The Lamplighter Lounge Café: Classics and Then Some 

Will the hamburger be a match for the Shirley burgers of yore? Why, yes.

Keeping it the same was really important to us. We were so adamant about that." Laurel Cannito is describing her and business partner Chuck "Vicious" Wenzler's inheritance, of sorts: the Lamplighter Lounge. Having worked there for some time when previous owner Ann Bradley decided to leave the bar business, they were in a prime position to acquire the establishment. And, true to Cannito's words, it looks nearly identical to the place I first stepped into sometime in the late '80s.

Back then, of course, it was all about the vibe. The beer was cheap, and so were the eats. The jukebox was divine. "Thank you, thank you," Alex Chilton once said to the machine, as it sounded the first notes of Nat "King" Cole's "Somewhere Along the Way." We all felt that way about the Lamplighter. And after a night of swigging and smoking and yakking away, Miss Shirley's hamburgers were divine as well.

click to enlarge Burger, Hangover Helper, grilled cheese, and orzo pasta salad - ALEX GREENE
  • Alex Greene
  • Burger, Hangover Helper, grilled cheese, and orzo pasta salad

What a relief, then, to find that the vibe is still intact. And yet who could have imagined that the old place would take on a second life purveying those very same burgers, and much more, as an eatery? "Café by day, bar by night!" is their motto, and, perusing the menu, one sees they're serious.

"I try to cater to all the different dietary types," says Cannito, who masterminded the menu makeover. Indeed, with selections ranging from salads to hummus to a brie and bacon croissant, it's far more diverse than in the past.

"I'm not vegan personally," she says, "but that's no reason I shouldn't offer vegan options. So a lot of our stuff is vegan by default, like our veggie curry and our weekly veggie bowl. Most things are made so that they can be served vegan. And then we have veggie dogs. And the Hangover Helper, that's my favorite. It's a vegan faux-'sausage, egg, and cheese' biscuit. It's really good. I marinate the tofu in a bunch of spices and cook it in refined coconut oil. It's on a little vegan biscuit. The burger salad and the two charcuterie plates are for people who can't do carbs or are gluten-free. I'm trying to have it so anyone can come here and get something."

This applies to the drinks as well. As befits a smokeless café by day, they now serve locally roasted Launch Process coffee and will soon have nitro cold brew on tap. "For kids, we've got hot chocolate and chocolate almond milk, a few juices, and we do Italian sodas. I'm introducing more options for people who don't drink, and they're starting to come more. For people who don't drink beer, we have this really good local Long Road Cider."

Cannito was once better known as a food justice activist, of sorts, motivated by her classes with Dr. Micah Trapp, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Memphis. Today, she carries that passion for righteous produce to the Lamplighter, as evidenced by the orzo primavera pasta salad she tosses with fresh onion, parsley, and sun dried tomatoes. "My first priority is getting everything non-GMO," she says. "And I started with the veggies. I'm slowly getting to the meat being non-GMO. Then we'll work on getting everything local."

In a sense, then, it's a complete turnaround from the conventional grub the Lamplighter once served, but even the healthiest of items are served unpretentiously — a kind of woke, down-home comfort food. Accordingly, I sample some of the most comforting food they offer. As promised, the Hangover Helper is all that, working its vegan magic, convincing my palate that I'm being decadent. By way of comparison, I order a simple grilled cheese, with real cheese and sourdough. Both are perfectly browned and satisfying.

But then I must turn to the big question. Will the hamburger be a match for the Shirley burgers of yore? Admittedly, it's a little different, in a good way. The lettuce, tomato, and onion were never this fresh, nor did the old Lamp serve up house-made refrigerator pickles. But the burger itself brings back the old flavor, rich in memories. Perfectly done and juicy, it's a gem.

With some pride, Cannito says, "We still do the burgers the way Miss Shirley did them."

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