Dem' Bones Bar-B-Que
708 Monroe St. 742-9010
11 a.m-5 p.m. Mon-Wed.;
11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thurs.-Sat.
Open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sun.
only on Titans home game days
Price range: $-$$
The pregnant mutt planted in the parking lot of Dem' Bones Bar-B-Que one recent Sunday afternoon was notin spite of a looming Ford Explorergoing anywhere. The reason for her stubbornness became abundantly clear when the front door of the restaurant opened, and a man in a kitchen apron emerged carrying a small bundle of bones on a sheet of white paper. He walked over to the edge of the lot, the dog on his heels, and laid the bones on the ground. She gingerly picked them up in her mouth and waddled off to her secret lair.
The benevolent bone distributor was Anthony Marshall, husband of Lisa McKnight Marshall. They're part of an extended family enterprise that originated with the inspiration of one Lee M. McKnight. Lee's granddaughters Leslie and Lee Ann, along with their cousin Nikki Collie, opened Dem' Bones to carry on their grandfather's unique barbecuing tradition. Though sisters Lisa and LaJune aren't directly involved in the business, they do pitch in; brother-in-law Anthony and Uncle Sonny Watts serve as the grill masters, charged with tending the 19-inch rotisserie grilling unit that sits beside the squat building at the corner of Eighth Avenue North and Monroe Street.
Inside the brightly turned out restaurant, you will likely be greeted at the counter by the beaming Lee Ann, and there could be no better introduction to Dem' Bones. The sparkle from her smile seems to bounce light off the cheery yellow walls, and her sunny disposition is positively contagious. When asked "How are you?," she answers "Wonderful!" or "Blessed!" without a second's hesitation. You can't help but feel the same way.
Leslie, who has an eye for colors and design, directed the transformation of the interior from its former incarnation as Dan's Diner. These days, she can usually be found in the kitchen with cousin Nikki, whose mother Carmen Collier can be counted on to lend a hand when she's in town.
But look no farther than the framed photo on the counter to find the inspiration behind this family affair: it is grandfather Lee M. McKnight, standing with grandmother Nellie at their daughter Carmen's wedding in 1969. "He was the neighborhood griller," explains Lee Ann. "Whenever there was a wedding or church dinner or a social function, and it called for barbecue, everyone came to him. He had a charcoal pit in the backyard and a great recipe for sauce. He would get up at 2 or 3 in the morning to get it started. He would put a whole hog on that grill, and it was a 12-hour event. People would come by all day long just to visit and see how the grilling was going."
About 15 years ago, soon after Lee M. McKnight passed, his son Lee C. put a professional spin on his father's avocation, obtaining a franchise on a patented cooking method that combines rotisserie and grilling with a constant saucing process. He set up shop in North Carolina for three years, but without the family support that the McKnights believe is crucial to their success, he shut down the cooker, which now sits in the parking lot of Dem' Bones.
Natives of South Bend, Ind., both Lee Ann and Leslie are Tennessee State University graduates, with degrees in counseling. While some might suggest they should have had their own heads examined, they decided to get on the grill and started a catering business with Nikki, an attorney in her former life. When the former diner became available earlier this year, they grabbed it. "We spent two months doing nothing but cleaning," says Leslie.
The spacious room has oilcloth-topped tables for four, often pushed together to accommodate the large parties that frequently convene here, all of whom seem to know one another and have some connection to the family. Two Sundays ago, several members of their church gathered in front of the small television to urge the Titans on to their first home victory of the regular season, while eight women of multiple generations talked at a window-side table. During the week, Lee Ann says, their customer base comes from the neighborhood factories, construction crews, MetroCenter and downtown. The daily lunch special would make Ms. Cheap's list of meal deals: for $4.95, diners can choose from five lunch options, which includes two rib bones with a side, two fish fillets with a side, or two shoulder sandwiches.
First-timers are apt to come back for more, particularly if they have a hankering for ribs, which run $8 for a plate with two sides. The patented rotisserie-grill does a complete rotation every five minutes, and on the bottom of each full turn, the meat is immersed in a large trough of sauce. The method makes for moist meat while adding the intense, smoky flavor of the grill. Everything cooked in the grillribs, shoulder meat and chickenis so juicy and flavorful that no sauce is required, though three types are made in-house: mild, hot and a North Carolina-style vinegar-base.
Likewise, the Cajun-spiced fish fillet sandwiches are just dandy without the standard fish sandwich accoutrements (onion, yellow mustard, hot sauce and pickles), but you can have them if you insist. Several sides, including greens, sweet potatoes, coleslaw and green beans, are cooked up on a daily basis, with everything coming fresh from the nearby Farmers Market. The terrific hand-cut fries stand spud-to-spud with Judge Bean's as the best in town.
Grandfather Lee M. McKnight may have provided the inspiration for this business, but according to Leslie, it was dad Lee C. McKnight who coined the name. "Daddy used to say that when people ate these ribs, all that was left was a pile of 'dem bones." Lucky dogs.