You can smell the smoke from the charcoal-fired pits at Charlie Vergos Rendezvous clear around the corner on 3rd Street. Follow your nose down the alleyway to the big red-and-green striped awnings, then head down the staircase into the large basement dining room with its old tile floor and red-checkered tablecloths and photograph-lined wall. Cool, dark, and classic, it’s a step back in time to an earlier era.
Few restaurants can claim to have singlehandedly created an entire barbecue category, but the Rendezvous can, for it’s the birthplace of Memphis-style dry rubbed ribs. It all started back in 1948 when Charlie Vergos, who was running a meat-n-three called Wimpy’s with his brother-in-law, decided to branch out on his own and open a sandwich shop in the building’s basement.
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The son of Greek immigrants who had come to Memphis and opened a hot stand, Vergos knew to keep the offering simple. Back then, his downtown location was in the the heart of the city’s main commercial district, and Vergos planned to sell just ham sandwiches and beer, targeting men with time to kill while their wives finished shopping.
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Vergos ended up converting the basement’s old coal chute into a smoker and used it to finish the hams for his sandwiches. Over time, he tried putting other things on the smoker, too, like salami, which sold well, and chicken and oysters, which flopped. In the late 1950s, his meat distributor suggested he try pork ribs, which back then were in low demand and could be had for cheap.
Vergos had never cooked ribs before, but Little John, his right-hand man, had plenty of experience with them from backyard cookouts. Vergos contributed the recipe for the spice rub, using the seasoning blend from his father’s Greek chili recipe and adding a little paprika for color. Within a decade, the Rendezvous’ “charcoaled ribs” had become a Memphis institution, and Vergos was serving 750 orders on a typical Saturday night.
More popular nightspot than a restaurant at the time, the Rendezvous was originally located on the oddly-named November 6th Street—a commemoration of the day in 1936 when Memphis residents voted to buy electricity from the new Tennessee Valley Authority instead of private “power trusts.” In 1968, the building was slated to be replaced by a skyscraper, so Vergos moved one block east to another basement location, and the Rendezvous has been there ever since.
Start things off with the Rendezvous Special, a plate of sliced ham, salami, sausage, and cheese with dill pickles and pepperoncini alongside. Next, dive into the signature ribs, which arrive perched above a pool of thin, vinegary sauce beneath on a wax paper-lined plate. Nestled alongside are one plastic cup of baked beans and another of finely-chopped coleslaw with a sharp tangy-sweet bite.
Cooked just 18 inches from a hot charcoal fire, the ribs are more grilled than smoked, and they have a chewy roasted pork texture beneath the thick layer of red spice, with great pops of pit-charred flavor around the edges. Wash it all down with a glass of cold draft beer and you’ve rounded out the full Rendezvous experience: a Memphis original that’s become an American barbecue classic.