Stepping into Hal & Mal’s is like slipping on a cool pair of old shoes that’re still comfy, still stylish and still perfectly capable of skipping out on a dance floor at a moment’s notice.
In addition to a breezily Gulf Coast-centric menu and a busy bar that keeps the spirits in action, Hal & Mal’s is a colorful, funky glimpse at the Capital City’s lunch-time, after-hours and weekend life. Get lost in the photos, posters, and memorabilia that crowd the walls, and you’ll know what I mean.
The History of Hal & Mal’s
Founded by and named for brothers Hal and Malcolm White, the restaurant, bar, and music venue has been a reliable hub for tasty eats, arty fun, social cheer, and lively music since it opened in the old GM&O freight depot building in 1986.
Hal & Mal’s operations started moving to the next generation around the restaurant’s 25th birthday — a transition sped up by Hal White’s passing in 2013. His daughter, Brandi White Lee now handles all things behind the scenes. “I have a wonderful staff that is on the front line, and I do all of our large events and off-site catering,” she says.
Hal White’s spirit is still very much present at Hal & Mal’s — a truth brought home by a new portrait that adorns the door to the Red Room, done by artist Laurin Stennis. He also lives on in the annual Hal’s St. Paddy’s Parade & Festival, for which Hal & Mal’s is the home base.
Malcolm White, who also is executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, sums up Hal & Mal’s role this way: “We are and have been a beacon for the revitalization of the cultural life, and a sort of jumping off place for cultural life in Jackson and certainly for downtown. We set out with that as a mission.”
Mission accomplished as Hal & Mal’s remains a gathering spot for events, music, benefits, nonprofits, wakes, “fill in the blanks,” he says. “It’s like a community center with booze.”
On the food end, keep an eye out for the Redfish Pearl or the Vancleave Po-boy, McGuire says. “If you see either one of those on the specials board, you’ll want to come eat that day.”
The Redfish Pearl is grilled redfish with sautéed shrimp and crabmeat in a white wine butter sauce, and the Vancleave is a sautéed shrimp and crabmeat po-boy with cheddar cheese. Hal & Mal’s staple strengths include seafood gumbo and red beans and rice — “We could sell out of those every day,” McGuire says — as well as the po-boy lineup.
He declares a personal love for the hand-patted burgers. I declare mine for the catfish po-boy, crisp-fried to perfection and heightened with a snap of sweet pickle. It’s such a consistent favorite that I won’t order it anywhere else.
Hal & Mal’s experimented with a lot of different things over the years. Its brewpub was “10 years too early, and we got out four years too soon” to catch the craft brewing craze, Malcolm White says, and the oyster bar and wood-fired grilling proved to be such pains they fell by the wayside. The entertainment market in big oldies bands, which Hal & Mal’s had long dominated early on, migrated to casinos.
Hal & Mal’s still does occasional big music shows, but now tends to offer more local and regional live music, with such a steady lineup folks can pretty much catch a groove any night of the week. They see a lot of tourists in search of local flavor, but the regulars keep them going.
“We’ve been in this business a long time. Places come and places go. Our success has been a long-term success, of sticking to the plan and doing what we do,” Malcolm White says.
“It is a simple formula of regional food, a community place, a family-owned and operated business. We tweak it here, there and yon, but mostly we try to make it appear that it never changes.”
Hal & Mal’s is open on Monday for lunch only. Tuesday – Friday they serve, lunch, Happy Hour, dinner and nightlife. On Saturday they open at 6 pm for dinner and live music.