Once upon a time, believe it or not, you could go to the drugstore to eat. People did it all the time. Local drugstores like Triplett-Day in Gulfport had lunch counters, and so did big national chains like Walgreens. You could still eat at some Walgreens locations when I was in elementary school, but in the 1970’s and 1980’s, drugstores began getting rid of their kitchens and dining areas in order to focus on health and beauty aids, which was their core business. The occasional drug store that still had its soda fountain or lunch counter was the subject of news articles and tourist literature. But one drugstore, Brent’s Drugs in Jackson, Mississippi’s Fondren neighborhood decided to do things a little backwards. They got rid of the drugstore, and just kept the lunch counter and soda fountain, and Jacksonians are really glad they did. Breakfast is the main draw at Brent’s, and unlike the other popular local breakfast spot in Jackson, Brent’s is open on Sunday mornings too. Of course, they also serve plenty of lunch items, including burgers, and the interior of the place has been restored into a comfortable, cheery, bright space indeed. At night, the back of the store becomes The Apothecary, arguably Jackson’s best bar, and recently voted one of the South’s best bars. Finally, Brent’s is also a go-to spot for ice cream, milkshakes and floats, perfect for children of all ages…and face it, we’re all children when it comes to ice cream!
After the Duwayne Burnside performance on Sunday night, we went for a late-night breakfast at the St. Charles Tavern, one of a handful of 24-hour restaurants along the streetcar route on St. Charles Avenue uptown. The place was crowded in the wake of the Mardi Gras parades, balls, concerts and music events, but the service was relatively quick for the level of crowd, and the breakfast food was really good.
About eight hours later, we woke up and checked out of the condominium on Oak Street where we had been staying. We walked up the street to the Oak Street Cafe for breakfast, and as usual, the place was crowded. But because it was Lundi Gras, they were serving a special and extremely-limited menu, unfortunately. Still we managed to get a brunch, and then headed out on the way back to Senatobia and Memphis, stopping briefly in Ponchatoula. In Jackson, wanting seafood, we stopped at Drago’s, a New Orleans favorite that has since expanded to Jackson, and the workers were busy decorating the restaurant for Mardi Gras as we enjoyed our dinner of oysters and shrimp. It was fairly late when we made it back home, and I was glad that I was off work the next day.
After R. L. Boyce’s show in Leland, we headed on down Highway 61 to Natchez and checked into the Hotel Vue. Duwayne Burnside had a show at the Circle Bar in New Orleans on Sunday night, and we wanted to get as close to New Orleans as we could get, so that our drive down the next morning would not be bad. Our room was big and comfortable, and better yet, it came with a free breakfast buffet for the next morning. Arriving at 2 AM, we hadn’t seen much of the decor, but on the next morning, we were able to see amazing views of the city of Natchez and the Mississippi River from the rather steep hill on which the hotel was built. After we checked out, we both wanted coffee, so we headed downtown to a place called Steampunk Coffee Roasters, which turned out to be directly behind Smoot’s Grocery, the local blues venue in Natchez. The coffee roastery and cafe was housed in an historic brick cottage that dated back to the 19th century, and was fairly crowded, a mix of local people and those coming or going from New Orleans Mardi Gras. Although the previous Saturday had been cold, the weather was warming up on Sunday, and people were walking along the Mississippi River, and enjoying the outdoor tables at the coffee bar. We took a table inside, and enjoyed our coffee drinks, and I purchased three bags of beans to take home, some Costa Rican, Guatemalan and Nicaraguan varieties. Across the street from the coffee bar was a large warehouse with a mural promoting a different kind of coffee, the Interstate Coffee Company of Natchez, and its brands of coffee, Double Eagle Coffee and Chicory, and Alcafe Coffee. The company was long out of business, sadly, but the mural had been beautifully restored by the building’s current owners, and we were told that it would soon become Natchez Brewing Company. Fueled with light food and coffee, we soon headed out to New Orleans.
Duwayne Burnside had played The Shelter on Van Buren in Oxford, Mississippi earlier in the fall, but I had not been able to attend, so when it was announced that he would be playing there again on New Years’ Eve, I was eager to be there. It would prove to be both my first, and sadly my last, visit to The Shelter.
The venue was a coffee bar and live music venue, which also served a very limited food menu, some desserts, and craft beer. The atmosphere was extremely laid back, with couches, benches, chairs and tables in a rather haphazard pattern near the stage. The night of Hill Country blues featured not only Duwayne Burnside but also Kenny Brown, and a few local Oxford musicians, including guitarist Kody Harrell. At first Duwayne’s drummer had not shown up, so he was playing a sort of “unplugged” acoustic set. After his drummer arrived, he picked up the pace and intensity level to an extent, and the moderate crowd in the seats loved every minute of it. Como bluesman R. L. Boyce then joined Duwayne on stage for a few songs, and some local musicians came up to sit end toward the show’s end. At 10 PM or so, Duwayne brought things to a halt, as he had another show at The Hut in Holly Springs starting at 11, and we all left in a happy frame of mind. Unfortunately, it would be the last time we got to visit The Shelter on Van Buren. A week into the new year, it abruptly closed for good.
While traveling from Dallas to Austin in incessant rain, I decided I wanted some sort of coffee when we got to Waco. With Baylor University located there, I noticed several different coffee options on my phone, but opted for one called BRU Artisan Coffee Works on Franklin Avenue in the Praetorian Building in Downtown Waco. It was still raining when we arrived at the coffee house, and we were amazed to find that BRU occupies the old elevator shaft of the historic building, and otherwise shares space with Interior Glow, a home decorating and gift shop. We found that the barista was friendly, and the coffee amazingly good, just the thing to cheer us on a grey, rainy afternoon. BRU is somewhat off the beaten path, but worth a visit.
Believe it or not, there was a time in my lifetime when espresso, cappuccino and other artisan coffees were just about impossible to obtain in the South. Certainly we could not find them anywhere in Memphis. There were no Starbucks locations, and few local coffee houses either. Only the biggest cities, such as Atlanta or Dallas had such places. Nowadays, the South is second only to the Pacific Northwest when it comes to artisan coffee, and the available choices can truly be bewildering, particularly in coffee-loving cities like Atlanta or New Orleans. New roasters seemingly pop up every day. But a young upstart, Birmingham’s Revelator Coffee Company, hopes to become the South’s coffee company, and with locations in New Orleans, Birmingham, Atlanta,Charleston, Chattanooga and Nashville, they are well on their way toward achieving that goal. Founded in New Orleans, Revelator decided fairly early to build a central roastery in Birmingham, Alabama, a city which is just now starting to undergo a renaissance, but which already had a history of love for coffee and a decent number of local coffee bars. On the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, I came off the road on my way to Atlanta to stop and purchase a couple of pounds of beans to take back home with me. Because the local coffee house and shop closes at 5 PM, I barely made it there before closing time, but the employees were gracious about serving me right at the close of the day, and even gave me a free cup of brewed coffee because I had purchased two bags of beans. I have to say that I was impressed with the sleek, futuristic look of the place, and was surprised that they had an electronic dance music DJ, particularly since they close at 5 in the evening. But the brewed coffee was delicious, and the Central American beans I bought (from Nicaragua and Costa Rica, as I recall) proved to be delicious as well once I brewed them back home in Memphis a few weeks later. One disappointment of mine, which I hope will eventually be corrected: While Revelator Coffee is available at Piggly Wiggly in Birmingham, it is not available anywhere in Memphis. Hopefully, they will either get it into some of our local supermarkets, or better yet, perhaps open a Revelator store here.
Memphis’ showcase suburban park Shelby Farms has had a recent upgrade that was several years in the making, and one of the really great things about it is the addition of a lakeside restaurant called The Kitchen Bistro. For a city with a large riverfront, Memphis has pathetically few places to eat on water or even with a view of water, so this new place meets that need as well as the need for a decent food in the park. On weekend mornings, the attraction is brunch, and there is hardly a table to be had. The brunch menu includes omelettes and other standard breakfast fare, as well as mimosas and coffee, and if the prices are not inexpensive, neither are they outrageous. In the sleek, modern, open, glassy environment, The Kitchen has more the feel of a California restaurant, but it is bright and cheerful, and there is outdoor seating by the lake when weather permits. Although The Kitchen is also open for dinner, so far I have only tried the breakfast. While Memphis has many great options for the morning meal, The Kitchen satisfies with food and the view as well.
Aside from the main festival stage area, the center of activity during the King Biscuit Blues Festival is Cherry Street in downtown Helena. Usually a ghost town, during the festival the street is as busy as Memphis’ Beale Street, and with good reason, as the street is lined with vendors and performers, as are several of the side streets. Stands, carts and trucks sell everything from CD’s and clothing to food, and a few belong to blues musicians and performers. There are also a couple of outdoor stages, one directly on Cherry Street and the other near the dead-end of Rightor Street in front of Bailee Mae’s Coffee House, which is a popular place indeed during King Biscuit week. This year’s festival was helped by the pleasant, unseasonably warm weather which had crowds outside by the hundreds.
Prior to 2015, I had never heard of the Avondale neighborhood in Birmingham, but on my way to Atlanta for Thanksgiving, I noticed that the Yelp app on my phone was showing a number of restaurants on 41st Street in that area, so I decided to head there for lunch, to a pizza place called Post Office Pies. To my surprise, the area proved to be a district of restaurants and coffee bars, and there were a lot of choices. Despite originally deciding on pizza, I was extremely tempted by the oil drum barbecue in front of Saw’s Soul Kitchen next door, and the weather was so warm that people were sitting at the outdoor tables there. But I ultimately went ahead with my original pizza choice, and was quite pleased with the pepperoni and bacon pizza I enjoyed at Post Office Pies.
After lunch, I spied a coffee bar across the street called Satellite, which was attached to a music venue called Saturn. Inside was the last thing I would have expected- a wall display of Sun Ra album covers, although I finally remembered that Herman “Sonny” Blount was indeed born in Birmingham. The coffee there was great, the atmosphere cheerful, a great place for an after-lunch latte before continuing on my journey. Altogether, Avondale seems to be becoming a hip place for food and fun in Alabama’s largest city.
Post Office Pies
209 41st St S
Birmingham, AL 35222
Saw’s Soul Kitchen
214 41st St S
Birmingham, AL 35222
Saturn Birmingham/Satellite Coffee Bar
200 41st St S
Birmingham, AL 35222
Monday morning was still overcast and rainy, but at least the rain had breaks in it. My homeboy Darren and I went and picked up Bunny, the tuba player from the TBC Brass Band, and we all headed over to my favorite breakfast place, the Who Dat Coffee Cafe on Burgundy in the Marigny neighborhood. Afterwards, we headed over to the Treme neighborhood, where there was a new mural in honor of the late Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill, the musician who died suddenly in Japan earlier in the year due to complications from a dental procedure. Although the rain was starting back up, we managed to take some pictures there, and then I was trying to pick up a TBC Brass Band t-shirt, but we could not get in touch with the band member who had the shirts. So I dropped Darren and Bunny back off, headed Uptown to a new coffee bar called French Truck Coffee, which was really good, and then hit the road back toward Memphis.