Automatic Slim's Tonga Club celebrates its 15th anniversary this Friday with music by the Coolers, the restaurant's former house band, with the Wild Magnolias as the opening act. Diners can order off the original menu and pay the prices from 1991, when dishes were in the $9 to $16 range and had peculiar names such as the Cowboy Travis Steak.
Although Automatic Slim's actual anniversary date was on July 18th, owner Karen Carrier chose not to celebrate it then because she felt that too many people would be on summer vacation and thus wouldn't get a chance to be part of the party. Then, just three weeks ago, it occurred to Carrier that many of those people would be in town for Thanksgiving, so the party was on.
What was Automatic Slim's like 15 years ago? "Crazy. It was just crazy," says Carrier. "People literally went nuts. The Coolers played every Saturday, and when they started playing, the restaurant transformed into a wild nightclub in a matter of minutes," Carrier remembers. "The band had this thing they called the 'love train.' Everybody would jump up and start dancing, and people danced out the door up on Second, around the block, down on Union, and back to the restaurant -- partying like that until 2 a.m."
In 1991, you better believe that there was nothing like Slim's downtown, much less Memphis. The menu reflected an eclectic mix of Southern, South of the Border, Asian, and Cajun/Caribbean cooking: a seemingly tame corn chowder served with grated cheese and roasted poblano peppers ($2); coconut mango shrimp that has since made its way from menu to menu to menu for 15 years and is still one of the restaurant's top sellers ($6.75); the Caribbean Voodoo Stew, described as an island bouillabaisse ($13.95); and the Huachinanga, a whole crispy red snapper with marinated tomato, red onions, and jalapenos ($15.95).
The restaurant's interior was recently revamped with a newly designed mezzanine by Wayne Edge, new seating (except for the oh-so-loved bar stools), lighting, and a stage for the bands (finally!).
Over the past 15 years, Automatic Slim's has become a downtown institution, and Carrier has since put what a reviewer called her "ingenious, wacky, and very dedicated" mark on Cielo, the Beauty Shop, and DŌ. What patrons find at the restaurant could be described as wacky and eccentric, but Automatic Slim's remained consistent in its eccentricity for 15 years. Now, if that isn't a reason to celebrate ...
Automatic Slim's Tonga Club's 15th Birthday Party is Friday, November 24th. Dinner service starts at 5 p.m.; live music starts at 9:30 p.m. and continues, as Carrier puts it, "'til the cows come home."
Automatic Slim's Tonga Club,
83 S. Second (525-7948)
From an August 1991 Flyer review of Automatic Slim's by Tim Sampson:
"This restaurant is like a cross between Pee Wee's Playhouse and a chic island getaway where Truman Capote might have jotted cocktail-napkin notes for his Martinique-set story Music for Chameleons. ...
"As far as I'm concerned, the city can build all the Pyramids, trolley lines, and revamped Mid-America Malls it cares to, but it's little, innovative, breath-of-fresh-air places like this that give Memphis some semblance of being the kind of cosmopolitan city it's begging to be."