Don’t let the unassuming red-brick facade and humble patio fool you: Proud Larry’s may look like your average small-town pizza joint from the outside, but it’s a venue that has played host to musical legends.
One of Oxford’s nightlife institutions, Proud Larry’s, a unique combination of restaurant, bar and music venue, has staged live shows by artists ranging from Warren Zevon and Elvis Costello to John Mayer, Modest Mouse and The Black Keys. And it has been making melodic memories—and crowd-pleasing pizzas, pastas and burgers—since 1993.
April 15, 1993, to be exact. That’s the date when Ole Miss college sweethearts Scott and Lisa Caradine turned their shared hankering for pizza by the slice and blues music into monthly rent in a former fabric and lingerie store on the Square.
They christened it Proud Larry’s, even though, as Lisa Caradine said, there never was an actual Larry.
“The most common question we get is, ‘Where did the name come from?’” she said.
“There’s not any big, great exciting story” behind the catchy moniker, Scott Caradine said. “We looked at names like Isle of Capri and Fat Slice, but Fat Slice was already taken by a California store. Proud Larry’s was on our board as an option, and we just needed a name so we could sign the articles of incorporation.”
Did they suspect, at the time, that they were creating what would become a local landmark with a national reputation? “Oh, hell, no,” Scott Caradine said.
They were just a couple of youngsters with a massive learning curve ahead. “If we had known then what we know now about actually running a business,” he added, “there’s no telling what we could have done.”
Scott Caradine grew up in Cajun country—Lafayette, Louisiana—and sampled delicacies from his mother’s busy kitchen. An avid cook himself, he paid his way through Ole Miss with restaurant gigs around town. Lisa, meanwhile, hails from the blues- and cotton-rich Mississippi Delta. From the beginning, they formed a dynamic team, with Scott handling the kitchen and booking live music and Lisa crunching the numbers. “Our goal was simple,” Scott Caradine recalled. “We thought it was a good opportunity to bring pizza by the slice, some quality beer and live music to the Square.”
The only problem: Proud Larry’s lacked a pizza oven. “We started looking for deck ovens in good shape, and we found some at a used equipment store,” Scott Caradine said. Unfortunately, the vintage ovens were mismatched. The industrious Caradines, along with their initial college-buddy business partners, had to jury-rig the ovens with cinder blocks to make them fit together.
With pizza ovens in place, the next step was perfecting their dough recipe. The Caradines took some road trips to try out pizza hotspots in New York and Chicago. “After a lot of experimentation, we came up with a thin-crust recipe infused with herbs—just to be cool,” Scott Caradine said, with a chuckle.
Soon, pizza favorites like the Italian sausage, pepperoni and Canadian bacon-laden “Fat Larry” and the veggie heavyweight “Garden of Larry” were driving sales. Pasta dishes also headline the menu, including The Ronzo, featuring Creole-seasoned, pan-seared catfish with steamed broccoli and squash, named after local legend Ron “Ronzo” Shapiro, along with New Orleans-inspired entrees like the Jambalaya and Shrimp and Grits.
And no order is complete without a side of Proud Larry’s famous French fries—Scott Caradine uses only Idaho potatoes, soaks them overnight in water and double-fries them before topping them off with a special seasoning blend.
The food menu notwithstanding, Proud Larry’s has a vibe all its own. By day, it’s family-friendly and laid-back; by night, it’s a bustling, loud, high-energy nightspot that has booked acts ranging from Pokey LaFarge to Jason Isbell to Jason Carter.
How much more eclectic can you get?
From early headliners like Mayer, Zevon and The Black Keys to newcomers like The Holy Ghost Electric Show and American Aquarium, famous and soon-to-be-famous musical acts have made their marks on Larry’s little stage. Scott Caradine still books all the bands himself, striving to balance local favorites and new sounds, and goes largely by his gut.
“Sometimes an act doesn’t necessarily work, but it helps, when you’re talking to agents, to take on an up-and-comer so you can get the act you really want down the road,” he said.
Lisa says the Proud Larry’s team has worked hard to find that sweet spot, where family dining and musical merriment harmonize in perfect pitch. “Proud Larry’s is unique in that respect,” she said. “It’s a juggling act to load in a band in the evening while our customers are still enjoying their meals and a glass of wine.”
But it’s an act the Caradines have mastered over the years. When national publications and websites like Travel & Leisure, Thrillist and the Daily Meal draw up their lists of America’s best college bars, Proud Larry’s usually makes the cut. But Scott Caradine said success is about much more than being a cool watering hole for the college kids.
“We think our staying power is mostly due to our consistency,” he said. “After two decades in a demanding restaurant market, we are serving some of the best food we’ve ever cooked. We’re honored to be considered an Oxford landmark. We’re a well-oiled machine heading in the right direction.”
An expanded version of this article, written by Andy Knef, originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of PMQ Pizza Magazine.