So you don't exactly think of home cooking and expect Zinnie's to spring to mind. Sure, if you've been around town for long, you're bound to have memories of beer-fueled shenanigans at the dark and smoky bar at the corner of Belvedere and Madison. Chances are there wasn't much food involved.
But the times, they are a-changin'. These days I'm more interested in a vegetable plate than a late-night date, and who knew I'd find it at Zinnie's? It came as a surprise to me.
Let's take a quick moment to reflect, though. This Zinnie's, the original one (which earned it the nickname Oz), has been open 38 years, and current owner Bill Baker (not the same one who owns Le Chardonnay and Bayou Bar & Grill, nor the actor) has been there for 33 of those. There were other Zinnie's locations -- Zinnie's Around the Corner and Zinnie's on the Mall -- but those have been gone for decades. The best known of the other Zinnie's was Zinnie's East, just a few doors down from the original, and it closed last month.
When former owner Gerry Wynns died in 1994, Perry Hall ended up with Zinnie's East and Baker with Zinnie's.
But now there is just the one -- the original -- so all the confusion should be behind us.
Well, except that you can get some darn good home cooking at Zinnie's, which I admit took a little getting used to. And as soon as I did, this threw me for a loop:
The lunch-only menu has several options that are not only delicious but also healthful.
Steamed Brussels sprouts with the barest touch of butter. Squash cooked until just tender, also served with a hint of butter. Add some black pepper to that squash and eat it up. If you want it healthy all the way, ask that the butter be omitted.
Selections change daily, though as best I can tell the greens and the mashed potatoes and gravy are always on the menu. Both are excellent; the greens are a touch above that. They're a mix of collard, mustard and turnip greens, cooked until done but not even a minute past that. The leaves are good-size -- none of that chopped, cooked-to-death stuff is coming out of this kitchen. And the homemade pepper sauce has cloves of garlic in it, which is a nice touch.
The potatoes are stiff enough but not hard, creamy but not overly saturated with butter and cream. My assessment is that the brown gravy is a bit too smooth to be from scratch, but I do think it's semihomemade. It tastes a far sight better than a mix, for sure, but I have suspicions.
The gravy, along with grilled onions and mushrooms, makes a fine topping for a hamburger steak. The meatloaf was OK -- tasty enough, but a little too tight in texture and a bit too tomato-y, with a salsa topping -- but doesn't hold up to the hamburger steak.
The burger (I guess we call it a steak when it comes without the bun) is a generous one, and the topping adds a heap of flavor. You won't go wrong with it.
But let's say you want a bit of home cooking even though you're watching your figure. Order a piece of grilled fish, usually tilapia or catfish, or a simple grilled chicken breast. You can get the chicken plain or with the mushroom and onion topping, and either way is good. It's boneless and skinless, but brushed with a touch of lemon for flavor.
We ordered our tilapia blackened, and the fish was flaky, with enough blackening for flavor but nothing that would frighten away the timid; it was plenty tame.
Navy beans are flavorful and a better choice than the black-eyed peas, which were a bit overcooked.
Treat yourself to a bowl of chicken and dumplings if it's available. The hearty stew is rich and full of both chicken and dumplings, lacking nothing but a bit of black pepper.
If you're not in the mood for home cooking, or if you visit outside of 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, you're mostly in sandwich territory. The buffalo chicken sandwich is made of a big boneless, skinless breast dipped in hot sauce (probably Frank's Red Hot, as it's mild and tangy), slapped between a hoagie bun and served with your choice of ranch or blue cheese dressing and fixin's.
It was delicious. The burger was also very good.
The only food I remembered from Zinnie's was a dish of tamales served under chili, topped with cheese and onion, years before Pepcid or Prilosec. I had to try it once again.
The tamales were canned, but kudos to the staff for saying so ahead of time. The chili was homemade, though, so that was nice. Even still, this is one that will be part of my past at Zinnie's. The future holds vegetables.
Do keep in mind that smoking is allowed, and people do smoke. It hasn't been bad, though, as it seems that at lunch, anyway, most of the smokers sit at the bar and the diners are at tables.
-- Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223
Address: 1688 Madison
Telephone: (901) 726-5004
Hours: Bar open 11 a.m.-3 a.m. Monday through Saturday and noon-3 a.m. Sunday. Kitchen open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday through Friday, serving home cooking and from the menu. Kitchen open at night, 6-11, Monday through Saturday; no home cooking at night. Happy hour specials 4-7 p.m. daily.
Reviewer's choices: Plate lunch ($6.95 for four vegetables; $7.95 for meat and two vegetables) favorites include hamburger steak, mashed potatoes, greens, squash, navy beans. Buffalo chicken sandwich ($6.95); burger ($6.95).
Alcohol: Full bar.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars