Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous celebrated its 70th anniversary last year. It’s not the oldest restaurant in town and it’s not the hottest new place, but there’s no valid dispute that the barbecue restaurant is what first put Memphis on the national culinary stage.
“Being there day to day, seeing the numerous people from around the country and the world who come in, it’s almost overwhelming to us to see how well-known our restaurant is,” said John Vergos, Charlie Vergos’ oldest child and one of the restaurant’s current owners, when he was asked to trace its history as Memphis celebrates its bicentennial.
Back in 1948, Charlie Vergos opened a tavern selling sandwiches and snacks. He was on November 6th Street, an alley about 50 yards from the restaurant’s current alley entrance, where he moved in 1968.
A relative, Charles Cotros, worked for Sysco and brought some ribs by one day.
“They were a scrap product back then,” Vergos said. “Dad piddled with them for a while, kind of Greek style, but then we took a trip to New Orleans, he discovered Cajun spices and starting mixing them.”
They didn’t take off right away; there was no meteoric rise, Vergos said. Word just started to spread about the rib joint in the alley in different ways.
First, Kemmons Wilson was opening Holiday Inn franchises all over the world, and anyone opening a place came to Memphis to learn how to operate it. He unfailingly took his guests to dinner at the Rendezvous, and they took the word home with them.
Another Vergos relative worked for Delta and took ribs to work, where they’d find their way to airplanes and points far and wide. And flight attendants stayed at The Peabody when they were in town. Back then, they were women.
“My dad was very protective of single women and wouldn’t let men try to pick them up in the restaurant, so they’d come here to eat and tell people about it when they left,” Vergos said.
“It all added up. The Rendezvous was never an overnight success.”
But once word was out, it spread. Over the years presidents and princes, writers and rock stars have come in for a rack of ribs.
The Rolling Stones played an impromptu gig there back in the early ‘70s. Jerry Seinfeld, Alfre Woodard, James Taylor, Helen Hunt, Alex Haley, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Prince William and Prince Harry have all been in. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Rob Reiner, Diane Keaton, Ken Burns – the list is long.
The early years
The Vergos family is Greek, and Memphis owes a culinary debt to its immigrants. From roughly 1850 to 1930, about 25 million European immigrants came to the United States, and they didn’t all come through Ellis Island. There were numerous ports of entry, including New Orleans. Once there, a short ride up the river landed them in Memphis.
Rinaldo Grisanti came here and opened a restaurant on Main Street in 1909. There have been at least a dozen Grisanti’s restaurants over the years and today, four members of his family still operate vibrant restaurants, including Ronnie Grisanti’s, Frank Grisanti’s, David Grisanti’s and Dino’s Grill.
In 1919, Speros Zepatos opened The Arcade where it still stands today, at the corner of South Main and G.E. Patterson; it’s the second-oldest restaurant in town, a year younger than the Little Tea Shop. James Catsoodas, from Greece like Zepatos, opened Jim’s Place Downtown, and soon was joined by brothers Nick and Bill Taras. Today, Dimitri Taras and his sons own Jim’s Place Grill in Collierville, where photographs of their ancestors hang in honor on the walls.
Beer also had a role in the history of Memphis. In 1885, Casper Koehler and John W. Schorr, two Germans by way of St. Louis, came down the river and started the Tennessee Brewing Co., the first in the state. The brewing industry would become a major one in the city, with an annual payroll of $1 million when it resumed production after Prohibition was repealed in 1933. In 1954, the brewery closed and when Boscos started brewing beer in 1992, it was the first new brewery to open in the state.
The evolution of barbecue
When Hernando de Soto headed north from Florida on his quest to claim land for Spain, he and his Conquistadors traveled with pigs for food as they could forage and multiply. In the winter of 1540, de Soto and his men made camp with the Chickasaw Indians near Tupelo and there’s a record of a pig roast with the Chickasaw there, nearly 500 years ago.
When de Soto and his men moved on to cross the Mississippi River, they took some pigs but left many behind. This historic note shaped the assertion by James Beard award-winning author Adrian Miller that Memphis has the most valid origin claim to American barbecue.
On Delta plantations, pigs were raised for food, and barbecue was to political stumping what fish fries are today. By 1910, advertisements for barbecue were seen in local newspapers, according to Miller, and we know that in 1922, Leonard Heuberger opened shop at Trigg and Latham in South Memphis, where he sold pork sandwiches for 5 cents.
About 10 years later, he moved to what Memphians mostly think of as the original Leonard’s at Bellevue and McLemore. Leonard’s is now owned by Dan Brown, who started working for Heuberger in 1962. In 1993, Brown bought the company from a group of investors who had big yet unrealized plans to expand it nationally. Today he has one location left in East Memphis.
Jim Neely, who moved back to his hometown from California in the early 1970s and opened Interstate Bar-B-Que, trained his kids and nephews who went on to star in the Food Network show “Down Home with the Neelys.”
One of Neely’s favorite places to eat when he was younger was Brady & Lil’s, which was purchased in 1981 by Frank Vernon and eventually renamed the Bar-B-Q Shop.
Brady Vincent invented barbecue spaghetti; Vernon perfected it, and no one else really knows how he makes it. Barbecue nachos started here, too. Claims of who made them first are varied, but it was probably a woman named Rosie, who worked for Walker Taylor’s Germantown Commissary. She tossed a handful of pulled pork on an order of chips and cheese sauce at a festival, and boom. Barbecue nachos.
After spaghetti but before nachos on the Memphis food timeline, Horest Coletta needed to move pizzas at Coletta’s on South Parkway. After World War II, soldiers came home wanting pizza, but Memphians weren’t interested. Coletta did what he knew would attract the locals: He put barbecue on the pie, starting another local favorite.
In 1978, a rag-tag group of folks gathered in a parking lot for what would become the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. Today, folks come from all over the world to compete in the annual event or to simply enjoy the big party.
Memphis restaurants range from neighborhood mom-and-pops to upscale places owned by chefs who could work anywhere in the world. Master chef Jose Gutierrez came here to take over the kitchen of Chez Philippe in The Peabody a few months after it opened in the early 1980s, and shortly thereafter snagged a Food & Wine Best New Chef award. He left after 22 years and is now chef/owner at River Oaks Restaurant in East Memphis.
Two of Gutierrez' former cooks, Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman, grabbed the same award in 2013, a few years after opening Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, their first restaurant. Restaurant Iris and The Second Line chef/owner Kelly English made the 2009 list.
Gutierrez was part of the first wave of chefs who inspired the food scene we have today, but the shift was already underway when he got here. In 1977, University of Memphis track coach Glenn Hays opened La Tourelle, a French restaurant located where Restaurant Iris is today that would bring talent to town and train young chefs. Erling Jensen responded to an ad in The New York Times, talked to Hays by phone, rolled into town in a convertible with a Great Dane, took charge of the kitchen, and helped to change fine dining in Memphis.
While Justine’s was still around then, many of the older fine dining places were shuttered or reaching the end of their days; a new era was coming. Jensen now owns Erling Jensen: The Restaurant and has trained numerous chefs who have gone on to open their own places. Justin Young now owns Raven & Lily and Jimmy Gentry has P.O. Press, both in Collierville; Jennifer Dickerson has Chandelier in Jackson, Tennessee; Zack Nicholson has Lucky Cat Ramen; and Dave Krog will open Dory mid-2019 in East Memphis.
During those La Tourelle and Chez Phillipe days in Memphis, Wally Joe graduated from the University of Mississippi and instead of going into banking, went back to his father’s KC’s Kitchen in Cleveland, Mississippi. He changed it to a fine dining destination with a stellar wine cellar, then made his way to Memphis and now owns Acre.
Karen Carrier, a native Memphian who’d opened Automatic Slims in the meat-packing district in New York, came home in the early 1990s and opened a Slim’s in Downtown Memphis. A pioneer of the Downtown renaissance, Carrier has since sold Slim's to restaurateur Sandy Robertson, who owns Dyer’s and Alfred’s on Beale, and she now has Mollie Fontaine Lounge, Bar BKDC, and the Beauty Shop. By 2000, Memphis was getting interesting and there was more to come.
The second wave
Always home to soul food and home-cooking restaurants – Four Way Grill opened in 1946 and The Cupboard in 1943 – the changing cultural face of Memphis influenced its restaurants as immigrants from around the world moved to town. Folks who had grown up eating in one of two Mexican restaurants (there were a few more, including the formerly tiny Molly’s La Casita, but you had to know where to find them) were eating in taquerias that dotted Summer Avenue.
In 1998, Rodrigo Macedo opened La Guadalupana at Summer and Mendenhall, probably the first place people could get an authentic street taco in town. A few years later, he sold to Juan Castelan, his nephew, who runs it today with his son Oscar Castelan.
“We kids were all born in Chicago,” Oscar Castelan said. “But my father grew up about five hours south of Mexico City. He had a restaurant in Chicago with his brother, but when his uncle told him about this, we moved to Memphis.”
La Unica, Los Comales, Picosos, Palmar, Herradura, La Michoacana, La Llamarada – today restaurants and panadarias flourish on Summer and half a dozen more are a stone’s throw away on Macon Road.
On Cleveland, Saigon Le was one of the early Vietnamese restaurants to line the street; it burned and closed a few years ago. It had followed Lotus, started in the late 1970s, still owned by Joe and Hanh Bach and still on Summer Avenue. Cleveland remains home to Phuong Long and Vietnam Restaurant, two places always good for a bowl of pho or vermicelli.
Catholic Charities, located near Cleveland and Jefferson, for years offered immigration services and can take credit for some of the expansion of Memphis' food culture. Newer immigrants came because friends or family were already settled here, and they stayed because of the relative low cost of both living and opening a small business. The 1990s and 2000s brought a new wave of immigrants that continue to enrich the city’s food scene. Abyssinia was our first Ethiopian restaurant when it opened in 2000; now there are five.
We have at least three Colombian restaurants; two that serve Cuban food, and a couple that offer other Caribbean cuisine; two Venezuelan places; a dozen or more Indian restaurants; dozens of Japanese places from small to large; and Middle Eastern food served by families from Yemen, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, and other countries. Pho is served in a dozen or so Vietnamese restaurants; Thai restaurants serve up spicy dishes; authentic Chinese cuisine is found on the red menu, not the Americanized green one, in several restaurants; and there are more taco food trucks on the street than there were Mexican restaurants in the entire city about a decade ago.
Memphis has a population loyal to locals. Where you eat old-school Italian depends on where your parents ate: Pete & Sam’s or Coletta’s. The former recently marked its 70th anniversary and the latter is coming up on 100 years since it opened as an ice cream shop.
But newer restaurants continue to change the dining landscape. In 2008, Ticer and Hudman opened Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen on Brookhaven Circle in East Memphis. The childhood friends had a plan and stuck with it: By the time they celebrated their 10th anniversary last year, they had four restaurants in Memphis and one in New Orleans. Hog & Hominy is across the street from AMIK, Catherine & Mary’s and The Gray Canary are Downtown, and Josephine Estelle is in the Ace Hotel in New Orleans.
That same year, Kelly English opened Restaurant Iris and later followed with The Second Line. It was also the year that local baker Kat Gordon opened Muddy’s Bake Shop. They were all kids in their 20s. They’re still here, still winning awards and gaining national, even international recognition, despite opening in a year that was financially devastating to businesses around the country.
The Memphis effect
Is that so surprising, given the history of Memphis’ entrepreneurial spirit in the food business? After all, this is where Clarence Saunders opened Piggly Wiggly, the first self-serve grocery, in 1916. Before he lost ownership of it in a stock market deal in 1923, it had grown to almost 1,300 stores, about of them half his and half franchises. Saunders also lost the home he was building, now the Pink Palace Museum, in that deal.
And Ronco Foods, founded by Italian immigrants in 1929, was once the largest manufacturer of pasta in the country.
While Fred Smith is a household name, the FedEx founder’s father, also Fred Smith, started a business long before his son. The elder Smith was the owner of Toddle House, a chain of diners. He sold in 1962 to Memphis-based Dobbs House, but when he owned them, Toddle House restaurants were operated on an honor system: You deposited your check and your money in a glass case as you left.
When chefs here throw big parties such as Le Bon Appetit and the Memphis Food & Wine Festival, or host events like English’s Second Line funeral for the New Orleans Saints after a painful loss in the 2018 playoffs, it should be remembered that they’re following a tradition of big gestures. At Justine’s, the restaurant used more than 50,000 roses per year for the tables.
Big John Grisanti, a colorful member of the family mentioned above and father of David, who owns David Grisanti’s restaurant, held two world records for purchasing the most expensive bottles of wines in the late 1970s and early ’80s. One was a jeroboam of Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1864, for which he paid $18,000. The other was a $31,000 bottle of Lafite 1822.
But he barely tasted them: Instead he did what a big-hearted, true Memphian would do: He auctioned sips of the wines to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.