The fireman dabbed his lips with a cloth napkin. Shirtsleeves rolled, hat removed and resting on the stool alongside, he leaned into the counter for another bite. As juices traced his wrists, and a stray rope of tobacco-colored onion slid from the griddle-toasted bun, he turned my way. I was hovering, waiting for a seat to open at the six-top bar, installed alongside the butcher case at Main Street Meats in downtown Chattanooga.
He nodded slightly and flashed an approving smile that told me dinner would go well. Soon I claimed my own stool and my own generous grass-fed burger, draped with Gruyère, stacked with bacon, layered with house pickle chips, and smeared with sharp mustard. Eating a burger at a butcher shop, within sight of dangling sides of beef, is something like eating a fish sandwich on a boat as workers haul and gut grouper: You benefit from proximity to the protein and the action.
Perched next to Niedlov’s Breadworks, facing Fire Station One, Main Street Meats is a butcher shop that doubles as a restaurant. Or maybe it’s the inverse. Whatever it is, MSM, as some locals call it, is a beacon café for this river city, once fouled by pollution, now better known for green spaces, gigabyte Internet, artist relocation efforts, and bike share programs.
The concept may sound novel. But the form is old and archetypal. The South is rife with country stores that begat catfish restaurants. And filling stations that became steam-table meat-and-threes. At a time when most grocers sell shrink-wrapped and foam-trayed meats, old-fashioned butcher shops—stocked with pastured beef and pork and chicken, cut to order by men and women who know what the heck they’re doing—are now in renaissance. Customers today want to look their meat cutter in the eye and know the provenance of their pork chops and beef briskets. It makes good sense that, after assaying the bona fides of a shop, many customers are happy to have the nice folks in the kitchen cook their ground beef, too.
Over the course of a recent month, I ate at MSM four times and twice summoned the willpower to order something other than that burger with tallow-fried potato rounds. (The potatoes, by the way, are marvels. Some thick and chewy, some thin and translucent, they taste like Sunday afternoon cookout standards teleported from 1977.) My decisions to forgo that siren burger were rewarded by a whole trout, sourced from a Tennessee farm, butterflied, and stuffed with a fat quiver of haricots verts. Napped with brown butter, scattered with crisped croutons, and brightened by slivers of lemon, it’s a variation on the trout dish that chef Erik Niel serves at his first restaurant, the comparatively upscale Easy Bistro & Bar, down by the river in the shadow of the Tennessee Aquarium. And it clocks in at seven bucks less.
I ate my beef with whiskey. The Man About Town cocktail, which translates as a boulevardier embellished with Aperol, goes down as a bitter and delicious foil to that wrist juice. If you choose the trout or veer toward the confit chicken—flanked by sometimes gritty collards and served on a creamy root vegetable puree—order a bottle of saison, brewed a couple of hours north of Chattanooga at the luxe Blackberry Farm resort. Can’t finish the large-format behemoth? Share a glass with your bar mates.
If you long for dessert, order a Homegrown cocktail instead. The tender pours out a neck’s worth of liquid from a glass bottle of cane-sugar Mexican Coke, tops it off with Chattanooga Whiskey, and then drops roasted peanuts in the mix. When I closed my eyes and took a sip, two memories floated into focus: I was ten, riding with my father along the back roads of Georgia, a glass bottle of Coke between my knees and a sleeve of Tom’s peanuts in hand. And I was twenty, bleacher drunk at Sanford Stadium, cheering the Georgia Bulldogs, sloshing a plastic tumbler of Jim Beam and Coke and eating handfuls of roasted peanuts to stymie a hangover that was already blossoming.
Before you settle the bill, go shopping. The rolltop coolers and showcase freezers up front are stacked with great eats, from baconage (an MSM sausage made with ground bacon) to house andouille and stone-ground speckled grits. Displayed like jewels in a case, the rosy-hued pork porterhouses cut by butcher Milton White give the lie to the campaign that once sold anemic pork as “the other white meat.” And cheeses, from smoked-sea-salt-rubbed Bellamy Blue, crafted at nearby Sequatchie Cove Creamery, to Green Hill, a Camembert-style butter bomb from Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia, remind me that we’ve come a long way from the rat-trap cheese with a red wax rind that I bought from country stores in my Georgia youth.