Have Mercy Southern Table and Bar beckons from an old brick building just north of ever-bustling Whyte Avenue. Perched above El Cortez Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar, it appears like a Texan apparition at the top of long flight of rickety stairs. Eyes take a moment to adjust to the dimly lit room. Patsy Cline croons in the background, patrons on bar stools sip bourbon on the rocks and old school neon signs hum in this upstairs room's semi-darkness. One would almost swear that an evocative haze of smoke hangs in the air like the residue of past conversations, even though smoking in restaurants has long been outlawed.
Yes, this is Have Mercy. Like its sassy name suggests, this Southern kitchen has presence, but not pretense, as evidenced by cocktails that arrive in camping-style enamelware mugs. A smoky and botanical Always a Pleasure, Leroy ($10) shakes together bourbon, smoked lemon juice and herbsaint, while a Have Mercy Old Fashioned ($12) is as good a test of the barkeep's mettle for libation mixing. It passes with flying colours, tempting with lushly nuanced 100-proof bourbon given a nudge of sweetness from honey-amarena syrup.
Have Mercy's brief menu is proclaimed in sliding plastic letters above the open kitchen and might be a Coles Notes summary of classic Southern American dishes. Shrimp and Grits ($17) are a tempting duality of creamy, cheesy corn grits sidled up to chunky tomato-andouille gravy studded with shrimp. Pity that the shrimp still had their tails on (one unfortunate diner did not realize this until far too late). The tomato gravy is summery and gently spicy but the grits, which are redolent with rich and mild cheese, are the real winner. A side of Collard Greens ($5), which are a rare find on any Albertan menu, balances darkly bitter wilted greens with cubes of sweet country ham.
A half-rack of Memphis Dry-Rub Pork Ribs ($18) is disappointingly dry, and the spice rub has scarcely penetrated the meat. Instead, it hovers indecisively above the ribs like a paper stratum. Sides of Succotash ($5) and Hush Puppies ($9), which are a buttery corn-bean mixture and deep-fried spheres of cornmeal, respectively, are both true to their Southern roots. Fried Chicken and Doughnuts ($18) is a cardiologist's nightmare. Here, the dish is exactly what the name indicates: crispy fried chicken perched on a glazed doughnut. It's an indulgent juxtaposition of two different classes of deep-fried goods – protein and starch – that meshes in a guilty-pleasure sort of way. It isn't a dish one would order on a regular basis, but it might very well cure any residual morning-after angst brought on by one too many Jack Daniels.
Have Mercy immediately enchants with its honky-tonk vibe, and one is hesitant to leave its easy comfort for the bracing cold of an autumn night. The atmosphere alone is reason to linger, though the food is a half-step behind. Stay, though, and order another round of hush puppies. If you're lucky, you might see the ghost of Roy Orbison lurking down the long staircase as Only the Lonely whispers in the rafters.