INTRODUCTION TO MEMPHIS
Memphis is city that doesn’t get much press, but its gritty charm is hard to find elsewhere. I may be a tad biased as I used to live here—that still doesn’t change the fact that 7 years have passed and I now get to share my love of Memphis with my wife.
Soul food, blues music, and racial tensions have created a complex cultural narrative that is best understood by diving in head first. Below is a greatly abridged historical timeline emphasizing large developments in and around Memphis Tennessee.
ARRIVE FRIDAY NIGHT
After settling in your accommodation head out to Beale Street to catch some live Blues Music—feel free to stick your head in and choose a vibe that suits you. There are dozens of restaurants on and around Beale Street serving a variety of cuisine though you’ll mostly find soul food. See the bottom of the post for some Beale Street recommendations.
If you have the stamina after a day of travel and listening to some electric blues head over to Earnestine and Hazel’s on South Main St (pictures below). This local gem perpetually seems to stay under the radar despite its infamous history. The building has, in part, served as a brothel as recent as the late 1990s. You can order cheeseburgers and cheap beers until 3 in the morning while exploring the eerie rooms upstairs—some even come with a haunted backstory. If you’re interested in the history of E&H please click here.
Stop by a local coffee roaster in the Cooper Young, Midtown area of Memphis for a coffee and small bite to eat. Java Cabana has a cozy intimate seating area serving up some baked sweets and affordable coffees with free refills. If you want more of a standard breakfast selection then head over to Otherlands Coffee Bar, which houses multiple rooms and contains a larger but equally affordable food menu.
Walk around the trendy, yet unpretentious, Cooper Young intersection then head back downtown and check out The Peabody Hotel to watch the famous ducks waddle down from the roof, out of the elevator, and into the lobby’s main fountain at 11:00am (arrive early to get a spot). Google “Peabody Ducks” and you’ll understand what I mean or click here for a short video.
After watching the Peabody Ducks take a bath in a fancy fountain take a walk down South Main Street and then Front Street to see some of the city’s oldest buildings, which have been transformed into art galleries, shops and restaurants. You can visit the world famous Gus’s Fried Chicken—hold off on their sides as all the locals know that they just don’t come close to their fantastic chicken thighs. Get your fried chicken to go and enjoy it with a tasting at Old Dominick Distillery across the street.
You can take a stroll in Tom Lee Park, which sits along the Mississippi River, and is home to the world’s largest BBQ pork cook-off competition. A 5-minute drive from downtown takes you to Mud Island, a peninsula in the middle of the Mississippi River. You can park on the main street and walk among the quaint upscale neighborhood before heading back into the city by 2pm.
“Mud Island's main draw is Riverwalk, an outdoor, 2,000-foot-long scale model of the lower thousand miles of the Mississippi. Every sandbar, oxbow, and topographic contour is faithfully reproduced in cement. The river -- a little stream -- flows lazily south past minimalist cities and bridges rendered in steel.” Roadside America (click here for detail on the Riverwalk)
BBQ Tasting Tour 2-6pm: As you probably already know Memphis is world-renowned for its BBQ so do yourself a favor and sample the wide variety they have to offer. Where to start with so many options? Sign up for a BBQ tour to sample Memphis’s best variety of pork and beef barbecue preparations. Tastin’ ‘Round Town tours will take you to 6 of the best BBQ joints in the downtown and midtown area (Central BBQ, A&R BBQ, and The Bar-B-Q Shop just to name a few) . You’ll sample dry rubs to die for, falling off the bone ribs, barbecue nachos, and even barbecue spaghetti. Make sure you come hungry since you’ll spend 4 hours eating food.
End your night with drinks and live music at the Mollie Fontaine Lounge. This old Victorian mansion, located a between midtown and downtown, has been converted into a saloon with retro arm chairs, chic chandeliers, and multiple seating areas. Sip on cocktails and enjoy their soul food while listening to the baby grand being played in this hidden gem—a vintage venue in Victorian Village.
Brunch Tasting Tour—Make sure to save an appetite for City Tasting Tours, which starts at noon and takes you to 3 local brunch hotspots along S Main St. Owned and operated by Cristina McCarter, a Memphis native and former food blogger, this tour takes you to three local restaurants where you’ll sample a variety of southern brunch fare. Cristina is passionate about finding and sharing her love of local dishes. The tour includes savory southern comfort food and your choice of a mimosa or Bloody Mary at each stop. You’ll try different preparations of grits, poached eggs topped with blackened cat-fish drizzled with homemade hollandaise accompanied by a chorizo scramble, and crispy chicken and waffles. Of course everything comes with a Memphis twist—pecan butter and pimento cheese, anyone? Fill your belly and satisfy your soul in great company on this 2-hour tour.
Civil Rights Museum—The tour ends next to the National Civil Rights Museum, so it’s a great time to check out this historically significant site. This museum chronicles the civil rights movement in the US with emotional and informative exhibits. It’s a simultaneously powerful and sobering experience to wander the museum and learn about the struggle for civil rights. The museum resides inside the preserved Lorraine Motel—the locale where Dr. Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated. The former boarding house where the killer resided is open and part of the museum.
Kooky Canucks, as seen on the Man Vs. Food TV Show, has gained fame for the notorious Kookamonga burger, but the menu stands on its own. Specializing in generous portions of bar food and comfort food the owner’s personalize the menu with a “kooky” Canadian twist. Cheese curds or poutine, anyone?
At Kooky Canuck's there’s a burger for everyone—maple syrup candied bacon, fried green tomatoes, heaping portions of meat—pick your fancy. If you’re craving something on the lighter side you’ll be pleased by the extensive salad menu.
Don't miss the deserts! The skillet desserts arrive table-side sizzling in their caste iron pans. The divine fresh from-the-oven smell will empower you to devour the dessert no matter how full your belly. Striking the perfect balance of gooey and crispy, the cookie skillet is heavenly.
Flight is the place to eat if you’re looking for upscale dining but always seem to be asking your friend for a taste of their food. This intimate restaurant on Main St offers fabulous food in a unique way—serving almost everything on their menu in flights! Did I mention it’s rated as the #1 place to eat in Memphis?
Keep a lookout for Silky O'Sullivan's when you’re on Beale Street. They have dueling pianos every night and will play whatever you ask…for a small tip. It’s a dive inside but a great place to listen to some music—if you’re into piano music that is. Order The Diver—probably the strongest drink you’ll ever have in your life—and share it 4 ways or else you won’t be able to walk to your cab.
If you want something more Memphis Blues Style then don’t miss Rum Boogie Cafe, which is just across the street from Silky O’Sullivan’s. It was my favorite place to listen to music while living in Memphis. They have bands playing every night and the environment is fabulous—famous musicians donate their guitars which hang from almost every surface inside the venue.