Memphis Barbecue Restaurants Ghost Pit Chronicles
ANOTHER YEAR    Thanks to the Tumblr folks for the birthday reminder, and thanks to my daughter for encouraging me to do this, to all the people who have contributed, and continue to contribute, to the site, and to the 35 or so folks who consider it interesting enough to follow. (David A. Barrett, (aka Carsonman, Blaz’r Steaks, Little Pigs of America), I’m still waiting to hear from you.)

    Thanks to the Tumblr folks for the birthday reminder, and thanks to my daughter for encouraging me to do this, to all the people who have contributed, and continue to contribute, to the site, and to the 35 or so folks who consider it interesting enough to follow. (David A. Barrett, (aka Carsonman, Blaz’r Steaks, Little Pigs of America), I’m still waiting to hear from you.)


     I’ve been thinking about candidates for Memphis’ oldest pit still standing. Friday, after dropping off some recycling at First Congo, I took the back way out of Cooper-Young to revisit one of my choices — Charlie’s Lunch Room at 1730 Lamar — and sadly saw this.
     Charlie’s was a classic ghost pit — ‘cue shop for decades, now a day care. It dates to the 1940s; the assessor lists construction in 1944, but it’s listed in the 1942 phone book.

       Demolition occurred within the past 18 months or so. I last snapped Charlie’s in September 2012, and I think I’ve been past it at least once since then. The field of possibilities for oldest pit still standing is much smaller, maybe by as much as 50 percent. Here’s the first time I saw Charlie’s, a Sunday afternoon in June 2010.


Meanwhile, at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, just east on Lamar …



   I learned about this fire at Tops #6 on Summer — the most attractive pit in the city, to my eye — several weeks back on the Memphis Que site. Driving past last weekend, I saw that all has been restored to its pre-fire glory.

   I played guitar in an old-time string band 10-15 years ago. We jammed a lot and played the contra dances at Idlewild Presbyterian. One of our favorite fiddle tunes was the one that gives this post its title.

     I have no idea anymore how it goes, but I remember it was a blast to play. The source notes for the tune say it comes from, appropriately, North Carolina.
    I got to make one of Craig Meek’s book events — last week’s signing/tasting at the Cotton Museum in Downtown.

   It was a great evening of barbecue — lore and food, courtesy of Leonard’s Pit Barbecue, perfect, considering its role in the city’s barbecue history.

   Reading Craig’s book has given me ideas for a couple of topics to pursue — the oldest pit still standing in the city, and the city’s oldest continuously operating pit. I have contenders for both, but need to do a bit more looking. If anyone has any nominations, I’d like to hear them.  


     Ripleys are finally here, so that means summer is, too. We got our first ones Saturday at Easy Way. They were a bit green, so they spent a couple of days in a paper bag with an apple. We got more today at Easy Way, and they looked great. BLTs have been had.
     Here’s an ad from May 1966, pre-Ripleys, I guess.


    Tonight is the release party and book signing for Craig Meek’s “Memphis Barbecue,” and it’s a bash befitting this excellent book — whole-hog barbecue and live music at the Hi-Tone, 412-414 North Cleveland, starting at 9 p.m. if you have other plans, change them (I’d be there, but I’m working).
    Also, if you want to buy the book and can’t get it at the book signing, support your local bookstores — Burke’s in Cooper-Young, or Booksellers at Laurelwood, which hosted Craig for a signing earlier this month. i got mine at Burke’s. It was the last one they had, but I’m sure they’ll have more, if they don’t already. They’ll order anything, and it only takes a couple of days. Don’t buy it from Amazon.
    I’m a couple of chapters into it, and Craig has done a terrific job of research and storytelling.


     Craig Meek, creator of the great Memphis Que blog, signs his new book tomorrow (June 10) at The Booksellers at Laurelwood starting at 6 p.m.
    His local book tour has two other events scheduled:
     Friday, June 27, 9 p.m., at the Hi-Tone: Whole hog barbecue, live music and book party,
     Thursday, July 10, 6-8 p.m., at The Cotton Museum, book signing.
     If you’re a fan of his blog, you know it’s going to be a great read.   


72 years ago …


   It’s still amazing what turns up, even after nearly four years. Not what I expected while checking something else on a satellite view. I have one lead to pursue, but otherwise it’s a mystery.

    The past couple of weeks have been a blur of work and, mercifully, some time off. On the way to Ohio to visit my brother, I stopped in Knoxville to see my daughter. She had been plugged into a new/old breakfast/meat-and-three place, The Roundup,

and took me there for dinner. Nothing fancy, just your basic neighborhood diner.

The Bob Ross-inspired ventilation covers are cool any time. Happy little air molecules.

My daughter ordered better than I did; her meatloaf was excellent, with tomato sauce, as God intended.

I was already beefed-out for the day, so I got a salmon patty – it was OK – but the mashed potatoes were stellar. Real, with lumps, perfectly seasoned. Swap them for her mac and cheese, and that would have been the meal.

I hadn’t seen my brother and his wife in three years, and not since they moved back to Ohio. I got to visit and revisit some of their favorite places.  We had a good breakfast at this drive-in in Guerne.

Most every burg seems to have a little place like it.

It’s also Amish country, so buggies are common on the roads.

I got a drive-through of the new J.M. Smucker campus in Orrville and a stop at the Smucker retail destination.  The store has everything made and/or sold under the Smucker umbrella, and an interesting museum area that sets out the company’s history.

The Coccia House, my brother’s favorite pizza place for eons and a Wooster institution (ad from 1959), was not to be missed.

I’m sure their revenue has surged since he moved back. I had pizza there once in the previous millennium. It may have been a contest/challenge; I didn’t win. My brother says he orders the specials as much or more than he does the pizzas,  but I went with a small veg pie and got one slice past half way. No need to order double cheese. The standard amount seems to be double what I run into around here.
     Of course, there was barbecue, at this place

the town’s lone purveyor.  It’s on a neat little two-block stretch that included Spoon Market, a deli/bakery/butcher shop/ restaurant that also sells all manner of exotic ingredients for cooking; a used record store and a real newsstand.
    Omahoma Bob describes his “barbeque” this way: “We use USDA choice beef, select pork and fresh poultry. Our meats are hand-massaged using a blend of fresh spices and allowed to rest for 24 hours before moving to the smoker. Adding a blend of seasoning woods, then slow cook smoking, our meat takes on its unique color and flavor, giving it the distinctive smoke ring. We call this “dry BBQ.” Barbeque sauce can be added, if you wish.”

    I got a pork sandwich, had to ask for slaw on it, and used the sauce at the table – a really nice sweet/smoky/pleasantly hot sauce. The pork was good, probably mid-pack in this town. Brisket would have been a better order, given his Texas style.

    Driving back to Memphis, I was hoping to find some ‘cue in Kentucky. I didn’t have time to do a lot of research, except to find out that the restaurant near Louisville owned by Vince Staten, author of “Real Barbecue,” had closed. (In a protest candidacy against Greek dominance of UT’s Homecoming Week in 1970, he was elected homecoming queen, but officials wouldn’t give him the crown.) The interstate signs were no help, so barbecue had to wait until Memorial Day, when I did ribs. My wife had bought them as a meat manager special for Memorial Day last year, but they ended up going right into the freezer (some things just can’t be rushed). I hadn’t tried to really barbecue anything in several years.

I rubbed them with a spice mix of uncertain vintage, made a foil packet of soaked hickory chips, and let them go for a couple of hours. I’ve never been good at managing a fire; the temp flirted with 300 degrees most of the time, more medium-low and medium-slow. I sauced them about 15 minutes before taking them off.

Not too bad.



     A couple of posts ago I mentioned going up to a wing joint on Peres, just off Chelsea, and that took me past this place, Little Bob’s Bar-B-Q Drive In. It was one of the earlier places I photographed (these pics are from May 2010); I have no good reason for why it has taken so long to post them.


The pits are striking; this was probably a jumping place.
     It opened circa 1958. I don’t know if there was a “little Bob” involved, but here is the 1960 city directory information:



This phone book listing is from 1961.


Hollywood Liquor was at 1994 Chelsea, next door basically, just across University. It looks like this today.


   Harry Blen died in 1968, and the 1970 city directory reflects some changes: Georgia Blen is running the liquor store, and Felestine  Robinson is listed as the owner or manager of Little Bob’s. This would hold throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s. Georgia Blen died in 1995. The 1998 city directory has no listing for Little Bob’s; Felestine Robinson died in 2008.
    I don’t know anything about the life of Little Bob’s as a sports bar. When I photographed it in January, it looked closed and, sadly, the distinctive chimneys had been removed.


     It’s one of those places I’m regretting not going into, or maybe not. Next door, to the west, is the Memphis Gentlemen Club, a motorcycle hangout where two people were killed and three others were wounded in an early-morning shooting last month. One news account said this: “With so many shots fired, it was difficult for witnesses to say who was shooting and where the shots were coming from.”


      Also in that earlier post I urged you to mark your calendars for late June for the release of the new book by barbecue/soul food blogger Memphis Que — Memphis Barbecue: A Succulent History of Smoke, Sauce and Soul. Well, re-mark them.
     The good news is that it will be out earlier — on June 10, and Memphis Que will read from the book and sign copies at the Booksellers at Laurelwood at 6 p.m. June 12. He’s also getting a release party on June 27 at the Hi-Tone. Pitmaster Richard Forrest will cook a whole hog and local musicians the Dead Soldiers, Switchblade Kid and Clay Otis will perform.

     Yes, it’s the barbecue contest weekend, and my tradition of late has been to head away from the river, out to Showboat Barbecue for one of Porter Moss’ superb pork sandwiches. I’m hungry just thinking about it.


     Time for the annual plea to do what you can to help out our bee population. We’re screwed without them. If you have clover, don’t mow it, and try to avoid herbicides and pesticides.
      The clover patches in our yard are growing like crazy, and bees-ness is picking up a little more every day. We had to have our big oak taken out a couple of years ago, which left a rough, ugly spot in the back yard. We’re finally getting a new tree, and I’m going to try to plant a big clover patch back there to hide the rest of it.
      The CA had a great story Friday about bee habitats, so I may have to be more ambitious than just clover. We’re usually the kiss of death for green living things, so we’ll see how this goes.

    The V&E Greenline arts festival couldn’t have ordered a better weather today. It was a nice, easygoing neighborhood event that’s getting better every year. 



   Lots of barbecue bits in the news last week. Interest was highest in the successful bid by Neely’s Bar-B-Que Inc. for a low-interest $67.500 loan to reopen the restaurant at 670 Jefferson that Patrick and Gina Neely (hereafter to be referred to as the “TV Neelys”; thanks to CA biz reporter Wayne Risher for that description) closed in October 2012, along with their Mt. Moriah shop.
     The big catch is a bill for $40,000 in back taxes owed on the two properties that must be paid before Tony Neely, who would operate the restaurant, can get the loan. If I had to bet, I’d say this deal won’t happen.
     Tony Neely and the TV Neelys are owners of the company. This paragraph from The CA’s April 17 article is telling: “Tony Bologna, a development consultant representing the family, said Patrick and Gina Neely, stars of the Food Network’s “Down Home with the Neelys,” are busy on a book tour and don’t have time to be involved in the restaurants.” Hmmm.
    I don’t like it that all of the parties involved built their names here and decided their futures looked brighter away from Memphis. The TV Neelys split for New York City (I’ll bet the property taxes aren’t cheap up there; hope they’re current) when showbiz became more important than the restaurant biz, and Tony Neely tried his hand in Nashville in a venture that didn’t end well. Online commenters savaged them for bad food and poor service. That was never my experience. The service was good, and I thoroughly enjoyed the food. They must have had a few good days in 20-plus years. 
    So, yeah, it’s a long shot, but if they get the back taxes paid and want to take another stab at it, fine by me. It’s a loan, not a gift. As part of his plans, Tony Neely says he would put “new windows” in the building. More accurately, the plan would be to put “windows” in the building. The place is bunker. Maybe that “Restaurant Impossible” guy would help out his network mates and take on another Memphis barbecue joint.


     Last Friday’s CA story about a campaign flier from County Commission candidate Martavius Jones had ghost-pit overtones. The flier has the usual election info on one side, and 10 coupons on the flip side for deals at various businesses in Jones’ District 10. The  coupons created a legal flap as being an attempt to buy votes.
     Two of the businesses occupy former Loeb’s barbecue sites — Makeda’s cookies at 2370 Airways, and The Wing Factory at 2280 Park.



    No pit is visible at The Wing Factory, but Makeda’s still has its pit. The deal is buy two, get one free. I had some when Makeda’s briefly had a place on Madison across from Stewart Brothers. A bit pricey, but good.    And another coupon is for 10 percent off at Payne’s.


It definitely has at-large appeal. I’m not in Jones’ district, so I can’t vote for him, but I could drop a little cash in some of  those District 10 businesses.


     Finally, the last bit of news comes not from The CA, but from Memphis Que, , a great local barbecue/soul food blog,  about fire destroying the smokehouse at A&R on Elvis Presley. The good news is that rebuilding is underway, and also that the blog founder’s just-completed book, Memphis Barbecue: A Succulent History of Smoke, Sauce and Soul, will be out June 24 from History Press. I met him in January, and we had lunch at Jaxon’s Hot Wings, at 2302 Peres off Chelsea. It was my pick, as it was a former barbecue restaurant (still don’t know which one), and I had never had hot wings (not a meal that really appeals to me).



Also, Jaxon’s had been mentioned in The CA recently, as the owner has returned to his old neighborhood and is trying to restore some economic vitality there. The wings were OK, as messy as I imagined, but Memphis Que assured me they were good. Probably a burger next time. I can say the bathroom was well equipped with lots of soap, hot water and paper towels to clean up after the meal.
   Anyway, mark your calendar for June 24, and check out Memphis Que’s blog. He’ll stop anywhere a grill is going, and let you know how it is.

     I’ll end this ramble with some words from Jim Neely, proprietor of Interstate Bar-B-Q at 2265 South Third and in Southaven, uncle to the TV Neelys, from last July in The CA’s story about the TV Neelys closing here for good:
    “I’m here every day at 5:30 a.m. and I work all day, seven days a week. I’ve been very fortunate and Memphis has been very good to me, but I’ve worked hard at it. Quality suffers when the owner isn’t present and if there’s no one there to make sure that everything is up to the right standards. That’s why you saw Charlie Vergos at the Rendezvous every day for decades, and why I’m still at mine. You have to keep a close eye on your operation.”


     The road trip concludes today, north onto Thomas from Chelsea, then east on Firestone, to the vicinity of the post office. On the way, just a block south of the Thomas/Firestone intersection, is Marble Avenue and this neat ghost pit, one I stumbled upon.
    The assessor’s office says the building went up in 1920. Don’t know about the pit, but the place has had several restaurant names over the years (here’s a few) — Farris Grill (1955), Margie’s Grill (1960), Mary’s Cafe (1970) — before settling into the club/lounge/bar business: Bradford’s Lounge (1975), no listing for 1981, and then the current name, One Block North, in 1992. Record spin, anyone?
    So, north on Thomas from Chelsea, there is yet another Loeb’s commercial strip with barbecue restaurant (870), barely a stone’s throw from the one on Chelsea, but this one also had one of the rare Loeb’s doughnut shops.

Here’s what it looks like today.

This was probably a good place. Long gone.

     On the west side of Thomas at the traffic light for Firestone is this sprawling entertainment complex/barbecue restaurant. I haven’t been there yet.This swoopy angle from Google

is circa summer/fall of 2011. Here it is in December 2011, with the name changed to Lee Lee’s

… and last month, with the black paint removed. I think I like the black, or maybe it just looked good against a gray sky.

    Heading down Firestone, there is 665,

a structure from 1940, known as the Blue Goose Cafe (1955), Bessie’s Place (1960), and then a long run, at least as early as 1970 and into the 1990s, as Carter’s Blue Note. Its1971 phone book listing said it served barbecue, which earned its mention here. No pit is visible.
     The final stop is 731 Firestone and another place I found by accident. I don’t know much about it, other than it was a “sundry and grocery” under several names from the 1970s into the 1990s.


    Continuing down Chelsea toward Thomas, we cross the street to 809 and this place, which was Frostee Freeze Ice Cream in the 1970s. It made The Commercial Appeal’s “84 in ‘84” barbecue restaurant listing to set up that year’s Memphis in May Barbecue Cooking Contest, preparing to open as Hank’s Southern Style Barbecue. By 1992, it was closed. Today, it’s a model ghost pit — a used car dealership.

It’s difficult to get around town without passing the site of an old Loeb’s barbecue restaurant. Here are three shots (Aug. 2010, June and Dec. 2011, respectively) of the Loeb’s that opened in 1967 at 760 Chelsea, documenting its run as a tax service. It housed a Loeb’s grocery and laundry/cleaners  into the 1980s, and also a Corned Beef House in 1970. It was home to a hair salon in 1992.

Here’s how it looked for its grand opening, and some coupons.


    No, that’s not a baseball double-play combo. It’s a route to my post office, on Firestone, when I have to pick up a package. It’s also a route that is rich with ghost pits and one going barbecue concern. We’ll travel it over the next few posts. I sampled some city directories from 1970-1992. The pits come along quickly on Chelsea, starting at Breedlove.


 1038 Chelsea:  The assessor’s office doesn’t list the year this building went up, but the 1948 city directory says it was home to a restaurant, the Rainbow Inn. It has had many names over the years: Raymond’s Lounge (1970), Chelsea Lounge (1973), Marion’s Lounge (1975), Leo’s Place (restaurant, 1981-1992, at least). Looks to be unoccupied now. No idea who was responsible for the pit.

878 Chelsea:  Again, the assessor doesn’t list the age of this conglomeration of buildings. From city directories: Metal Vent (874-878, 1970), Herman’s House of Styles and House of Hits Record Shop (874) and Metal Vent (878, 1973-1975); Metal Vent (874-878, 1981-1992). The Chelsea Restaurant, listed by the Health Department at 876, shows up in 1999, when operator was applying for a beer license. It disappears from the restaurant inspections about five years later.

   868 Chelsea: Immediately west of the Chelsea Restaurant is this place. The 1970 city directory lists it as a bakery thrift store, but since at least 1973, it has been home to the In and Out Grocery.



    Lois Pit-Bar-B-Q was a fixture for more than 40 years at two locations on Wells Station in Berclair. The restaurant went through a couple of ownership changes in that time, but always kept the name of its founder, Lois Schuchman, even more than 30 years after her death. Here’s a trip back through old newspapers, phone books and city directories. Pretty much all of the family members who might have detailed information appear to be deceased, so this timeline of sorts is the best I can do.

    Lois Schuchman (maiden name Kyle) moved to Memphis in 1945. I can’t find when she married Norman Schuchman, but they took out a mortgage here in October 1947, and the 1948 city directory lists him as an operator with the Memphis Street Railway. Seven years later, he’s still a driver, but Lois has taken this job:


Little Pigs barbecue was a local “chain” owned by Frank Howell (I know some stuff about him, and wish I knew a lot more). Through the 1950s and 1960s, he owned restaurants all over town, as many as a half-dozen at a time. In 1955 he had four – the one at 671 South Highland that most people probably remember (one I miss), 548 East Mallory, 620 Semmes, and 2150 Young (about where Goner Records is now; sadly, the pit is a goner, too). I don’t know which one employed Lois Schuchman. Without family information, it’s impossible to say what led her to open her own barbecue place, but the link to Frank Howell is certainly interesting.

     Lois Café, with husband Norman as an employee, opened in 1960, yet another name change for an established eatery at 1491 Wells Station that already had barbecue on its menu.


     Barbecue defined the restaurant’s identity the next year, and would for the rest of its existence.



     In February 1967, Lois Schuchman died at age 50, after an illness of more than two years, according to her obituary. A few months before, Lois Pit Bar-B-Q had been sold to Howard Underhill, and Norman Schuchman had opened another restaurant, with a reminder of its pedigree, at the site of a former Loeb’s.



    The Schuchman’s on Graham would go on until 1973, despite its out-of-the-way location, but at this time, Norman Schuchman was also opening Old Stage Bar-B-Que, a site known today as Brad’s Bar-B-Que.



By 1974, Old Stage had a new person in charge.  Norman Schuchman  would eventually move back to Arkansas, and he died in Ravenden Springs in June 2003, at the age of 84.

        The original Lois Pit Bar-B-Q, now owned by Howard Underhill, remained at 1491 Wells Station through the mid-1980s. In 1987, the Polk’s directory lists the owner/manager as Connie Johnson, who appeared in the 1983 directory as a waitress there. The really big change shows up in the 1989 directory, with a new location down the street at 1456 Wells Station, shown in this post’s lead photo. (One of the businesses at this site was Electric Wiring Service, which moved into the 1491 space and is still there. Dan Rokitka, owner of Electric Wiring Service, is responsible for one of this city’s best human-interest stories. Feel free to take a break here and Google him. You’ll be glad you did.)  The move could have occurred in 1988 (I couldn’t locate a city directory for that year), but it did involve the construction of this impressive pit.


Howard Underhill died in 1995 at age 58, and the restaurant continued into the early 2000s under Connie Johnson. I ate there once in the late1990s, when I was using my Mondays off to visit different ‘cue shops. I remember nothing about the food, so I’m guessing it was pretty unremarkable. The interior was dark (maybe darker than the old Neely’s), and the only employee, probably Connie Johnson, was smoking a cigarette behind the counter. I was the only customer.

     The end for Lois’ apparently came in 2003. That’s the last year a restaurant inspection score shows up in The CA (a 97, out on a good note). A week before publication of that score, Lois Pit Bar-B-Q was included in a CA taste test of 20 local restaurants as a runup to the Memphis in May barbecue contest. In a possible foreshadowing, Lois finished last, with a score of 116.5. I don’t know how that was arrived at (the winning score was 278), but here are the judges’ comments: “Good texture, no fat or gristle. Bland taste of meat. Sauce and slaw almost saved it, nice smoky aftertaste. Sauce was ketchupy. No flavor.”

    Since then, as the demographics of the neighborhood have changed, the building has been home to Hispanic establishments (May 2010)


And currently


Finally, here are some pictures of the original Lois pit at 1491. A few years ago, Dan Rokitka told me that Code Enforcement was after him to tear it down. Luckily, I got these shots before he did.