Midway through my interview with Aldo Demartino, owner of Bardog Tavern on Monroe, a platter of shoe-string fries arrives at our table. The smell of hot oil and potatoes is irresistible, so we dive in, scooping up two and three at a time.
"Everybody loves our French fries because they remind them of McDonald's," says Demartino, beaming between mouthfuls. "It's about clean oil and the right amount of salt."
On my ride home, wishing I'd ordered fries to go, I decide that Bardog's signature snack sums up the heart of its menu and ambience: something familiar (fries like McDonald's) updated with something new (bourbon mayonnaise — along with ketchup — served as a dip). A few blocks later, I'm also thinking about the meatballs and sliders passed around Bardog on opening night, when more than 800 people showed up to celebrate. The meatballs (something familiar) were authentic and delicious, and the sliders (something new) were a trendy twist on beef and a bun.
But wait. I'm getting carried away. Bardog is not primarily a restaurant, and Demartino is not a foodie.
"I'm a bartender," says Demartino, who worked for 18 years in New York City and Memphis, most recently at Stella, before peddling his business plan to banks and private investors. "But I wanted a neighborhood bar with food that tastes great so people will want to come back."
Collaborating with Demetrie Phillips, a former sous chef at Tsunami, Demartino developed a menu he calls gourmet picnic food: classic pub fare with fresh ingredients and Italian influences. The moderately priced menu spans lunch, dinner, and late-night and complements artisan beers on tap such as Fat Tire Amber Ale and a changing selection of boutique wines.
"In Tennessee, you need seating for 75 to get a liquor license, so that pushed me to create a fantastic kitchen," Demartino says. "We aren't turning out lobster Thermador, but we do a damn good burger, and we use our own recipes."
In fact, Demartino's Italian grandmother plans a trip from New Jersey to Memphis to test the authenticity of his spaghetti and meatballs. His father and brother already visited, joining friend Clif Lee for a nine-day remodeling marathon.
"When my dad got home, everyone asked, 'How did you like Memphis?'" Demartino says. "He would laugh and say, 'I don't know. Aldo never let me out of the basement.'"
The team's efforts paid off, transforming what had been Mike's Barbecue pit into a non-smoking dining room with bar and flat-screen TV. In time, Demartino hopes to use the basement room for corporate meetings, poker games, or party rentals.
"We want a place where everyone feels comfortable, where they can come in a tuxedo after the Blues Ball or in a pair of flip-flops before a Redbirds game," Demartino says. "These days, that means giving people a way to get away from smoke."
Upstairs, the décor is a hip and eclectic mix of dark wood and amber lighting. Large ornate mirrors hang on exposed brick. The red oak bar is 35 feet long and built a little higher to accommodate customers who are standing (or leaning). Upholstered seating along an entire wall augments tables and chairs, facilitating conversation between groups of people. So does the music in the bar's jukebox.
"We had the staff bring in their favorite CDs," Demartino says, "so it's a little of everything: Warren Zevon, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Miles Davis."
Even Bardog's name and logo mix things up. The word bardog is a moniker for bartenders in America's old West; but the mascot in the tavern's logo is Ace, Demartino's loveable American bulldog.
"We want to be welcoming," Demartino says. "I tell my staff, if someone looks in the window, wave to them."
Plenty of folks do peek in, as the bar, located next to the Little Tea Shop, doesn't have an outdoor sign.
"The sign I want costs $6,000, so that's going to have to wait," Demartino says. "For now, I'm believing in the power of a good bar. I hope Memphis does too."
Bardog Tavern, 73 Monroe (275-8752)