What’s a man to do after a 38-year career in the construction industry?
Start working 12-hour shifts at a restaurant, of course. If, that is, you are Mike Smith, who spent nearly four decades working on power poles in Jackson.
After retiring, he said he felt bored. A friend mentioned there was a business for sale in Diamondhead — the Red Zone Bar and Grill.
Smith visited with his wife, Patricia. Even though they had no connection to Diamondhead or the Coast, it didn’t take them long to decide they wanted to buy the Red Zone. And for good measure, they bought a condo in Diamondhead.
Now, two years later, Smith spends most every day at his restaurant, arriving early in the morning, hours before the place opens, and staying until the evening. He said he just takes care of odds and ends, delegating the operation of the restaurant to his cook and manager.
“I hang around and fix stuff and wash dishes,” he said.
His manager, Danielle Smith (no relation), begs to differ. She attributes the restaurant’s success over the past couple of years to the owner’s management style.
“We tried to turn it into a place my wife and I liked to go,” Mike Smith said.
What that means is a restaurant that is clean and comfortable, fun but not rowdy, with a well-known, well-made menu.
Burgers at heart
The centerpiece of the Red Zone’s menu is its burger section, which includes such fare as the Hawaiian ($9.95), which comes topped with mushrooms and pineapple, and the Mellow Mushroom ($9.95), which comes topped with sauteed onions, mushrooms and swiss cheese.
The Wake-N-Bacon ($10.95), which comes topped with bacon and a fried egg, caught my eye when I visited.
Fries or homemade chips come with the burgers. I chose fries and settled into a dark corner to enjoy the air conditioning and Pink Floyd playing softly over the speaker system.
My burger arrived tall and leaning at a self-confident slant. Slices of well-done bacon hung over the edge of the bun, and a fat, glistening tomato slice sat on top of the bacon. I looked closely at the burger, checking for the promised fried egg — yep, there. I was pleased to see some yolk had run out and pooled around the bottom bun.
The burger was good but not aggressive in any way. The soft textures of the patty, tomato, cheese and egg complimented each other, with the crisp bacon and grilled bun adding a bit of contrast. The whole thing was rich but not too rich, manageable, tasty and complete.
I also tried the French Dip po-boy ($10.95), which my waitress recommended. It came stripped down to its essentials: thin slices of beef, melted cheese and French bread.
What made the sandwich was the large cup of jus that came with it. Dipped in the dark brown liquid, the sandwich was moist and salty. A couple times I could not resist the temptation to see just how much jus the sandwich could absorb, and I dunked it for a good long time.
‘An old people place’
Mike Smith ambles around his restaurant throughout the day checking on customers, who he says he treats like friends. He describes the bar and grill as an “old people place” (there were at least two ostensibly happy 20-somethings there when I visited).
“I can say that,” he said. “I am one.”
One of the adjustments he made when he bought the bar was bringing in older, more traditional musical acts on the weekends. Bands play Saturday nights on a large stage in the back. The restaurant also hosts trivia and karaoke every week.
He said that until about 7:30 p.m. each day, he runs a restaurant that serves alcohol, and after 7:30, he runs a bar that serves food.
Multiple big-screen TVs hang around the room. When I was there diners could choose between a trout-fishing show, the SEC baseball tournament, or golf.
The restaurant has an industrial feel, with an exposed metal ceiling and ducts and a large garage door on tracks in one corner. The big, open dining area is ringed with heavily tinted windows. The flags of state universities (with LSU and Alabama included) provide decoration, along with military flags and neon beer signs.
Off to the side, high on a wall, Mike Smith added a personal touch: a framed, 48-star flag that belonged to his father, a World War II veteran.
Red Zone Bar and Grill
What: A clean, comfortable “community bar” with a burger-centric menu
Where: 101 Live Oak Drive, Diamondhead
When: Open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday)