Shift Into Automatic

Come to see and be seen--and come hungry--to Automatic Slim's in Memphis.
Lynnmarie P. Cook

A tip: If you go to Automatic Slim's, snag a seat on the mezzanine. It's the best perch for people watching in this gallery of cowboy-and-cacti decor. It's also the spot to spy owner Karen Blockman Carrier whizzing by.

Karen, a Memphian born and bred, once left the South for New York to pursue her MFA. That is, till her pastime became her passion and she left the MFA program to pursue a catering career full time.

She celebrated Independence Day in 1986 with the birth of Automatic Slim's--One Bar Under a Groove, a Memphis-meets-Manhattan juke joint in Greenwich Village that melds soul food with Southern-fried sensibilities.

The name? Automatic Slim is a character in the Willie Dixon song "Wang Dang Doodle." People came in such numbers that she carried her concept South.

In 1987, Karen returned to Memphis, where she was determined to launch a restaurant downtown. She worked five years to finagle property across from the Peabody, and against naysayers, in June 1991 she opened Automatic Slim's Tonga Club. Now the restaurant is a hangout for the city's hyperhip, who come in droves to drink chi-chi martinis on Friday nights.

"We have this great live music on Friday night, and people are knee-deep at the bar. We're known for that," Karen says, smiling. And for so much more.

"The sun-drenched cuisines are what inspire my culinary tastes," she says, taking her cues from the Caribbean, the Southwest, and the Far East. Witness the Caribbean Voodoo Stew, Karen's labor of love in which crab legs seem to climb from the bowlful of crawfish, fresh shrimp, and mussels, all in a tomato-based broth with coconut milk infused with cilantro root.

Jerk of the day--featuring secret spices wrangled from the women on the beach in Jamaica--cranks up the heat on any entrée. "I might have jerk lamb shank or chicken or prime rib or whole fish. And I always have jerk duck. I love that yin/yang," Karen continues, "that sweet/hot combination." That's hot, as in a four-alarm fury, so be prepared. This is not a place for the faint of heat.

Elements of the decor were either created or themed by special people in Karen's life. Her late husband, Robert, created the wall sconces and pendant light fixtures. Barstool covers with pom-poms and fringe are the creation of a New York hat designer, and the backs of booths that run the length of one wall are covered with a 30-foot swath of Turkish carpeting. "My husband came home one day and asked, 'What happened to our rugs?' Well," she shrugs, "I had traded four of our rugs for this Oushak carpet. Isn't it great?" Indeed, as is the sinuous bar cut from a tulip poplar tree that fell onto the street.

What's the next reincarnation for Karen, this lover of sun-drenched, spicy cuisine and cowboy chic? Wherever Slim shows up next, we're sure Willie Dixon would be proud.

Automatic Slim's Tonga Club: 83 South Second Street, Memphis, TN 38103; (901) 525-7948. Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5 p.m.-10 or 11 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

This article is from the January 2002 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.