MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - We all know Memphis and pork barbecue are like hand and glove -- they just GO together.
And while ribs have been a staple at backyard barbecues for years, this 5 Star Story focuses on the restaurant credited with setting the standard for “Memphis-style” ribs more than 70 years ago.
It’s one of those rare places loved by locals, tourists and celebrities alike, and the family who, for more than 100 years, has been feeding the heart and soul of Memphis. The Rendezvous is quintessentially Memphis, a basement barbecue restaurant.
In an alley across the street from the Peabody Hotel on Union Avenue in downtown, you’ll find the delicious side of this city’s “grit and grind” identity.
John Vergos is the son of the late Charlie Vergos, the man who opened the restaurant back in 1948.
“Well, my dad was in World War II. And when he got out, he and his brother-in-law started a diner," said John. “And it didn’t go so well, they couldn’t get out of the lease, so he told his brother-in-law, ‘Look it can’t ... the diner can’t support both of us, so you keep the diner. I’m gonna go in the basement and clean it up ... and figure something out.’”
And figure it out he did ‚ cleaning up the dark and cluttered basement, collecting objects and old movie theater posters to hang on the walls, and then opening for business.
According to John, Memphis, was dry back then.
“So, he started serving beer set-ups, if you brought your whiskey and ham and cheese sandwiches and snacks, so it was really more of a bar than a restaurant,” said John. “But he had great ham and cheese sandwiches.”
What made those sandwiches so good? Charlie Vergos discovered old coal shoots in the basement, which he converted into a smoker and used them to give the ham on those sandwiches a smokey flavor.
"And so he started experimenting with different items -- chicken and beef -- and all kinds of things.
"I mean he had raw oysters for a while, " recalled John.
But then, in the late ’50s Vergos’ butcher suggested he try ribs, which were then an inexpensive and plentiful resource.
“And he started grilling them. We’re Greek, so you do everything with salt, pepper, oregano, garlic, and you baste it with lemon or vinegar. But then, he went to New Orleans and really loved the chili powders, and the cayenne peppers, and the paprikas ... all those great Cajun seasoning," said John. “When he came back to Memphis, he took the Greek seasoning and the Cajun seasoning and mixed them together, and that’s the rub ... the seasoning that we still use today."
The Rendezvous was the first restaurant in town to serve ribs.
“We’re also the first to serve cheese and sausage appetizer plates, and he had those actually before he had the ribs,” said John. “Yeah, I mean, he started a barbecue tradition that had kind of been underground and, we in Memphis always knew we had good barbecue. But this kind of really brought it to the national forefront.”
John also credits Memphis Holiday Inn mogul Kemmons Wilson’s love for the restaurant and its ribs with helping spread the word about The Rendezvous back in the early ’60s.
“But he would bring all of his investors, franchisees, all these people Always bring them down to the Rendezvous, and they’d leave Memphis and open up a Holiday Inn in London or Paris or Rio de Janeiro or wherever, and so that was one means by which the word got out.”
The Rendezvous is also a uniquely Memphis experience because the family purposely avoided franchising its operation despite numerous offers to do just that. And while they will ship ribs anywhere in the world, you miss out on the ambiance and special treatment that only comes from The Rendezvous wait staff.
Many of those employees have worked at The Rendezvous for dozens of years, like Calvin Bell who’s won “Best Server” for three years running in the “Best of Memphis” poll put on every year by the Memphis Flyer.
“You get to waiting on them so long, and interacting with 'em and over the years you actually become closer and they become more than customers to you actually," said Bell. “They turn into friends after you been around them so long, your bond gets closer after so many years, after waiting on them and waiting on their kids and their other family members.”
It’s also the only job he’s ever had in 29 years, and he hopes it will stay that way.
Same thing for Robert Stewart Jr. who is a second-generation Rendezvous server. His father, Robert Sr., recently retired after working there for 60 years, and Robert Jr. has 39 years under his belt. He’s met so many celebrities working there, he said, “It’s a crying shame!”
But when asked who was his favorite?
“Everybody, all my regular customers, everybody that come in through that door, that come down these stairs and they, 'I wanna wait for Robert, Jr.” ... then you sit back and you think about that for a second," said Stewart Jr. “That’s cool for somebody to ask for you and they’ll wait for you.”
The Vergos family considers its employees an important part of The Rendezvous success -- the “secret sauce” if you will. Each full-time employee gets paid health care, a month of vacation time, sick and maternity leave -- something almost unheard of in the restaurant business.
John said it’s just the family’s employment philosophy.
“Well, we’ve always done it, and so we just don’t know any differently,” he said. “You know, we’ve always tried to pay above minimum wage. I think a stable workforce is worth that extra amount of money.”
And if there’s any family that knows a thing or two about stability, it’s the Vergoses. Serving food to hungry Memphians runs in their blood, starting in the early 1900s with a hot dog stand.
“Well since ... 1914 ... I guess. My grandfather had a hot dog stand on Beale Street, around that time," said John. “As a matter of fact, the slaw that we use now is the slaw that he used to put on his hot dogs on Beale Street in 1914.”
The Rendezvous has also remained in the same building 70 years despite fires, recessions and the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., followed by most downtown businesses bailing out of the city. And now COVID-19.
But the Vergos family is looking to take the Rendezvous even beyond that as the next generation of family continues the legacy.
Incidentally, The Rendezvous recently opened another dining area in the side alley of the building for outdoor seating -- weather permitting.us through the years and so we, twe’re a very fortunate family.”
Incidentally, The Rendezvous recently opened another dining area in the side alley of the building for outdoor seating -- weather permitting.