Live Music and
By Debi Lander | Photography courtesy Adam Morgan & Blue Canoe
Restauranteur Adam Morgan knows how to keep Tupelo’s diners happy.
From the street, you might overlook this restaurant, but if you know Tupelo, Miss., you know the Blue Canoe. The favorite haunt of locals and tourists attracts crowds with its self-billed “good mood food” and original live music seven nights a week.
Born and raised in Tupelo, Adam Morgan saw a need for a casual restaurant that would serve craft beer, offer a unique menu, and be a gathering spot for live music. He opened Blue Canoe in March 2011, along with three other crew members, as he calls them.
“We have a loyal customer base, supplemented with the overnight tourists from 15 nearby hotels,” Morgan says. “Thankfully, we stay crowded most of the time.”
Tupelo is, after all, the birthplace and boyhood home of Elvis Presley and attracts visitors from around the world.
Morgan’s crew has grown to 14 employees whom he considers family. “We all work together. Everyone takes care of each other and looks out for one another.”
The unity creates an atmosphere that translates to excellent customer service and happy diners. “I have minimal turnover; some of my employees have been with me since the start and most of the others for over five years,” says Morgan.
Morgan is an example that culinary school or a chef’s background isn’t required to be successful. “Crew” is the right description for the group that cooks together. They even help choose the daily specials. No one has been to culinary school, but they pride themselves on creating unique, hands-on bar food. Their passion shows in the presentation and taste of the dishes. The most popular entrée is pork and greens: pulled pork with North Carolina barbecue sauce over local cheese grits, kickin’ greens, and cornbread.
“The bar started with 19 craft beers and now sells 46, all on tap and about half of them Mississippi made,” says Morgan.
The bar is known for its more daring house drink called a “Honkey Red.” It’s a shot of Makers Mark backed by another of collard greens broth.
Connie’s Blueberry Donut Bread Pudding with blueberry sauce is the featured dessert. The entry racked up another win in the best dessert category in a statewide contest, which the dessert has won four times over the last six years.
“The idea just popped into my head, and it [the dessert] is now one of our main calling cards,” says Morgan. He drops into Connie’s, also in Tupelo, to pick up 30 to 40 dozen donuts a week, just to make that one dish. The crew blends the cake-like donuts with a batter, then bakes and drizzles fresh blueberry sauce and a dollop of whipped cream on top.
Choosing a name for the restaurant was a bit of a challenge, Morgan remembers. He expected a name to come to him during the renovation work. The owner oversaw the transformation of an old hair salon with eight rooms into what now looks like an old, open barn. However, he started to get frustrated as a name never came. Then, his fondness for music brought to mind a ’90s band he liked from Oxford, a group known as Blue Mountain. Their song called “Blue Canoe” stuck in his head. He phoned the front man of the now-defunct band and asked if he could name his restaurant after the song. He was assured they didn’t own the title, so Blue Canoe it became.
Appropriately, the band got back together and played at the restaurant about two weeks after they first opened. Over the years, other well-respected groups that played the Blue Canoe included Gary Clark Jr., Alabama Shakes, Leon Bridges, Ryan Bingham, Tyler Childers, St. Paul and the Broken Bones.
Still, Morgan felt he needed more than just the name, he wanted to showcase a wooden canoe in the building. He combed the internet but found only plastic boats. Finally, he discovered a 17-foot wooden blue canoe in a pawn shop in Arizona. The sellers had to build a box around it to ship it to Tupelo. Today, it highlights the dining area. Morgan says the restaurant name sometimes mislead folks. He occasionally gets calls asking if they rent kayaks or other boats.
The Blue Canoe crew also pulls an oar for the broader Tupelo community – they are involved with many charitable projects. The restaurant helped raise money for the new Humane Society’s shelter. (The outdoor area of the restaurant is pet-friendly.) The staff hosted a Petty Fest – think Tom Petty – and all entry fees were donated to the Crossroad Ranch, nearby Itawamba County’s nonprofit community for disabled adults.
The Blue Canoe has been so successful that Morgan recently opened another restaurant named Pizza vs. Tacos. It’s an upscale place serving Detroit-style pizza and elevated tacos with tortillas made daily from freshly ground corn. To compare the two restaurants, think of Blue Canoe as a bar with a restaurant whereas Pizza vs. Tacos is a restaurant that happens to have a bar. The new eatery is designed to be more kid and family-oriented, thereby the two restaurants keep everyone in Tupelo happy and well-fed.