Memphis To The Bone
August 2nd, 2018
Here through it all, from a booming post-war downtown to a virtual ghost town to today’s revival, you could always get a cold beer and local flavor in Charlie Vergos’s basement. The next generation runs the show now, a hit for 70 years – updated, yes, but still Charlie’s original script. There are waiters down there that have been there 40-plus years, a father and son collectively serving 60-plus years. My son worked the bar years ago. There are pictures hanging crooked on the wall that haven’t been straitened in my lifetime, and people I’ve known that long are in there every time I go.
It feels like family in that basement, and the family is doing fine.
“WE’RE NOT BLOWIN’ SMOKE, WE’RE MAKIN’ IT.”
There was a downtown bar my brother, Frank, and his crowd used to visit during college in the middle 50’s. The place was in a basement, dark and funky, but the beer was cold and cheap, and the food was simple and satisfying.
“They served one thing,” Frank remembered, “a ham and cheese sandwich, a huge thing the owner would build from the chucks of ham and cheddar he hacked off and slapped between pieces of rye. There might have been pickles, yeah, pickle spears. You took it the way you got it. You didn’t mess with this guy. I once saw him come out of the back room with a keg of beer under each arm – two kegs at once, Danny. There were no fights down there. Nobody got out of line.”
The ham got its character from a coal chute converted into a smoker, and the place got its character from its owner. Original. Straightforward. Real. So Memphis you can smell it and see it in the wood and brick, in the color and cookers, in the blackened ceiling beams from former fires, in the city’s eclectic pulled from the corners of our attics to cover the walls, in the meat served, in the meat of the place itself – like its city, a place you can’t make up, you can’t fake.
You can’t fake Charlie Vergos. You can’t fake The Rendezvous.
Charlie’s gone but Charlie’s here in the smoke. The ham sandwich is still here, but the ribs Charlie invented under that coal chute and added to the menu made the place work, and Charlie’s stubborn refusal to do anything any way but his made it iconic. You could get beer … I think just Michelob draft, a soft drink … I think just one brand. Don’t ask for coffee or iced tea, or salad or dessert. If you had a pitcher with something in it and ribs left to eat, stay. Otherwise, we got people waiting.
“Not since Adam has a rib been this famous.”
When my friend John Vergos convinced his father to let him reopen the shipping business 20 years ago he asked my agency to help. My business presents more opportunity than most to have a certifiable blast, and writing for The Rendezvous was way up there.
“Your basic Rendezvous basement: off an alley, behind a parking garage, full of three generations of family junk, and the most tasteful place in the world to eat ribs since 1948.”
The Rendezvous just turned 70 and the party was a couple of weeks ago. John, Nick and Tina – generations of Vergos were there, regular folks, the famous and those who would be were there, our memories were there.
Be assured, even though John has eased wine onto the menu and slipped in his momma’s Greek salad, Charlie is still there. John’s been careful. You don’t mess with Charlie.
The Rendezvous is the stuff of Memphis.
I’m a Memphian, and Happy Birthday to one of our own.
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