Delta Down Under
By Tracy Morin | Photography courtesy of Levon’s
An Australian transplant with a deep reservoir of restaurant and music venue experience finds a new venture — and an adopted home — at Levon’s in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.
When Naomi King, owner of Levon’s in Clarksdale, Miss., crossed the globe from her Sydney, Australia, hometown for a trip to New Orleans back in 2000, she returned home with a vision. Soon, King found herself as the unexpected co-creator of an Australian venue called The Vanguard, a dinner-and-show restaurant that Time magazine once hailed as one of the top 10 venues to see live music in the world.
“We had a lot of famous visitors and performers over the years, like Prince, Russell Crowe, Elvis Costello, and Toni Collette,” King recalls. “But it was a massive undertaking. I had never worked in hospitality, and it was a steep learning curve. My parents were massive foodies, though, and they required me to be an adventurous eater from a very young age.”
King quickly involved herself in all aspects of the business — and discovered a prodigious talent for her new calling. She spent her time choosing every last fixture, fitting, paint color, and wallpaper print; logging business reports; researching recipes and food trends; and ironing out finely honed wine and beverage menus.
“That business opened in 2003 and sold in 2010,” King says. “I vowed to never own a restaurant again!”
But after moving to Clarksdale from Australia in 2015, those plans were soon foiled. She landed in the blues mecca after another trip to the States in 2013 — a classic Nashville to New Orleans road trip — and arrived with the intent of investing in the Delta hotspot.
“It was Clarksdale that won my heart,” King admits. “For many Aussies, Clarksdale is a bucket-list destination, and I’ve had the pleasure of showing my Sydney friends around my adopted hometown. I even have some really talented musician friends who have blown off the roof at Levon’s.”
Levon’s opened in January 2016 in a tiny 22-seat shopfront on the corner of Third and Issaquena in Clarksdale. But it quickly became clear that Levon’s needed a larger space, so the business moved to its current location on Sunflower Avenue just months later, in May.
“It was a pretty rapid expansion, but our kitchen is now located in The Boat, which is a replica of a steamboat, but on land,” King laughs. “That property has had a number of memorable incarnations prior to our residence: an ice cream store, The Cream Boat; a record store and recording studio, Rooster Blues; and the Dreamboat BBQ restaurant. It’s certainly a wacky sight and adds to the charm of Clarksdale.”
With the help of King and her team of builders, Levon’s has since solidified a truly distinctive identity. “Visually, it looks a lot like a New Orleans restaurant or club, with a heavy dose of the Delta thrown in,” King explains. “I spent hours searching for just the right things to give Levon’s its unique vibe, and I just keep adding stuff to my collection.”
But Levon’s offers more than just a pretty face. Its menu is an ever-evolving collection that reflects not only King’s ideas but takes inspiration from staff and customers. King’s husband, Jonathan, is a fellow dedicated foodie, so the pair think nothing of driving hours to sample a legendary dish. But King also calls him “one of the best bartenders in the Delta,” with to-die-for Lemon Drops that fly off the bar menu.
Meanwhile, head chef Carl Jackson has now logged four years at Levon’s, crafting signature dishes that customers crave, from shrimp ceviche to authentic Louisiana-style gumbo. And fry cook Andrew Windfield is known locally as “The Catfish King,” thanks to his sweet, crispy, perfectly seasoned filets.
“I’ve become obsessed with modern Southern cuisine, and I make specialty items like deviled eggs, crawfish dip, bacon jam, monkey bread, and my own interpretations of favorites like banana pudding,” King adds. “We’ll continue to look toward New Orleans and Asian cuisines for future menu inspiration. We love that expanding our palates and technical skills allows us to create new dishes that take our wonderful customers on a culinary adventure with us.”
Of course, no down-home Delta experience would be complete without a healthy dose of live music, and Levon’s typically hosts live tunes two-to-three nights per week, tapping its well-developed stage and sound system for rollicking good times. For example, the Levon’s Sunday Ramble, now running for more than four years, has become a bona fide Clarksdale institution.
“Sunday has always been my favorite day, because it’s the day that we see everyone after church, and it’s also the day that tourists arrive in Clarksdale,” King notes. “I get to make Bloody Marys, Mimosas, and Corpse Revivers, and all is good with the world. Our Sunday Ramble is an example of how inclusive, friendly, and fun the Delta really is. Locals and tourists sit at my bar, listen to amazing local performers, and share stories about their lives. I’ve always wanted a ‘Cheers bar,’ and I have now officially realized my dream!”