The phrase "meat and three" doesn't resonate much as a restaurant concept in the Rocky Mountain West, even if the food is familiar: simple, down-home dishes like meatloaf, pork chops, fried chicken and all the attendant sides. But in Nashville and other cities in the American South, the meat and three, often set up as a cafeteria, is a familiar part of the dining landscape.
Mary Allison Wright and McLain Hedges moved to Denver from Tennessee and have earned a reputation here for their dedication to wine, spirits and hospitality through their boutique liquor store at the Source, The Proper Pour; their now-closed craft cocktail bar, RiNo Yacht Club, which was also at the Source; and their consulting work on beverage menus and service at restaurants such as Morin and Annette. But they're Southerners at heart, and have missed the cooking and convivial atmosphere of their favorite meat and threes.
That's why they're planning to open one of their own, to be called Door Prize. "This is a name that's been in our back pocket for a while," Wright explains. "It's from the John Prine song "In Spite of Ourselves.'"
They like the name because they're both big John Prine fans (their LLC is named In Spite of Ourselves), Hedges adds, and because it gives the sense that everyone comes out a winner.
The long-term goal is to make Door Prize a brick-and-mortar restaurant, so Hedges and Wright are currently searching for the right real estate. But in the meantime, they plan to introduce Denver residents to the meat-and-three concept through a series of pop-up dinners. While the pop-ups will give Door Prize exposure, the proceeds won't help get the restaurant off the ground. Instead, the money will go to Black Women's Blueprint, an organization aimed at achieving social justice for black women and girls.
"We don't want to do this in a way that doesn't acknowledge where these recipes came from," Hedges says. While most of the recipes they'll use for both the Door Prize pop-up and restaurant come from their families, the history of the food goes back much further. "This food originated with black women, but they haven't received credit historically," he notes.
The pop-up versions of Door Prize will follow a pay-what-you-can model to make the food accessible to as many people as possible. "I hope people still come even if they don't have anything to give," Hedges says. "This type of food is for everyone."
Door Prize will set up shop from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday in July at Fort Greene, 321 East 45th Avenue. Wright says that her brother, David (whom she also calls "Mary Jr."), is a chef who recently moved from Chattanooga and will be helping out with the pop-ups, and Hedges will be taking care of desserts (his seasonal peach pies were an insider's secret at the RiNo Yacht Club before it closed at the Source in early 2019). While a full menu hasn't quite been hammered out, details are available at @thebigdoorprize on Instagram. There will be live music, takeout food, and a few tables on Fort Greene's patio for those who want to eat there.
Plans for the brick-and-mortar version of Door Prize include canned and bottled cocktails, a range of natural wines, plenty of dessert options, and dishes from various parts of the South. Offerings will change daily, so there will generally be three or four proteins to choose from at any given time. "A lot of the food is classic, but some of it is specific to certain regions," Wright notes, mentioning white-barbecue chicken (a specialty of northern Alabama), catfish, meatloaf, smoked pork chops, squash casserole and pickled shrimp. That last item, Hedges explains, is a refreshing, chilled summer dish from the coastal areas of the Carolinas and Virginia.
While the restaurant menu won't be pay-what-you-can, they plan to keep the price point accessible, in the manner of traditional meat-and-threes. The main difference, Hedges notes, is that most of the cafeterias in the South don't have liquor licenses — but then, it just wouldn't be a Hedges and Wright project without booze.
As for other boozy projects, the RiNo Yacht Club has not been completely shelved. Wright says they were close to signing a lease for a new spot earlier this year, but that didn't work out, so they're still looking for the right space. The Proper Pour has remained open through the pandemic, with an expanded delivery area to bring the specialty wine, beer and spirits to a wider audience. Sara Bennett, director of operations at the Proper Pour, is a partner in Door Prize.
Southern meat-and-three restaurants are traditionally social affairs where customers meet after church or for family gatherings, but Wright and Hedges understand that social distancing may not be going away any time soon, so they plan to create an opening menu of dishes ideal for takeout orders. That shouldn't be a problem for a couple that knows what travel wells — bringing Southern charm and hospitality to Denver in a distinct and modern way that's a perfect fit with this city's dining scene.