on Magazine at Jackson, with a downstairs that seems to be a to-go location, and an upstairs bar for the dine-in customers. The upstairs bar also has balconies on its Magazine and Jackson Street sides, but the late afternoon had seen a line of thunderstorms, so everything was wet outside. The menu at Charcoal’s is interesting, and offers a choice between a number of predesigned specialty burgers, or the option to build your own . Meat choices include elk, antelope, turkey, bison, akaushi, shrimp, and even a vegetable burger for those who don’t want meat. There are also choices of cheeses, other toppings, Benton’s bacon, and freshly cut french fries. Prices are not cheap, but the charming space, attentive service and unparalleled burger options make Charcoal’s worth the price.
Tupelo, Mississippi has always had a big-city ambiance that belies its relatively small size. It has a large regional mall, its own TV station, a zoo, a large convention center and arena and a fairly big downtown, complete with tall buildings. Now, Tupelo also has a big-city steakhouse called Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen on Main Street downtown, opened by the same people who run the Neon Pig in North Tupelo. KOK is not just a great steakhouse with great food and an attractive ambiance, but it is also a burgeoning part of the locavore movement, a trend toward restaurants locally sourcing almost everything. A wood-burning pit downstairs fills the restaurant with an inviting aroma, and this is where steaks are grilled and shucks of corn are roasted. My expertly-cooked filet mignon was accompanied by fingerling potatoes, which were delicious, and I had substituted a husk of roasted corn (also amazing) for the vegetables. The large upstairs dining room is bright and cheerful, with local art works on the walls and plenty of windows, but there is also seating around a downstairs bar near the pit. Although I’m not a beer drinker, there is a decent selection of craft beers, many of them regional, for those who like that sort of thing. Altogether, I had a great meal and good fun at Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen, and will certainly be back.
On the way from my hotel to downtown Columbia, South Carolina, I had noticed an intriguing burger bar called Burger Tavern 77, and after the final session of the Vocalis Music Industry Conference on Saturday June 28, I decided to try it. As the name suggests, Burger Tavern 77 has the atmosphere of a bar, but seems to welcome guests of all ages, and the centerpiece of the menu is burgers, particularly the ones you design yourself with all the various choices of meats, cheeses, toppings and sauces. The menu points out that all sandwiches are made with fresh ingredients and cooked to order. I chose my all-time favorite burger, one with bacon and cheese added, and I was pleased with the result. The fries, which were crispy and golden brown, came in a metal cup, which is becoming more common these days at gourmet burger places. If a burger is not your thing, Burger Tavern 77 also has salads and chicken, and the prices for everything are fairly reasonable. There is also an extensive amount of outdoor seating, but on the evening I was there, it was just too hot to enjoy it.