The Oxford, Mississippi, chef dishes on his favorite spots
Day drinks are the best drinks. So says John Currence, the unabashedly unfiltered chef behind the City Grocery restaurant group. The topic even makes its way into Currence’s latest cookbook, Big Bad Breakfast (Ten Speed Press), a tome dedicated to the most important meal of the day. Opening a chapter that gives way to recipes for eye openers, he writes, “Brunch itself is, more often than not, altogether forgettable, but the fact that it is the meal that accompanies weekend day drinking can elevate it to a place of mythical status.” Part James-Beard-Award-winner, part dive bar enthusiast, Currence is apt to wax poetic on the subject. We caught up with him to talk the beauty of day drinking and where he likes to wet his whistle.
Who are your day drinking comrades?
My favorite person in the world to have day drinks with is my little brother, Richard. And anywhere with (fellow chefs) Ashley Christensen, Sean Brock, Nick Pihakis, Donald Link, John Besh, and Mario Batali. All these folks make an art of distilling the essence of life and then consuming it. A lot of the time drinking with them is a given, and I have more stories than a man should in ten lifetimes.
You’ve got a thing for dive bars. What’s that about?
There’s a tremendous amount of honesty in a dive bar. Not just among the people, but the place itself. It is what it is, just because it has morphed into that thing. The people who run them and drink at them are not impressed by anything at all—they don’t give a shit whether you’re there or not, and everybody is equal. They’re peopled with folks who have stories to tell. Dive bars aren’t created. They just happen.
Is there an art to the day drinking schedule?
If there’s any planning, day drinking is ruined. It has to be one of those moments where the light bulb goes off and you think, “Man, I don’t have anything to do for the rest of the day.” But I can’t just swear off responsibility—there’s too much Catholic in me.
Do you have some veteran tips for making it through the day?
A certain amount is about pacing. Eating here and there helps a bit; if you eat a bunch it helps a lot. I don’t put a lot of stock in the food part though—I believe in judicious and thoughtful pacing. The more you try to make a sprint out of it, the more of a sprint it’s going to be. But day drinking is a marathon.
So you’re not a napper?
I’m not saying that I haven’t napped. But the way I see it, if you nap, it’s not a marathon. You’re just getting drunk twice in one day.
What’s your day drink of choice?
In the mornings I like a bourbon milk punch or a bloody mary (but not after 1 pm). Champagne or light white wine mid-day, then light liquor as it moves into late afternoon—a greyhound, gin and tonic, margarita. And as the sun sinks in the sky, it definitely turns to bourbon.
THE FLORA-BAMA LOUNGE & OYSTER BAR | Pensacola, Florida
“There are few better spots for day drinking and people watching than the Flora-Bama,” Currence says. “A stripe of the great American South you might not be able to easily access anywhere else parades through the doors of this place.”
PÊCHE SEAFOOD GRILL | New Orleans, Louisiana
It’s all about the corner bar. “The fact that you can watch the passing activity on Magazine Street, get loaded down with some of the best fresh-out-of-the-water-seafood anywhere, and pummeled with equally exceptional cocktails is nothing short of astounding,” he says. “I’ve never been part of a lunch there that lasted less than three-and-a-half hours.”
CHEZ FONFON | Birmingham, Alabama
The patio at Frank and Pardis Stitt’s French bistro is like a secret garden. “You kind of need to know someone to find it,” Currence says. The vibe is so distinct “you can’t help but know that drinking anything other than rosé or a negroni would just feel awkward.”
VAUGHT HEMINGWAY STADIUM | Oxford, Mississippi
When the Rebels play at home, you’ll find Currence in the Grove. “I believe that God invented football to give adult drinkers the one excuse to do the unthinkable: mix bourbon with soda.” (And that’s Coke or Sprite—“Pepsi products have no place in this or any discussion.”) “The smell of fresh-cut grass and sweat, the sound of smashing high-density plastics, and the warmth of the fall sun are the components of my outdoor Saturday church service.”
EMPIRE STATE SOUTH | Atlanta, Georgia
“The terrace at Empire State South is as delightful a ground floor, outdoor drink space as there is,” Currence says. “Go see miss Kellie Thorn. Put yourself in her hands. Demand gin. Prepare for a good ride.”
MAGNOLIA LOUNGE | Louisville, Kentucky
While the Mag Bar, as it’s known, “is a nocturnal hotspot for local music and nefarious activity, afternoons are also open game at the killer little dive,” Currence says. “A great selection of bourbon and decent tequila offerings makes it a great place to park for a few—especially if (local chef) Ed Lee is driving the bus.”
DOMILISE’S PO-BOY AND BAR | New Orleans, Louisiana
“The bar is steps from where Dot Domilice made the best shrimp po’ boy in New Orleans well into her eighties,” Currence says. “Pete, the gin-blossomed gent who tended their eight-seat bar for decades was a stalwart in my pre-legal drinking expeditions. As much as it pains me that they have both gone on, the po’ boy is as good (maybe even better) and the Dixie beer just as cold.”
A.C.’S BAR & GRILL | Charleston, South Carolina
A.C.’s slogan is “up all night,” but Currence frequents the King Street dive in the afternoon too. “It’s dark even in the height of the day,” he says. “Don’t ask a lot of questions—the folks there aren’t into small talk. Order tequila and a cheap beer chaser. Enjoy the music.”
CITY GROCERY | Oxford, Mississippi
Currence admits he’s biased. “But a long lunch with a couple bottles of excellent white wine when the French doors are swung open onto the Square is about as fine as it gets,” he says. “Rounding the corner from a long boozy lunch into dinner service is an occasional accomplishment of the seasoned veteran and a beautiful achievement to witness.”
HE’S NOT HERE | Chapel Hill, North Carolina
A college bar Currence first frequented while studying at UNC-Chapel Hill and home to the iconic blue cup (it holds a thirty-two-ounce pour). Go in the afternoon—while the collegiate hordes rest, he says—where the downstairs patio is a great place to enjoy a working class selection of beers.