Every Friday and Saturday night, the smell of charcoal-grilled steak wafts around Somerville's Historic Town Square and the twang of bluegrass dances in the air. These come-ons to the senses emanate from Sippin's Coffee Shop, where owner Thomas Lynne fires up the grill and makes room for anyone who has brought an instrument and is ready to jam.
In most respects, Sippin's is an ordinary small-town coffee shop. Everybody knows everybody as the square's courthouse crowd filters in to check out the daily lunch special or to grab a sandwich. But with its steak nights, Sippin's has earned notoriety among the locals who say it has the best steaks around.
The secret to Sippin's steaks is in the grilling, which Lynne does on an ordinary charcoal grill pulled into the alley behind the landmark building where he opened his restaurant in December 2002.
Earlier that year, Thomas' father, Tommy Lynne, bought the Two Sisters' Building, which was once a sewing and fabric store operated by Paulie and Lucy Claxton. The owners leased the building for many years after closing their store. It was auctioned following their death.
"I bought the building to save it," says Tommy. "I was going to open an art studio. My son wanted to open up a coffee shop, and I told him you're going to have to serve more than coffee to make it work."
Before opening the restaurant, the pair worked together to restore the building to its original form. During the restoration, Tommy discovered that the rafters in the attic were hand-hewn and pinned with wooden pegs. "They used horse-hair plaster, where they mixed horse hair with the plaster to make it stronger," he says.
When decorating the restaurant, father and son chose wooden tables and an Oriental rug that would complement the original features of the building, such as the tin ceiling and hardwood floors. They also created space to display artwork by Tommy, who is a nationally known portrait photographer and sculptor. Pottery by Mark Davis and sculpture by Ellen McGowan have also been on display.
"My dad had the vision of what Sippin's has come to be," says Thomas. "He is the mastermind behind the design."
The elder Lynne is equally quick to lay the credit at his son's feet. Tommy says what Thomas, who is now 23, lacked in age and experience, he made up for with determination and dedication.
"My son has worked endless hours for a little of nothing, turning it into what it is today," says Tommy.
When Thomas first returned home to Somerville, after graduating from high school in Portland, Tennessee, he didn't expect to be running his own business. He started working at Sonic.
"I had a really good boss, and I enjoyed working with the food and getting it out quick," he says. "I grasped it. I knew I liked it and that I could do it really well." He has proved exactly that.
About six months after opening, Thomas realized he would have to offer something different to succeed, so that's when he started grilling steaks in the back alley.
"It's what pulls us through," says Thomas. "With four other restaurants on the square, we knew we'd have to do something else."
Most who stop by Sippin's on Friday and Saturday come for the 12-ounce ribeyes and 8- to 10-ounce filets. But some come for the music.
"We have bluegrass, country, and gospel -- all acoustic," says Thomas. "It's not regular bands. It's more of a jam session. Mostly it's people from around here. It gives them something to do on the weekend."
In May, Thomas expanded the hours to stay open late on Thursdays, when, during the month of June, Somerville hosts a concert series at I.M. Yancy Park. "On Thursday nights, we've been serving baby back ribs and barbecue. We were doing crawfish, but we didn't have much turnout for that, so we may do jambalaya or some kind of crawfish stew," he says.
Any time of the day, customers can enjoy desserts baked by Thomas' grandmother, Elizabeth Lynne, along with the gourmet coffee drinks that Thomas first envisioned when he decided to open Sippin's.
Sippin's Coffee Shop is located at 114 W. Market St. in Somerville, (901) 466-1480. The hours are 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday and until 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.