When you talk to Michael Patrick, the executive chef of Rizzo's Diner who is now also overseeing the menu at Grawemeyer's, you sense that the South Main District is girding to stand and fight for the Memphis entertainment dollar.
Bass Pro's renovation of The Pyramid and the mojo that will create around North Main is clearly a concern on the south side of Downtown, in the neighborhood of Central Station. So when Patrick speaks for Grawemeyer's at 520 S. Main and Rizzo's around the corner on G.E. Patterson, he goes out of his way to toss out sidestream compliments to his neighbors, including the Arcade, Earnestine & Hazel's and The Blue Monkey.
But back to Grawemeyer's, located in a beautifully restored building that once served as a hotel for railroad workers. The brick walls are exposed and buffed, and a gorgeous antique tile floor glows beneath the central area of the dining room, beside a mammoth wood bar. Owners Cynthia and Mark Grawemeyer deliberately enhance the early 20th century aura by playing jazz hits from the 1930s and '40s and Turner Classic Movies on screens over the bar.
Seated at that bar on a Friday night, listening to Louis Armstrong's "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and watching the fear unfold above us in the old British horror film "The Innocents," we sampled the restaurant's meat loaf, a monumental chunk of ground meat dense with pork and topped with tomato sauce. On the side, we ordered potato salad, which on the night we had it, was so creamy it appeared to be in a sauce rather than a dressing, and was missing the crunchy celery or peppers that might have made it interesting.
Patrick says Grawemeyer's is hoping to find a niche among diners with its pizzas, and we tried two of them. The Margherita is an agreeable combination of mozzarella, basil ribbons, roasted garlic cloves and chunks of roasted fresh tomato, with a dusting of corn flour on the crust.
The "Cotton Carnival Pizza" has a heaping portion of cheese on top, which melts into a cap that doesn't separate easily when you bite into it. The crust on both was damp and chewy, and a quarter-inch thick. A long list of vegetables, fruits, meat and cheeses are available to add. Steven Shipp, the general manager, says the restaurant will offer any number of toppings -- from corn and banana peppers to German bologna and pickle loaf -- on a 10-inch pizza for $10.
On a server's recommendation, we ordered the Reuben, though we had to dispute his assertion that it could be served with pastrami. My friend, who will go out of her way for a fine Reuben, assured him that while sauerkraut may be optional -- Grawemeyer's includes it -- corned beef is the only centerpiece of this sandwich. She liked Grawemeyer's decision to serve its Reuben on black bread, but didn't like the fact that the bottom slice was soggy.
A pastry chef who is attached to the enterprise is making lovely cakes for sale by the slice and offered us perfect hot yeast rolls before we ordered. They came with a dollop of honey butter, which was the consistency of mayonnaise. She returned toward the end of our meal to offer us a slice of cheesecake that hadn't firmed and set. She said she was testing to see if it was ready and, though it wasn't quite, she wanted to share.
Grawemeyer's has been open nearly 10 weeks, and the food and service are inconsistent. The bland potato salad I received looked very different from the potato salad that I saw on a plate two days later. Green beans we had one night tasted canned, with a dash of hot sauce. Another day, they looked fresh.
The service, though always friendly, was bewildering. The distracted bartender had to be reminded twice to fill us in on the list of beers the restaurant offered, though there was no one else at the bar. Another server complained to us about the restaurant's long hours. At lunch, without warning, a server reached over and removed lint from my shirt while I was looking at the menu. It was surely well-intentioned, and surely strange.
Address: 520 S. Main.
Telephone: (901) 526-6751.
Hours: 8 a.m.- 10 p.m. daily
Reviewer's choices: Pizza Margherita; the Memphis-Cali salad, with spinach, cranberries, pecans and oranges ($9); Italian cream cake ($6).
Alcohol: Beer, no permit yet for wine and liquor.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars