Most of the bars surrounding the perimeter of the historic Square in Oxford, Mississippi, cater to the social lives of students attending Ole Miss just up the hill. But there are holdouts, like the upstairs bar at City Grocery, which draws an older crowd, and Saint Leo, an upscale Italian-inspired restaurant known for wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizzas and inventive cocktails with names mined from pop culture, hip-hop and deep-cut cartoon characters, created by their head bartender, Joseph “Joe” Stinchcomb.
The kitchen at Saint Leo closes at 10 p.m. but they’ll keep serving drinks at the bar until the clock strikes 1 a.m., Oxford’s official last call time. At this time of night it’s typically a mix of diners hanging out for a nightcap or friends of the bartenders popping in for a cocktail to make plans for hanging out after. I stopped in just before the kitchen closed on a slower night. Before ditching his apron to join me for a bacon, sausage and pork belly pizza, Stinchcomb made me The Clyde, a tequila cocktail rounded out with pinot noir, rooibos tea, lime and bitters named in honor of Clyde Goolsby, a well-known black bartender from Oxford who ran the Prince Albert Lounge at the Oxford Holiday Inn in the 1980s. This was a drink left over from his short-lived and controversial Black History Month menu that stirred up a heated dialogue that extended miles beyond Oxford.
This is the time of the night when Stinchcomb and his fellow bartender Delantric Hunt typically adjust the playlist from Anderson .Paak, Miguel and Kendrick Lamar to a more late-night vibe. “We’ll get a little more grimy. Lay down some Young Thug, some 2 Live Crew. Turn it up man, and let’s get happy,” says Stinchcomb.
After our late dinner, Stinchcomb busted out a suitcase bottle of Amaro d’Abruzzo, a gift brought back from Italy by one of his regulars, and poured a round while he laid out a rough draft of our plans for the rest of the night. As part of my research for my forthcoming book, Last Call, I’ve been traveling around the country with photographer Ed Anderson to chronicle stories of bars around America—dives, cocktail dens, hotel bars, neighborhood haunts—as filtered through closing time. One part of this spirited adventure is tagging along with bartenders as they wrap up their shifts to see where the night takes them.
For our first stop, Stinchcomb wanted to hit up Snackbar, John Currence’s bistro located in a strip mall, to catch up with bartender Ivy McLellan. At 11:30 p.m. we were nearly the only customers at the bar. McLellan stirred up a drink called Stop Your Nonsense & Drink Your Bourbon, made with bourbon, Cynar, and Angostura bitters, served over a giant ice cube flavored with strawberry and yerba mate. We hung out for just over a half-hour then knocked back shots of Fernet-Branca before hailing an Uber to The Blind Pig, a basement bar with 23 beers on tap beneath a women’s boutique called Miss Behavin just off the Square.
“It’s where everyone who works in restaurants goes,” says Stinchcomb. As luck would have it the young man driving the 2016 Chevy Silverado was a pizzaiolo at Saint Leo (“Hey, I made your pizza earlier!”) and ended up chauffeuring our expanding crew around for the rest of the night.
After closing down their respective bars, Hunt and McLellan joined us at “The Pig,” as it’s lovingly known among regulars. Multiple bottles of Bud, Miller High Life, and Dos Equis were passed around and when shots of tequila, Jameson and gin (Hunt: “Who drinks shots of gin?” McLellan: “Alcoholics.”) made the rounds, I discovered I shared a mutual fear of horses with Stinchcomb (long story). I got ready to leave when the bartender called last call, but Hunt motioned for me to chill. After a stream of college students exited the bar, Hunt lit up a cigarette and asked for a small plastic cup of water to use as an ashtray. Stinchcomb pointed out the mixed bag of industry regulars—bartenders, baristas, servers—who were locked in with us, and explained that the owners were typically cool with letting those in the know hang out for a bit past closing time.
“I love it here at this time of the night,” says Stinchcomb. “It’s dank and dark.” As it neared 2:30 a.m. and we had reached our limit of beers and shots. Hunt implored us to, “get out of here,” and we all pitched in to bus our glasses and help put the stools up on the bar.
When you’re in Oxford and you’ve had more than a few and are hungry at that hour of the night, you make your way to the Chevron service station on South Lamar for their famous fried chicken on a stick. The chicken was between batches but Stinchcomb went back into the kitchen and somehow sweet-talked the kind woman working the fryer into making us a fresh order. While we waited under the florescent glow of the gas pump lights, Hunt and Stinchcomb took selfies with a Lafayette County Deputy Sheriff on his coffee break, while McLellan passed around bottles of ice-cold Gatorade and two bags of Funyuns. Around 15 minutes later we were all sitting on the flatbed of the Silverado pounding our Frost Riptide Rush-flavored Gatorade, ripping open packets of honey mustard sauce and burning the roofs of our mouths, too hungry and impatient to let the chicken cool down.
Before we said our goodbyes and made plans to meet up at Big Bad Breakfast in a few hours, there was one last stop to bookend our late-night crawl through Oxford: Saint Peter’s Cemetery to pay our respects at William Faulkner’s grave. We parked the truck and walked through the wet grass until we located the headstones of Faulkner and his wife, Estelle. The sky was filled with stars and there were two sunflowers placed atop each grave along with dozens of scattered pennies. We didn’t have any bourbon to pass around or leave behind for Faulkner, but after a long booze-fueled night full of laughs, stories and chopping it up, we took a respectful pause and sat there in silence until the mosquitoes chased us away.