Smoking on the patio after a steak dinner in Jackson.
Editor's note: Tico's has changed its smoking policy, and now allows cigar smoking on the patio only.
Here's a unique restaurant scenario if ever there was one: My friends and I sit down, order our drinks and light up our cigars...at the dinner table. A couple in their mid-40s sit down next to us, call the manager over and, after a brief discussion that's obviously about our cigars, are promptly moved to another table.
Talk about role reversal. Now, this scenario probably wouldn't seem that out of the ordinary in, say, Cuba. But this was Mississippi. At Tico's, you can smoke cigars in the bar, in the dining room--hell, you can smoke in the bathroom if you want. The place is 100 percent cigar friendly, and nay-sayers be moved!
"We decided at the outset to make the whole restaurant cigar friendly," said Preston Grace, Tico's manager, in his sing-song Mississippi drawl. "Our patrons like it that way, and we like it that way."
Preston, we like it that way, too.
Set back from the road amidst tall pines and oaks, Tico's is a barn-like structure with a pitched roof and varnished exterior. It's rustic inside, too, with exposed wooden beams and a tiered seating arrangement. On the main dining-room floor, tables are set against a wine rack that extends the length of one wall. Stairs lead down to another level of tables; this sunken area is situated around a wood-burning fireplace.
At first glance, the two most striking things about Tico's are the crustacean behemoths jockeying for position in the lobster tank and the extraordinary looks of the exceptionally friendly all-female wait staff. I order a Knob Creek and my companion gets a Martini (both $6.50). If these prices seem a bit high for the Deep South, that's because you haven't seen the size of the glasses. For what a beer might run you in a major metropolis, Tico's fills a goblet-size highball full of whatever your poison may be.
"Our generous pours are sort of what we're known for," said Grace. "All our drinks are at least 2 1/2 ounces, usually more." The bar is set off to the side. On the walls hang TVs and pictures of the owner, Tico Thompson, usually with a visiting celebrity or state legislator. (In case you failed fifth-grade geography, Jackson is the state capital.) The bar's often crowded, since tables in the restaurant are sometimes hard to come by without a reservation. Apparently, Mississippi folk believe in getting up in the middle of dinner to visit with friends and acquaintances at other tables, so dinner tends to last a bit longer. When the state congress is in session, Tico's becomes a haven for legislators and lobbyists, especially during the workweek. Under the low-turned lights--and over sizzling plates of beef--deals are struck, alliances are formed and bills takes step toward becoming laws.
We order appetizers of gulf crab claws--one order southern-fried, the other marinated in Italian seasoning. Now, I went to grad school in Baltimore, a place that prides itself on its bountiful and delicious blue crabs, so I was skeptical of these gulf crabs. I shouldn't have been. For $5, you get a more-than-ample plate of tangy, spicy claws, which are best enjoyed by sucking the meat off the cartilage inside. If that sounds gauche, just remember that Jackson is nearly spitting distance from Louisiana Cajun country, where sucking on crawdad heads is de riguer.
Tico's cigar-friendliness may get you in the door, but it's his Angus beef that'll keep you coming back. You can get a ribeye, like I did, for $17, or opt for a 13-ounce filet mignon with a salad for $22. When I ordered mine black and blue, the waitress didn't even blink, and when the meat arrived it was as tender, as flavorful and, yes, as bloody as I'd hoped.
Less carnivorous types can order Maine lobster for market price, which in the current market is about $16 a pound. The smallest lobster in the tank would run you about $32.
Tico's wine menu is somewhat limited, and lacks vintage dates, but a few highlights include Opus One ($110) and a few nice Cabernets from Beringer in the $40 range. There's no vintage Port, but Tico's offers a decent selection of Scotches such as Glenlivet and Glenfiddich (both $6.50).
As for cigars, the humidor stocks such stiffly priced premiums as Macanudo Vintage Crystal '93s ($25), H. Upmann Chairman's Reserve Robustos ($25), Paul Garmirian Gourmet Series Robustos ($10), La Gloria Cubana Churchills ($12) and Dominican Cohiba Torpedos ($20.) Again, expensive for the South. Our recommendation? Bring your own smokes. If you're forced to buy a cigar at Tico's, ease the pain--and complement your smoke--with a $6.50 tumbler full of Remy Martin VSOP. Not at the bar, but at your table.
Tico's Steak House
1536 East County Line Road
Jackson, Mississippi 39157
4:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday
4:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday