I was smart to take a Millington native to help navigate my way to nearby Covington, Tennessee, but not smart enough to print accurate MapQuest directions. So we stop at a Walgreens to find my objet de quest: Marlo's Down Under.
"You should have turned at the 'plane on a stick,'" says the woman behind us in line. "Wait for me to check out, and I'll take you there and get a drink."
This pleasant, fortysomething lady was as eager to help as she was not to be named in an article. So henceforth, I will call her "Beth."
Beth takes us to an adorable town square and to a cozy basement hotspot under Le Chic Boutique and a bead store called Jezebel's. Beth is full of enthusiasm for Marlo's, and she stays with us through the arrival of dessert.
"If you want to have good, fine dining and atmosphere, it's Marlo's all the way," she extols as our appetizer of hand-cut, fried potato crisps and hot, creamy crab dip arrives. "The closest thing to fine dining in Covington is Country Kitchen, and you know Country Kitchen," she says this knowingly, though — in faith — I myself do not know Country Kitchen.
I think of a Humphrey Bogart line as I look around Marlo's: "What's a nice-looking restaurant like you doing in a town like this?" Not that Covington is without its charm, but it is a small town with a small-town feel. When pressed to name something to do, Beth struggles. "Well, there's Sons of the Confederacy meetings," she offers. As I'm thinking of Bogart, a sax cover of "As Time Goes By" wafts through the establishment, and I feel very, very cool.
Our salad is a very pretty spray of spinach and strawberries, topped with balsamic vinaigrette and a touch of fresh pepper. The entrée, and also Marlo's specialty, is the Parmesan-crusted sea bass with Roma tomato pesto served over risotto. This is the nicest meal I've had while on assignment, and so in my khakis and jersey I feel underdressed. But as I look around I see suits and ties and T-shirts and jeans. Beth is dressed as casually as I am and notes, "I'm not dressed for Marlo's tonight, but that's okay. They don't care anything about that."
Chef and owner Nick Scott joins us to describe the décor. Ambient track lighting and candle sconces discreetly warm the establishment, while low ceilings (the building's original wood beams) keep things cozy without feeling small. You can even see nails sticking down, which, coupled with the prevalence of exposed brick makes the place look even more "rustic-swank." Scott points out the expanse of diamond-patterned stained glass behind the bar, which he proudly procured from Memphis' Platinum Plus. "So you were in a strip club scouting out stained glass?" I ask. He replies, "Yeah."
The bar is the warm and welcoming centerpiece of Marlo's. Aside from its storied stained glass, the bar itself is the original grocer's counter from more than a century ago, restored and elevated. Karenza King is the spritely bartender who gives me the skinny on the drink specialty: the Café Lenagar. "What makes it 'Lenagar'?" I ask. King points to the female half of a distinguished-looking couple at a table adjoining the bar and whispers, "That's her over there. They're some of our best customers." I didn't get to meet Ms. Lenagar, but I did make the acquaintance of her namesake drink — a mix of Dakota-blend coffee, Frangelico, and whipped cream.
Marlo's brims with history. The building has been, over time, a grocery store, a cotton firm, dental and law offices, a Rent-A-Center, and, as Scott puts it, "a disco-era clothing store." And there's a sense that it's making history even now by bringing some upscale chic to the quaintness of downtown Covington. And while it is gaining ground as a Covington-area mainstay, Marlo's draws more customers from outside the city than in. Scott, previously of Memphis' University Club, says, "I've been to a lot of nice restaurants. This is my vision of all of them combined."
On our way out, we learn that there are actually plenty of things to do in Covington. Summers offer weekend town-square concerts, and the nearby Ruffin Theater brings in local and regional music acts and houses a community theater. Cute shops adorn the square.
As we head back for Memphis, we pass the "plane on a stick" — a fighter jet on a pedestal at the corner of Pleasant Avenue and Highway 51. It's hidden from view on the way into Covington but unmistakable on the way out. Just like Marlo's.
Next stop: Country Kitchen.