I write about food and travel while roaming around the U.S. in my RV
The city’s bragging rights as the home of the blues and the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll needs an addendum that includes “one of the most delicious cities on the planet.” That’s not hype. After five days of feasting around Memphis, I was hungry for more. Here are a few highlights from a fun and very filling trip.
A love story
This isn’t your typical go-here-eat-this city dining guide. I have a deeply personal connection to Memphis, having lived and worked there as a food writer and restaurant critic in the early 2000s. It might sound unlikely, but very shortly after moving to Memphis from Spokane, Wash., I felt more at home in the city than I had in most places I’d lived. Can’t explain it except that the culture in this part of the world celebrates food like no other place I’ve been. Love at first bite? Probably.
When our family moved back to the West Coast three years later, I made a vow that I’d visit my friends and favorite M’town haunts at least every two years. That mission was going pretty well until I got laid off from my dream job in 2017 and my husband and I cooked up this kind of crazy game plan: We sold our townhome in Seattle for double what we paid for it and bought an RV.
After getting in late, I woke up the next morning with a walk down South Main Street to Virtue and Vice Coffee at the Arrive Hotel, a beautiful boutique property steps from the National Civil Rights Museum. The avocado toast my friend ordered looked yummy, but I was so happy to greet the day with a messy-good open-faced egg salad sandwich from the Hustle and Dough Cafe. Grab a knife and fork for this one.
After breakfast, I checked out the cool shops in the neighborhood and took in the jaw-dropping lobby at the stunning Central Station. This historic train stop has been converted to a luxury hotel under the Curio Collection by Hilton banner complete with a secret listening room, an epic vinyl collection and Bishop, a French-inspired brasserie. Oh, I definitely need to book a room there next visit.
You could spend an entire day at the National Civil Rights Museum and still not see it all. Because I’ve been to this museum many times, I stopped in to revisit a few of the exhibits that made a lasting impact on me. That included the re-creation of the Montgomery, Alabama, strike that began when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. It lasted nearly 400 days and showed the world the collective strength of African Americans determined not to be treated like second class citizens. Walking down the aisle of that vintage bus while a the driver hurls insults is powerful.
What I hadn’t realized until this visit was that the owner of the hotel was so distraught about the tragedy, she had a heart attack and died shortly after learning of the assassination. Heartbreaking history that we must never forget.
A comfort food lunch at Soul Fish Cafe in Midtown started with crispy catfish and ended in one of the best slices of caramel cake I’d enjoyed since the last time I was down South. Why don’t more bakers from coast-to-coast make this lovely layer cake? Probably because it’s a big pain to make. I know because I’ve tried to recreate it and nearly burned myself trying to manage that molten icing.
Dinner downtown at the newly relaunched Flight required a bit of explanation from the stellar server: Any of the entrees can be ordered in a starter size and combined for a flight, which can then be paired with a flight of wines chosen to complement the flavors of the food. Or, there are flights that are already put together. Or you can order any of the entrees on its own.
While pondering all the options, my friends and I swooned over fried oyster-topped deviled eggs embellished with bacon jam. This outstanding appetizer might sound over-the-top rich and it certainly belongs in that category, but its beauty was in the contrasting flavors and textures.
When dinner landed, I’ve got to admit there was some serious entee envy as I looked around the table at the creations put together by executive chef Eduardo Murillo and his team.
Especially the gorgeously golden Joyce Farms chicken breast on a buttermilk waffle and the Diamond Head Ranch quail served alongside andouille cornbread smothered in Tasso ham gravy. Mmm-mmm!
As much as I wanted to hit the fabulous Panta for a nightcap, the jetlag and food coma converged and I had to call it.
I hit the pavement pretty early, walking on Main Street to the Pinch neighborhood, home of the venerable Westy’s and the new-ish Comeback Coffee. That stylish spot has been a smash hit and is in expansion mode, updating the space next door.
One of the many reasons you’ve got to love Memphis is that some of the historic brick buildings that have sat empty for years are getting a new lease on life. That’s also true on Broad Street, which is a vibrant neighborhood home to the beloved Muddy’s Bake Shop and a groundbreaking sushi spot called Salt/Soy. I’ll be back to try the country gravy dumpling with red eye ponzu and the smoked duck yakisoba.
For lunch, I returned to one of the iconic spots that convinced me to move to Memphis back in 2004. Everybody’s got an opinion about Charlie Vergos’s Rendezvous and I’ve heard many locals say you can get better ribs here or there. Maybe. But those charcoal-cooked bones speak to me, a congenial conversation lifted up by bites of tangy slaw and sweet baked beans.
Savoring my solo meal at the bar, watching the constant swirl of activity – that dance the polished Rendezvous servers do like nobody else – sipping on a sweet tea, it officially felt like I was home again.
The mission that evening was ambitious, but a couple of serious food enthusiasts got on board for a three-stop swing around East Memphis. First up was Acre, a lovely house that’s been transformed to a welcoming restaurant and a cozy bar with cleverly named cocktails. I asked the bar manager if Memphis Grizzlies superstar Desmond Bane had been in to try the drink named in his honor. “Not yet,” she said.
Founding chef Wally Joe was born and raised in the nearby Mississippi Delta and began his life in the kitchen at the family’s restaurant in Cleveland, Miss., in 1989, later opening a namesake restaurant in Memphis. Through the years, he’s been rightly recognized as one of the leaders of the region’s culinary revolution.
On the restaurant’s website, he lays out his approach to cooking: “It’s really quite simple, there is no magic involved in my cooking,” he says. “My food is not fusion as practiced by many chefs. I insist on using the absolute best products available and do as little as possible to them, allowing each component of a dish to maintain its integrity and identity. When you start with high standards, you don’t have to rely on a lot of ‘razzle-dazzle’ to impress the guests. The food will speak for itself.”
The gorgeous whole fish preparation is a prime example of that philosophy, pulled off with artistic aplomb by executive chef Andrew Adams. Lightly breaded and fried, the plump pompano was presented on the plate as if it were swimming upstream. Truly a work of art and simplicity that was also deeply delicious, as was the duck fried black rice on the side. Bravo and well done!
Dory was the second stop on our moveable feast, another chef-driven spot where it’s tough to land a reservation. Obviously, our party couldn’t jump in mid-stream for the evening’s prix fixe offering, so we sat in the bar and enjoyed some well-made cocktails – including outstanding NA options – and small plates.
Chef Dave Krog and his wife Amanda named the restaurant after their adorable daughter, Doris, building the business around the mission of promoting locally sourced ingredients and zero waste in the kitchen.
A fermented onion salt that finished the seared duck breast is a prime example of that approach, a note that added so much umami to the flavorful preparation.
For round three, we didn’t have far to travel. Hog and Hominy was right across the street on Brookhaven Circle. This comfy-casual venue from Michael Hudman and Andrew Ticer was recently relaunched after a fire shuttered the first H and H.
The new – and improved – version looks like a little like an airplane hanger staged by a Hollywood prop master. The soft lighting sets the warm and welcoming tone and the packed bar added to the party vibe. It was a Tuesday night and it felt like Friday.
Andy and Michael – who I first met nearly 20 years ago when they were working for chef José Gutierrez at Chez Phillippe in The Peabody Hotel – have become a dynamic duo, now with six restaurants under their tasty umbrella including Josephine Estelle in New Orleans.
Hog and Hominy is best known for its wood-fired pizza and Southern-style small plates with an Italian spin. This is the kind of menu where I want everything, but, hey, this is our third stop, so… OK, scratch the restraint. We go big before we go home.
Memorable bites included the signature collard greens with Newman’s Farm bacon and, yup, hominy, sautéed okra with basil pesto, agrodolce, Calabrian relish, pistachio, brightened by a squeeze of lime and the Buffalo pig ears, sliced thin and fried crispy. The What’s the Dilly O’ pie marks the first time I’ve ever seen cheesy mayo as a pizza topping, serving as the foundation for a creation that reminded me of a summer tomato sandwich. Loved it.
Are my pants starting to feel snug yet? Not really… because I’d been getting my steps in and one of the coolest places to do that is by walking across the Mississippi River on the Big River Crossing, a pedestrian/bike path that opened a few years ago. Stunning views of the storied body of water, which was down dramatically during my visit.
I also loved walking to the new outdoor sculpture behind the University of Memphis law school downtown celebrating suffrage pioneers. Designed by noted artist Alan LaQuire, the “100 Year March” is a 70-foot long series of 9-foot tall wall panels representing women marching for their rights from 1918 to 2019. It’s jaw-droppingly beautiful and truly moving.
All this walking in Memphis was making me hungry. If it were my intention to eat my weight in biscuits, this would be the city to try and make that happen. That’s what I was thinking as I pulled into the parking lot at Sunrise Memphis, where the sign out front reads: Pour Some Gravy on Me.
The King Biscuit Bowl breakfast was an over-the-top sublime combination of country ham, an over-easy fried egg and what’s this? A piece of fried chicken for good measure. Lard have mercy, I barely put a dent in that ultra-rich dish.
My friend took the lighter route and ordered Bi Bim bowl, char siu pork, over easy eggs, kimchi, scallion, pickled daikon, served on sticky rice. It was a stellar study in contrasts, the savory pork playing well with the tangy veggies.
Chef Ryan Timm’s playful menu brings together the classics and Next Level preparations, as those perfectly executed dishes demonstrated.
After breakfast, I did a little retail therapy on the booming Broad Street, stopping in at Muddy’s Bake Shop’s new location. This popular bake shop covers a lot of sweet territory and regulars have their favorites, but I can’t pass up the gingerbread molasses cookies.
When lunch rolled around, I met some barbecue-loving buddies at my all-time favorite, Payne’s on Lamar. A family owned-and-operated shop that serves the best pulled pork sandwich I’ve ever eaten, the slow-cooked meat graced with the proper amount of “bark” and sweet-spicy sauce and the best slaw.
Flora Payne and her grownup kids, Ronald and Rachelle, have been bringing their A game for decades, garnering well deserved attention from national media outlets. You can taste the love and care that goes into the food.
Instead of giving into an urge to take a disco nap before dinner, I hit the Dr. Bean’s counter in the incredible Stock and Belle boutique on South Main. Cool space to hang out and recharge while sipping an excellent latte showcasing the micro-roaster’s skills.
Dinner at Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen was the site of another happy reunion with friends I haven’t seen in far too long. We caught up over a steady stream of spectacular dishes: cornbread made from house-ground meal, foccacia we slathered in whipped ricotta, fried green tomatoes, rigatoni tossed in a Calabrian sugo, pork belly, pancetta, serrano peppers and the heartwarming Maw Maw’s ravioli.
It was all so flat-out delicious and yet the conversation so compelling that I spaced taking photos of some of the pretty plates. That lapse speaks to the tone of many of my meals. Yes, the food was wonderful, but it played a supporting role to the celebration of friendship. That’s what dining at the Southern table is all about and I’m so there for that.
If you’re going for lunch at Alcenia’s, it’s best to get there on the early side of noon to avoid the crowds. This Southern soul food cafe recently celebrated its 25th anniversary with the vibrant B.J. Chester-Tamayo serving up family recipes with a whole lot of sass.
I’m a long-time fan of the fried chicken, sweet potatoes and greens, but on this visit, a friend ordered the meatloaf and loved it. Putting that dish on my must-try list for next time.
At this point of my trip, I was starting to get the blues about leaving. A week wasn’t nearly enough time to try everything new and revisit my essentials list. Guess I’ll just have to come back soon.
Before heading to the newly relocated Restaurant Iris for dinner, I dipped into the super cool rooftop bar at The Memphian. Wow. Starting with the life size zebra statue resting near the top shelf spirits behind the bar to the crystal giraffe balancing a chandelier in its mouth, the Tiger and Peacock makes quite an impression. Reservations are a must at this haute spot.
I met my friend Michael Donahue in the busy bar at Iris. Getting a table in the dining room is a challenge as the place is booked out for weeks in advance.
While we studied chef Kelly English’s Creole-inspired menu, a dozen people stopped by our table to say hey to Michael. He’s a Memphis legend, chronicling the city’s lively party scene for decades in The Commercial Appeal. He’s now writing about dining and music and events for The Flyer, the city’s excellent alternative weekly. Michael knows everybody and everybody wants to talk to him, but I told him he couldn’t get up to gab unless there was a legit celebrity in the house.
The mega-watt star power turned up on the plate.
These days, chef Kelly has moved to front of the house at Iris, gliding through the stylish space, making sure everyone’s happy. Russell Casey and crew are crushing it in the kitchen judging by the fantastic meal we enjoyed.
Don’t you dare miss the crab au gratin, a preparation made extra special by the fat pieces of lump crabmeat and the Béarnaise sauce browned under the broiler. Spectacular.
As was my Étouffée-smothered grouper and Michael’s trout swimming in an incredibly rich mushroom cream, also known as Sauce Sylvia.
You’d think dessert would be out of the question after those indulgent mains, but we couldn’t possibly pass up the final course from pastry chef Inga Theeke. Days later, I still can’t stop thinking that Bananas Foster Tres Leches Cake. Stunning.
Yes, I’m starting to feel the need to lighten it up a bit, so I ordered mixed greens with a fried egg on top at The Complicated Pilgrim, the restaurant on the main level of The Memphian. It was just what I needed. Oh, and better get a side of grits, too.
I spent the day running some errands, if you can call stocking up on goodies to take home at The Peanut Shop and Dinstuhl’s Candies a chore. Both spots on downtown’s Main Street are well worth a visit.
Then, it was time for my last supper before heading to a Memphis Grizzlies game. I went back to another old favorite, Karen Carrier’s gorgeous Beauty Shop. This Midtown gem has been making people happy for 20 years, yet it still feels fresh.
Digging into a delicate apple and arugula salad punctuated by pretty pomegranate seeds was like a tonic. Our party of three shared an excellent butterflied trout and an ear of Mexican-style street corn. Pure bliss.
Miss y’all already, Memphis!
If you go…
In the spirit of exploring new venues and enjoying old favorites, I split my stay between the historic Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis and The Memphian in Midtown.
The Peabody’s lobby is as grand as ever, especially in the mornings and afternoons when the resident ducks make the journey between the rooftop aviary and the fountain. It’s quite an entertaining parade.
While the spacious rooms are comfortable, I was surprised by the lack of some basic amenities: no mini bar/fridge, no in-room coffee, no robe. And judging by some of the peeling wallpaper in the bathroom and the tired carpeting in the hallways, the Peabody could use a refresh.
The Memphian delivered on all levels starting with easy guest parking to rooms with a lot of funky style. Located near Overton Square, the Playhouse and Ballet Memphis, it seems to embrace that artsy vibe of the neighborhood, especially in its welcoming lobby.
“This was originally published on forbes.com“