Hal and Mal’s: Jackson’s Three-Ring Circus

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On Elvis’ birthday in 1985, two brothers opened the doors on their dream—a restaurant and venue that they’d been working toward for years. Harold and Malcolm White—”Hal” and “Mal”—wanted to do something a little crazy and a whole lot of fun in a downtown Jackson that hadn’t seen much of any sort of “renaissance” in a long time.

Hal and Mal’s clippings and decor (photo by Imani Khayyam)

Hal would cook—both men had been trained by their aunts in the art of Gulf Coast-style cuisine from an early age after losing their mother. They’d worked in the same restaurant in New Orleans and in dueling venues in Hattiesburg.

Malcolm would promote bands—given the huge amount of space they had at Hal and Mal’s, the team could book shows that would become legendary in the funky converted warehouse space that today sports four main spaces (Restaurant, Red Room, Big Room, Brew Pub) and various other nooks and crannies like the Oyster Bar, Patio and the new deck out back.

The rest, as they say, has been history… a very funky, lively, “three-ring circus” of a history.

Today, over 30 years later, the restaurant is still owned by Malcolm White and the White family, with Hal’s daughter and son-in-law, Brandi White Lee and P.J. Lee, at the helm. Malcolm is always at hand for advice or important decisions, but as the executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, he relies on the next generation of his family for day-to-day operations.

left to right: Alissa Joseph, Ryan Bell, Brandi White-Lee, P.J. Lee (courtesy Hal and Mal’s)

P.J. Lee took over the kitchen after Hal’s untimely death in May of 2013; he had learned to cook from Hal, in part because he wanted to get to know his father-in-law better.

“I didn’t know anything about golf or cooking; he taught me how to do both,” Lee says. “It wasn’t ‘do this, then do this,’ it was more of a conversation—and very social. Hal would start doing something and end up telling me the different stages of a roux. I didn’t realize I was learning this stuff from him. We were just cooking family dinners and having a good time.”

When Hal passed away suddenly, Lee found himself pitching in to help make a special dish for a party—the shrimp creole recipe he’d learned from Hal—and he realized that despite his degrees in law and literature, he’d found something he really loved to do—cooking.

“I was happy to learn that I loved something this much and that it has this amazing sentiment attached to it,” he says, waving an arm around to include the whole building.

Lee also notes that friends and supporters in the Jackson restaurant business—even from rival establishments—had to move quick to teach Lee how to run a commercial kitchen, even though he had some of the recipes down. That group effort helped keep Hal and Mal’s around after the unexpected loss of Hal.

live music in the Red Room (courtesy Hal and Mal’s)

Hal and Mal’s offers Gulf Coast-inspired dishes, made from scratch every day. Lee is quick to note that all the favorites are still on the menu.

The restaurant and venue has always been home to all sorts of events, from charity balls to wedding receptions to legislative cocktail hours and live music jams in the restaurant.

“If you dream it, we can have it,” Brandi White-Lee says. “Dad used to say ‘we get funky’—we enjoy trying to make your event happen the way you want it.”

In recent years, Hal and Mal’s has branched out to work with more partners on booking music—Arden Barnett (who learned some of his craft working under Malcolm White) books bands at Hal and Mal’s under his Ardenland umbrella, and promoters out of Oxford, Birmingham and the Memphis area book bands alongside White-Lee and her team.

And while there may be a reception on the patio and a rock or hip-hop show in the Red Room, long-time favorite local musicians are frequently playing blues, bluegrass, or jazz for free in the restaurant during dinner service.

The team has also branched out more into off-site catering, offering a uniquely Hal and Mal’s experience of what P.J. Lee calls “churched-up family food” mixing Southern and Gulf Coast styles to create quintessential experiences in other venues—or, for that matter, in someone’s backyard.

Catering options, on-site or off-site (courtesy Hal and Mal’s)

“Now it’s a traveling three-ring circus,” he laughs.

“The Brothers always wanted a place where people felt comfortable and could be in their own skin here. We are who we are; we’re still that for sure,” White-Lee says.

Today, the restaurant, catering business and venue are all a thriving, vital part of the Jackson landscape.

One reason? “You always know what you’re going to get at Hal and Mal’s!” White-Lee says.

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