The Colonel says …Lawrence Specker | LSpecker@AL.com
The Colonel’s Tavern puts a lot on your plate. A lot of history, if you recall the locally owned Col. Dixie chain that once thrived in the Mobile area. Or, if you prefer, a half-pound burger topped with chili and a mountain of pulled pork, accompanied by onion rings and a pineapple milkshake that’s simply divine.
There’s no reason you can’t have it all. That’s kind of the point: Once again you can get an authentic Dixie Dog in Mobile, now with a heaping side of nostalgia.
“To be a hamburger and hot dog joint, it touched a lot of people and gave them a lot of emotional memories,” said Graham Moore of the bygone Col. Dixie chain. In late spring he opened The Colonel’s Tavern, a restaurant that resurrects the menus of Col. Dixie and the old Richee’s BBQ. Since then, he’s had a chance to see the full range of those memories.
“We’ve had several 50-plus-year anniversaries since we’ve opened the doors, that for their first dates they went to a Col. Dixie,” Moore said. “On the other side I had a guy go, ‘I got a divorce in 1982 and the first place I went was to get me a Dixie Dog to celebrate.’”
The flagship hot dog at The Colonel's Tavern is The Colonel's Dog, topped with chili, sauerkraut, onions, slaw, jalapenos, cheese, mustard and ketchup.Lawrence Specker | LSpecker@AL.com
It was 1963 when Richard Moore and Paul Leverett opened their first restaurant along U.S. 90, rapidly followed by another on Dauphin Island Parkway. A burger cost 15 cents back then, according to archival Press-Register reports, and business boomed. Over the next decade, Col. Dixie became ubiquitous in the area: By 1973 the chain was opening its 10th store, an empire that included one branch as far away as Pascagoula, Miss.
Its menu expanded to include fried chicken and, at least at some locations, breakfast. According to a 1979 report, what had started with a $10,000 investment by Leverett and Moore had grown into a $2 million enterprise, which would be over $7 million in today’s terms.
Then came a scandal which, to this day, tends to be one of the first things that comes up when Col. Dixie is mentioned: Leverett paid a guy to kill his wife in 1980, and was sentenced to life in prison in 1983.
Graham Moore was a preteen at the time but already was on his way to being a part of the family business co-founded by his uncle Richard. Leverett’s disgrace was a setback for the company, he said, but when those ties were cut, Richard Moore carried on. (Leverett seemed to find a second life after his conviction, eventually being given a trusted position training hunting dogs at the Charles A. Farquhar State Cattle Ranch in Hale County. He died in 1994 when another inmate went on a rampage, killing the warden, his wife, Leverett and another inmate.)
“A lot of people think Paul Leverett was the man that owned Col. Dixie,” said Moore of the situation in the early ‘80s. “He was the minority partner.”
The interior of The Colonel's Tavern.Lawrence Specker | LSpecker@AL.com
Col. Dixie carried on, with as many as a dozen stores in the area. Graham Moore said that for a couple of years in the early ‘80s, the chain ran a promotion selling Dixie Burgers for 39 cents and Dixie Cheeseburgers for 49 cents. They were so popular that Richard Moore came up with special kitchen trays so that they could be made 40 at a time.
The company opened some Richee’s BBQ stores as well. Richard Moore died in 1998 and his son Cameron Moore took over. As the next decade and a half went by and national burger chains came to near-complete dominance of the market, Col. Dixie slowly dwindled away.
Graham Moore didn’t come to the concept of a revival as an outsider. “I’ve got all the original recipes, the original books,” he said. Richard Moore had been a detail-oriented company president. He’d done a lot of research to nail down exactly what the company’s products should be and how they should be presented. He’d written it all down, not just in cookbooks but in employee handbooks.
Graham Moore started working for Col. Dixie in the '80s, when he was a teenager. He created The Colonel's Tavern in part to tap into nostalgia for the local chain cofounded by his uncle.Lawrence Specker | LSpecker@AL.com
Graham Moore had a playbook, when it came to reviving the Col. Dixie and Richee’s menus, though he was also changing up some things. The name, for one thing: “Col. Dixie” doesn’t have quite the same ring in 2021 as it did in 1963.
“That’s what it was, to keep the nostalgia, to have people know this is what you’re used to, this is a part of your life coming back, without ruffling any feathers,” he said. “But you don’t ruffle too many feathers with the name Col. Dixie in this town, simply because it’s related to a good hamburger and a good hot dog.”
The bottom line, he said, is that he wants anybody who comes in to feel at home.
He also shifted the concept a bit from fast food to sit-down family restaurant. Its location, a standalone building at 4940 Government Boulevard, was built as an Applebee’s. More recently it had a brief life as a soul food restaurant established by rising Mobile rapper Yung Bleu; that venture closed in 2020, as the pandemic hit the restaurant business full force and Bleu moved on to national fame. So, in a bit of only-in-Mobile irony, a venue once bearing the diamond-studded brand of the Bleu Vandross singer is now adorned with a cartoon Southern colonel.
The Colonel's Tavern occupies a former Applebee's that more recently housed a soul food restaurant backed by Mobile rapper Yung Bleu.Lawrence Specker | LSpecker@AL.com
On the other side of the doors you get a two-sided menu. The Richee’s side offers ribs, sandwiches (barbecue pork, beef, BLT on Texas toast, hand-battered chicken) and loaded baked potatoes and fries. The Col. Dixie’s side features quarter- and half-pound burgers, hot dogs, chicken tenders and a selection of sodas featuring “Dixie Dew.”
Both sides of the menu offer a burger called “The Big Nasty.” More on that monstrosity in a moment.
First, a word about Dixie Dew. This red soda isn’t a mash-up of Mello Yello and strawberry Fanta. Graham Moore says he remembers employees mixing up vats of syrup in the warehouse, back in the old days. It was a Col. Dixie trademark. Nowadays he orders the custom syrup from a supplier, and it’s been about as popular as Coca-Cola. (Side note: The Colonel’s Tavern serves alcohol and Moore translated the Dixie Dew flavor into a daquiri that he almost named the Dixie Don’t.)
The hot dogs, which might well be the main attraction for nostalgia-minded visitors, start at $3.29 for a basic dog or $5.99 for the combo. They’re of high quality and substantial enough to stand as entrees, especially if you go for a loaded–up Dixie Dog and or the Colonel’s Dog.
“The Dixie Dog is a simple dog,” said Moore. “It’s chili, sauerkraut, onions, ketchup, mustard, pickle. But with the chili, the way it goes together, it’s just a great-tasting hot dog.” To that “simple” flavor profile the Colonel’s Dog adds slaw, jalapenos and cheese.
“I think one of the main things that does it is our chili. There’s some people that hate our chili,” said Moore. “You either love it or you hate it, and more love it than hate it. It’s the same way it was back in the day. I tell everybody you could put our chili on a piece of shoe leather and make it good.”
You’ll note those aren’t early-’60s prices or even mid-’80s prices. Moore thinks he’s got a good value proposition regardless. The most expensive burger on the menu, The Big Nasty, is $11.49 by itself or $13.99 with drink and side. “It gives you almost half a pound of pork along with half a pound of beef,” said Moore.
The flagship burger at The Colonel's Tavern is The Big Nasty.Lawrence Specker | LSpecker@AL.com
If you're going over the top with The Big Nasty at The Colonel's Tavern, you might as well throw in a shake. Ask for a spoon, you'll probably need it.Lawrence Specker | LSpecker@AL.com
He’s underselling it. The Big Nasty is built with a half-pound beef patty covered in chili, mounded with sauce-drenched pork and topped with slaw, with jalapeno slices piled to the side. It’s served upside-down, for some reason, so it arrives looking like a three-sandwich crash with entrapment. It takes a second to figure out how to start tearing into it, or whether you should just call for a flatbed.
Moore has high hopes for this latest chapter in the Col. Dixie story, though he freely admits he didn’t have the smoothest start. A short soft opening in May didn’t prepare him and his newly assembled staff for the onslaught of demand that followed: They were overwhelmed and stayed that way for a while.
“The only problem we had was a good problem to have but you still have to face it, and that was so many people coming in the door the minute we opened,” he said.
Things have settled down some. Maybe just for the moment: Moore already has secured his second location, in Semmes. That store should open in a few months. For Moore, who started working for Col. Dixie when he was 14, it’s exciting to think about the possibilities.
“Even though we’re an old name,” he said, “we’re a new business.”
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The Colonel says …Lawrence Specker | LSpecker@AL.com