Day three of Williams-Sonoma’s Fire Smoke & Flavor Tour led the team to Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous in Memphis, Tennessee. This barbecue hot spot seats 700 people, and staffers who’ve worked there for decades have served the likes of Bill Clinton and Mick Jagger. Co-owner John Vergos says, “I like to think we’re a part of the fabric of Memphis.”
Rendezvous was founded by John Vergos’ father Charles in 1948. After World War II, Charles and his brother-in-law started a diner, but they didn’t get enough business to stay afloat. As legend has it, Charles went into the basement, cleaned it out and turned it into an 80-seat tavern, which, over the years, has grown into a world-renowned restaurant.
“On a busy Saturday we’ll feed 3,000 people,” says Vergos. “You’re liable to see anyone from royalty to somebody in overalls, from a rock star to a politician. It’s hectic; it’s going to look like we have no idea what we’re doing, but we are very efficient. You can just sit there and enjoy your dinner and take your time.”
Vergos credits both the food and the service for the restaurant’s success—the loyal staff keep people coming back. Head cook Bobby Ellis has worked there for 42 years; Robert Sr., one of the waiters, has been there 54 years. His son Robert Jr. has 34 years under his belt, and Robert Jr.’s son is now busing tables.
“It’s truly a family business on two fronts,” says Vergos. “Our family owns the business, but we have so many employees who’ve been here forever. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”
The ribs at Rendezvous are an institution. In Memphis, ribs are categorized as “wet” or “dry”—with Rendezvous’ in the latter box—but Vergos dismisses those labels.
“People call them ‘dry ribs,’ but I don’t like that expression because it sounds like beef jerky,” he says. “Rather than putting on an enormous amount of sauce, we just cook our ribs plain in charcoal, baste them in a vinegar-based solution and put our seasoning on them. Then, we’ll put our sauces on the side. If you’re eating ribs, you need to taste the ribs and the smoke.”
The seasoning is another practice that makes Rendezvous ribs unique. Before serving them, the ribs are given a “shake” of spices, from a mixture invented by Charles Vergos himself. The family moved to the United States from Greece, so flavors like lemon, oregano and garlic were part of their heritage. During a vacation in New Orleans, Charles discovered Cajun spices such as chili powder and cayenne pepper, which he combined with the traditional Greek ones to create his signature seasoning. Now the shake goes on everything from popcorn to Bloody Marys to deviled eggs.
The Rendezvous seasoning has become synonymous with Memphis barbecue. “We’re the first people who cooked barbecue and didn’t just douse it in sauce,” says Vergos. “It’s been a way for people to see if they can duplicate what we do.”