A NIGHT AT THE LOCAL BARCity Grocery is the local's choice for a drink.
BY JENNA MASON
PHOTOGRAPHY BY LIZZIE MCINTOSH
Football games. Visiting authors. Family and friends. Oxford is always hosting a steady stream of visitors, and Oxonians take great pride in showing off our little town.
We ferry guests from Square Books to Rowan Oak, from Faulkner’s grave to whichever restaurant they heard they must try. And when we want them to see the less glossy side of Oxford, we ascend the steps to the City Grocery bar.
When it comes to showcasing Oxford’s increasingly sophisticated drink roster, plenty of other restaurants beg attention. Snackbar and Saint Leo boast impressive cocktail programs; the latter features a wine list unmatched in the state of Mississippi. Yalobusha Brewing Company keeps us thirsty for local beers, which you can enjoy at their Water Valley brewery, at The Growler, and in bars around town.
The City Grocery bar serves something else entirely. The drinks are solid, to be sure, but the bar privileges camaraderie over creativity, familiarity over frills. It’s where you go to wind down from the workweek. To celebrate a promotion. To mourn a loss.
Taking tourists to City is akin to inviting friends to Thanksgiving dinner—they’re welcomed with sincere hospitality, but they’re not really part of the family.
Visitors can and do enjoy themselves—it is a bar, after all—but they won’t experience City the way the bar’s faithful denizens do.
City is a place of ritual, and when all the pieces are in place, the world feels a little more coherent and stable.
The best nights, Elihue Burt mans the door. Hue checks strangers’ IDs no matter their apparent age, but the regulars he greets with the warmest hug as if seeing your face just made his whole day.
Inside, folks settle instinctively into formation. The barstools hold a few industry regulars like Yalobusha’s Andy O’Brien or a certain off-the-clock bartender that I’m sure prefers anonymity. The Thursday night Thacker Mountain crew mostly stands and mingles. At tables between the bar and balcony, Oxford professionals gather for happy hour cocktails.
Behind the bar, you’ll likely find the bar manager, Cooney (allegedly his real name is John), or Jolly, whose first name is actually Mike. Or Justin or Elliott, or Mills, the ‘new guy’ who’s been there at least a year.
You’ll get consistent service no matter who pours your drinks. Some smile wider than others and one may give off a slight Ron Swanson vibe if he doesn’t know you (or doesn’t like you), but the whole team is attentive and prompt. They all know the five or six drinks on my rotation, which bends to the weather and my mood.
They know which patrons prefer their cocktails without stirrers and who will want a chilled glass for their beer, who’ll start a tab and who’ll close out, who’ll grab a stool and who’ll head to the balcony.
To access the City Grocery balcony, you’ve got to put your back into the door. (Nothing says “newbie” like being surprised that the door is stuck.)
From a chair in the left corner, Randy Weeks presides over the space, sipping tequila with grapefruit from the personal rocks glass he stores behind the bar. City folks tacitly relinquish this spot to Randy; he won’t ask an unknowing offender to get up, of course, but he won’t be comfortable until he’s leaning against that brick wall, feet on a chair, facing a friend or the world at large.
At regular intervals, a bartender will sweep through the balcony to empty ashtrays and gather abandoned glassware. At some point, someone will run out of cigarettes and bum from Randy’s “friend pack,” a tin box stocked with a couple different brands, none of which he smokes himself. Someone else will marvel at the clothing choices of young twenty-somethings below or chuckle at a disturbance outside The Roundtable or Rowdy Rebs. We’ll all drink as if by instinct, an informal toast to the sanity and solidarity of the porch.
As Square restaurants close, service industry folks will trickle in to unwind or wind up, depending on when they have to work the next day. Most won’t bother to shed their work clothes; an untucked uniform is just another sign they belong. If a local musician (read: server/cook/bartender/barista) has a show somewhere that night, at least half this crowd will leave City around 10:30 p.m. to catch a set. Most will make it back before closing time.
When last call rolls around, always too soon, the bartenders will trade their button-downs for t-shirts, raise the lights, and yell at you. “Last call! Finish your beers! Let’s go, people!” Your ‘regular’ status will carry no weight at this point—you do not get to linger longer than the rest. But you will smile anyway because, even though you’re being kicked out, that’s part of what makes you feel so at home.