Until Saturday night, I'd never been to Mortimer's restaurant on Perkins in East Memphis. And oh, the glories I have missed: an iced tray of oysters for 40 cents each, a tribute wall to local music icons Big Star, a mean martini from bartender Chuck Schafler, and a historical cache few restaurants in Memphis can match.
Do yourself a favor and stop driving by this place, operated by Sara Bell since 1981 and named after her father. Here's why: Mortimer's is the real deal, a family restaurant from a time when adults could smoke, drink, and eat with impunity. These days, there's no smoking in Mortimer's, but the decades of food and drink are layered in the place, giving it a blue-collar "Mad Men" feel that is contagious and friendly.
I couldn't get over how comfortable I was sitting in a bar with a moose head over the fireplace and bar patrons a decade older than me. Not that young people should
stay away. Mortimer's has Ghost River on tap, and the menu is affordable. I only ate oysters on the half shell Saturday, but I saw a burger stuffed with gouda and steak fries pass by. The plate looked so satisfying that I might be ready to eschew farm-to-table for the meat-fueled food of my youth.
Then there's the tribute wall to Big Star, recognizing Sara's brother Chris Bell, a founding member of the '70s band from Memphis who became standard-bearers for the power rock stars of the next two generations.
Longtime Memphians probably know the history of Mortimer's, but if not, here's the quick take: Bell's dad, Vernon Mortimer Bell, returned home to Memphis after World War II and purchased The Little Tea Shoppe downtown. When Memphis grew east, Bell followed, opening the Knickerbocker Restaurant in 1955 on Poplar near Perkins, where the Dixie Cafe operates today. (The retail strip, btw, is still called Knickerbocker Center.) In the early '80s, Sara Bell opened Mortimer's. Thirty years later, she is still serving some of the Knickerbocker's original recipes, although the prices have changed quite a bit. A Knickerbocker receipt from 1955 on the back of Mortimer's menu says this: "breaded veal cutlet with tomato sauce for $1.2o."