“Whenever I go to Memphis I have a little ritual. I check into the Peabody Hotel, then duck into a dumpster-filled back alley, and rush to Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous . . . for most people – locals and tourists alike -- the Rendezvous’ dry ribs are the very essence of Memphis barbecue,” – so says Stephen Raichlen in his book, BBQ Bible
At the very tippy top of the list of things to do in Memphis is a visit to Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous. The Rendezvous is a barbecue joint in downtown Memphis, just off Third Street, right down from The Peabody Hotel, tucked in an alleyway. If the wind is right you can smell it from half a block away.
It’s not unusual for my parents to drive to Memphis and back, just to go to the Rendezvous for ribs. That’s a four hour drive round trip. Some ribs.
I’d make the same drive in a heartbeat, just to eat there.
Growing up, I heard my parents talk about traveling from Belzoni to Memphis, basically to go eat at the Rendezvous. It had a mystique about it, like a speakeasy for cool grownups.
My dad took me the first time I went there. I think I was a freshman in college. I fell hard for it, from the walk you made past the awning-topped doors of the Peabody, across the street and down an alley. You go through double doors down a flight of stairs to the restaurant. That’s right; not only is it in an alley, it’s also in a basement. Awesome. The walls were covered with memorabilia and not like at TGI Fridays. It’s the real deal. I was already completely enthralled by the time we got seated at our table with the red and white gingham oilcloth tablecloth.
I got a gander at the menu and was dismayed, frankly. I knew it was a barbecue joint but heck, I figured they’d at least have a burger, right? Wrong. It was an abbreviated menu of ribs and barbecue and that’s pretty well it.
See, I don’t actually care for ribs. They always seem to me to be an awful lot of work for not much meat.
When the waiter came to the table in his starched white shirt and black bow tie, Dad asked for a sausage and cheese platter and two orders of ribs. I was desperately flipping the flat menu from front to back, looking for more food options. When the waiter left, I whined. “Daaaaaad. I don’t even like ribs!” He shrugged and took a sip of sweet tea. “You have to eat ribs when you come here, hon.”
A few minutes later he nudged me and gestured to a waiter polishing glasses. Dad said he was almost positive he was the very same guy who’d been working there when my dad had been a college student at Delta State, when he and his friends would occasionally drive up Highway 61 for a visit. He was probably right; the folks who work there are career waiters. Many have been there for 20, 30 years. Or longer. There aren’t many places that could boast that. It’s an institution. A treasured one.
In minutes we had our appetizer and ya’ll. The clouds parted and angels sang and wow. That platter of sausage, cheese, peppers, and saltine crackers was one of the best things I’d ever had. The cheese was cut in long, thin blocks and is sharp cheddar. The sliced sausage was slightly warm and it was all sprinkled with some kind of seasoning.
That first trip made an impression. The Rendezvous is now one of my most favorite places to eat anywhere.
Not long after that (a few months, a few years – they all kind of blend together, don’t they) some friends and I were there mid afternoon on a Saturday. It was summer and H-O-T hot. We’d finished our meal and were enjoying sitting there, sipping very cold Diet Cokes. Our waiter came to the table and calmly and matter of factly said, “We’re evacuating the restaurant. Don’t worry about the check. Everyone has to leave now,” and left to make the same announcement at the next table. We sat for a minute, looking at each other, wondering if we’d heard him right. People began gathering purses and leaving and we followed suit. It was surreal; everyone was completely calm, there was no pushing or shoving or panicking. It was quite strange, really.
Outside we heard the fire truck’s siren getting louder as it approached. We stood around with some of the other customers. Rumors circulated about a kitchen fire. We were cleared from the alley when the fire truck arrived and, because we were all of nineteen with the attention span of gnats and it was HOT, we got bored and left. I never heard if there was an actual fire.
I’m still not much for ribs, and I feel downright unAmerican for saying so. I’d just as soon have the pulled pork sandwich, which is what I had Saturday when The Boyfriend and I had lunch there. It was all I could do not to skip as we got nearer the alley. I can’t explain the special brand of giddy I feel being in the vicinity of The Peabody and The Rendezvous and downtown Memphis in general. (It’s exactly the way I feel in and around Jackson Square or pretty much anywhere around the French Quarter.) We walked in and down the stairs and nothing had changed. NOTHING. Which is perfect, just as it should be.
We had the sausage and cheese platter, which was amazing, as always. I don’t know if their sausage and/or cheese are magical or if they do something crazy with the packets of saltine crackers but it is unbelievably good. It must have something to do with both the company and the atmosphere.
I had my camera with me but couldn’t get up the nerve to take photographs. At one point, I walked past three waiters and my fingers itched to take out my camera. One was behind the bar and two others were leaned against the bar, all in their white shirts and black bow ties. The way they were situated, their expressions – it was a moment in time I wanted to capture. But the thought of a scolding from one of the famed Rendezvous waiters was more than I could bear.
There are other barbecue places in town – Corky’s and Neelys and some place on Beale Street. I’m sure they’re perfectly lovely but the Rendezvous is it for me.
I’m craving it again and we were JUST there.
Random Rendezvous Facts:
* We heard our waiter tell the people at the next table that on an average week, they serve 6,000 pounds of ribs. Six thousand pounds.
* The restaurant has been open since 1948.
* Prince Albert of Monaco, Coach Bear Bryant, Frank Sinatra, Justin Timberlake, Bill Cosby, Elvis Presley, John McCain, Bill Clinton, and the Rolling Stones have all dined there. Although I’m guessing not at the same time.
* Charlie Vergos had a diner above the basement and he discovered a coal chute from the basement, meaning he had a way to vent his grill. And the Rendezvous was born.
* One of the waiters, Robert Senior, has been there for over 45 years.