It is a Memphis classic.
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Rendezvous Special
Credit: Robbie Caponetto

I suppose it's possible to eat at the Rendezvous in Memphis and not start off with an appetizer plate, but why would you want to?

The standard plates offer ham and cheese or sausage and cheese along with dill pickle spears and pepperoncini peppers, while the Rendezvous Special delivers all of the above plus salami.

There's nothing fancy about it: no artisanal house-made pickles or hand-ground sausage. The cheese is regular orange cheddar, cut into long rectangular fingers, and the pork sausage is grilled and sliced on the bias. It's all arranged on a paper plate lined with waxed paper, a few packets of plain saltines perched on the rim.

But some of life's deepest pleasures are the simplest. The meats and cheese are generously dusted in the same "dry rub" seasoning that made the Rendezvous's ribs famous—a savory foreshadowing of the smoky racks to come. Here's the real secret, though: everything on the appetizer plate goes really, really well with a cold mug of draft beer. And that's by design.

Charlie Vergos was the son of a Greek immigrant who operated a hot dog stand in Memphis. In 1948 the younger Vergos decided to open a restaurant of his own, and he found a basement location in what was then the city's main retail district. His original plan had nothing to do with ribs. In those days, many families had only one car, and there were always plenty of men killing time downtown while their wives did the weekly shopping. Vergos saw a captive market for ham sandwiches and beer, and he aimed to sell the sandwiches cheap and make up for it on the suds.

"He started serving appetizer plates before he started serving ribs," says John Vergos, Charlie's son. "He needed something to go with the beer and the ham sandwiches."

The plates were a hit, and they've been on the menu ever since, with just a few small adjustments. Charlie Vergos wanted to add a few more food items, and he ended up converting an old coal chute into a smoker. He tried cooking various things on it, like chicken and oysters, before finally settling on pork ribs, which he finished with a spice blend based on his father's Greek chili recipe, with paprika added for color. Memphis-style "dry rub" ribs were born.

The ribs inspired a change to the appetizer plates, too. John Vergos recalls that his father originally used pickled sausage on the plates, but he soon "realized those pits could [also] grill, and he started using grilled sausage." He finished them with the same seasoning as the ribs, and that's about all the innovation the Rendezvous Special has ever needed.

On a typical day, John Vergos says, "I suspect we will sell as many appetizer plates as we do plates of ribs, or pretty close."

He does, however, have one request for guests sampling an appetizer plate for the first time: please don't reach for your silverware. "It's finger food," Vergos explains. "You shouldn't eat a pickle with a knife and fork."