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Southern cooking in the Big Apple

It's your typical southern scene: They've got ribs and hush puppies, Blue Devil shots, and Coyote Ugly-esque girls dancing on the bar. White Trash Wednesdays (when a southern ID gets you a 25 percent discount) and Atlantic Coast Conference game days always bring in a crowd, and it is well known as the place to go to "Put some South in yo' mouth," as its motto says. You'd expect to find a place like Brother Jimmy's in Durham... but in the trendy confines of Manhattan?


Duke graduate Jimmy Goldman first opened Brother Jimmy's in 1988, because he "thought there was a need for southern barbecue and ACC sports in New York City," says Josh Lebowitz, current president of Brother Jimmy's.


But Lebowitz, who bought the company from Goldman in 2000, said there's more to the restaurant than the food. "The core of it is barbecue [and also] the southern charm and the character of the South, which we were able to transport into the North," he said.


By catering to alumni from Duke and other ACC schools, the company gained popularity quickly. The place soon got so crowded that the owners relocated to a larger space at 77th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan.


Shortly after that, management opened two more locations--"The Bait Shack" at 92nd Street and Third Avenue, and "The West Side" on 81st Street and Amsterdam Avenue. Another branch will be opening next week in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass.


For Dukies, Brother Jimmy's is a home-away-from-home, where the Duke-blue flags are plentiful, as are familiar faces.


"I went because I heard it was a fun ACC bar with good southern food and a young atmosphere," said senior Holly Newman, who visited her sister in New York over fall break and made a special trip to Brother Jimmy's.


Senior Susan Wolff, who spent the summer in the city, also visited Brother Jimmy's several times. "It's a fun upper-east-side hangout where you can always see lots of Duke students and alumni. It's a nice change from the snobby NYC bar scene," she said.


Most of the staff members are in fact "straight southerners," said Tom Kiernan, owner of the original location on 77th Street. "We try to be as authentic as we can."


Unlike at most stiff New York restaurants and bars, staff members interact with customers on a regular basis, Lebowitz said. Waiters and waitresses often sit down at the table to take an order, and bartenders frequently dole out free drinks, creating a friendly and fun atmosphere that is decidedly southern.


The southern authenticity exists not only in the staff, but in the kitchen, where the handmade smoker--and the hickory wood burned inside it--comes from North Carolina. Goldman and Lebowitz even traveled down to North Carolina to handpick the ACC paraphernalia, old license plates and tobacco baskets that decorate the walls.


If Duke and Carolina are playing on television, you can be sure that Brother Jimmy's will be showing that instead of a Knicks game, Lebowitz said. On big game days like that, the customers are up to 90 percent southern, Lebowitz estimated.


But non-southerners and non-ACC alumni are frequent visitors as well--Brother Jimmy's now holds its place as one of the top nightlife hotspots in the city, according to the annual Zagat's nightlife guide.


Dave Occhialini, a Hobart College student who worked in New York this summer, was a regular customer at the Brother Jimmy's Bait Shack, often going three to four times a week, either to eat or meet friends.  

"I love the atmosphere," he said. "It's a college atmosphere bar away from college."


Lebowitz again attributed the popularity of Brother Jimmy's to the rare atmosphere of the place within the context of New York hotspots. "People feel like they aren't in New York anymore," he said.


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