When talking about Memphis, people tend to pit it against its eastern neighbor, Nashville: Beale Street versus Broadway; Predators versus Grizzlies; BBQ versus Hot Chicken; does an IKEA grant one city more legitimacy than the other?
But that does Memphis a disservice. It doesn’t need to be compared to anywhere else. Memphis doesn’t need a warehouse filled with Swedish flat pack furniture to win a culture contest. (Although if we’re keeping score…) Where else can you stand in the room Elvis Presley recorded his first song, see ducks march into a fountain inside a hotel lobby, have ribs so good they don’t need any sauce, and listen to Al Green preach a sermon? Exactly. And while some people might say the city’s best days are behind it, its dining scene now says otherwise. To paraphrase Tom T. Hall, if you love food enough, that’s how you’ll get to Memphis.
Whether you’re devouring a chopped pork sandwich at Payne’s or sitting down to handmade pasta at Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, there’s still no questioning the soul, sincerity, and sense of place Memphians put into every dish and drink they make, just like their music.
If you’re a fan of the Bluff City already, it’s easy to get all Marc Cohn about the place. (My parents had their first date at Memphis in May and my grandmother worked at Overton Square. I know the feeling.) But if you haven’t been in a while or ever, now’s the time, as the Grizzlies say, to believe in Memphis.
Porcellino’s Craft Butcher
711 West Brookhaven Circle
Chefs Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman’s latest outpost (next door to their pizzeria Hog and Hominy) is equal parts fantastically disorienting and comfortingly familiar. (If your house was built before 1980, there’s a significant chance you might recognize the black-and-white honeycomb tile on the floor.) The concept shifts between whole animal butcher shop, local coffee joint, casual cafe, and Southern-Italian tapas spot with daily specials pushed on a horrifyingly cute jadeite-colored cart dim sum-style. While resident head butcher Brad McCarley’s charcuterie plate is a carnivore’s playground (lomo adobado, filetto, mortadella paté, proscuitto bianco, merguez snack stick, lamb capicolla, pickled tomatillos, kim chi, sauerkraut, and dijon mustard), you would be remiss not to take advantage of their veggie-centric small plates like the okra served with toasted biscuit crumbs and a brown butter vinaigrette. It would be a downright travesty to miss the coffee custard with salted oreos (!) and hazlenut brittle.
7 West Carolina Avenue
New on the scene, Loflin Yard, like an upscale, super-sized juke joint, serves an oasis in Memphis’ bustling South Main Arts District. Multi-colored Adirondack chairs dot its huge back lawn where locals sip on craft brews and Loflin’s specialty barrel-aged cocktails (Try the Boulevardier or the Tennessee Whiskey Old Fashioned.). Order up a brisket po’ boy with crispy peanut slaw through the window of the Safe House (formerly a locksmith shop) and take it out to the front yard past the super-scenic babbling brook and waterfall to catch a set from Memphis musicians like John Paul Keith or Star and Micey.
Muddy’s Bake Shop
585 South Cooper Street
In a world where coffee shops and bakeries seem to be in an arms race to create the most white subway-tiled, intimidating, motorcycle-festooned (Seriously though, what is that?) shrines to caffeine and bespoke donuts, Muddy’s makes for a refreshing, relaxed community gathering spot. Grab a cold brew and a Deluxe Chocolate Chip Cookie or a slice of pie from the bakery case (The Nancy’s Boy is coconut chess. Need I say more?) and head out to the patio to sit a spell in their retro, pistachio garden chairs overlooking Cooper Street.
Wise Acre Brewery
2783 Broad Avenue
Conversely, in a world where almost everyone including your Uncle Randy has abandoned their corporate job to start a craft brewery and taproom, they all begin to blur together much like the points during that 10th game of cornhole. The technicolor glitter acorns adorning the tap handles at Wiseacre should alert you that this is not that kind of brewery. Anchoring the west end of the Broad Avenue Arts District, brothers Kellan and Davin Bartosch’s highly stylized watering hole pours inventive beers that taste as unexpected as the colorful artwork on their cans (illustrated by Rachel Briggs). We love their light, honeyed pilsner Tiny Bomb for those steamy, hair-expanding Memphis evenings (We even gave it a Southern Living Food Award this year.), but if you drift toward the dark side of the beer spectrum, you should try their Gotta Get Up to Get Down coffee milk stout. Better yet, order a whole flight to drink in their bumpin’ back lot surrounding two towering grain silos.
Earnestine and Hazel’s
531 South Main Street
Earnestine and Hazel’s is a mandatory pilgrimage site on the Southern dive bar trail just as Stax Museum of American Soul Music and Sun Records are must-visits if you’re a music geek. While the bar itself has only been around since ’92, the building has been in the middle of Memphis history for a long time. Originally a pharmacy, it was owned by Abe Plough who found success inventing a hair straightening product and Coppertone suntan lotion. He in turn gave the building to two sisters and hairstylists who worked upstairs, Earnestine and Hazel. They, along with Earnestine’s husband Sunbeam, turned the pharmacy into a [insert air quotes] cafe [end air quotes] where musicians would eat and have a, well, good time, typically after playing Sunbeam’s Club Paradise nearby. After sitting vacant through most of the '70s and '80s, it’s now where Memphians go to eat Soul Burgers (nothing fancy, but only $6 and wildly satisfying) and throw quarters into the legendary jukebox. The jukebox is rumored to be controlled by the ghosts that live upstairs, and seem to have a knack for eerily picking the perfect song for the moment.
2013 Madison Avenue
Two unassuming buildings occupy either side of Madison Avenue. The brick building that looks like it might be an insurance agency is Ardent Studios associated with such legends at Big Star, James Taylor, Sam and Dave, R.E.M., John Prine, and Isaac Hayes. Across the street, is one of our favorite gas station restaurants. (Seriously, we have a whole list.) Complete with the requisite “Kw” instead of a “Qu” in the name, this fuel stop cafe specializes in Korean-Mediterranean cuisine. While the homemade hummus and kimchi burrito don’t disappoint, The Bi Bim Bop Burger has become the dish of obsession with locals: a beef patty topped with stir-fry veggies, a sunny-side-up egg, spicy Korean sauce, and mayo on a sesame seed bun.
596 South Cooper Street
At this neighborhood grocery store right across from Muddy’s Bakeshop, you can find locally sourced groceries from Relevant Roasters coffee beans and Uncle Murle’s BBQ Sauce to Beverly’s Smoked Chicken Salad from T and T Catering that locals snatch up like kids catching Pokémon on their smartphones. Head to the back of the store toward the deli to pick up a salad, soup, or sandwich made with produce from nearby farms.
Gus’s Fried Chicken
310 South Front Street
For better or worse, fried chicken is the poster dish of the South, and for many, Gus’ is the gold standard by which good fried chicken is measured, not just in Memphis, but the entire region. While we’re not much for rankings, indeed, Gus’ gets up there with best of the best. (Shhh Don’t tell Nashville.) The crust shatters like a mason jar dropped on a linoleum floor; the meat, juicy as a July tomato with a gentle heat. It’s just a bonus that their mac ‘n’ cheese comes with a sprinkling of finely shredded cheddar on top or that they serve three different pies: pecan, chess, and sweet potato. In short, Gus’ represents many of the reasons we don’t live above the Mason Dixon line.
923 South Highland
Despite where you stand on Yelp’s contributions to the dining world, it is still a hard-won achievement to earn 5 stars with 110 reviews. Derae has just that, and it’s not difficult to understand why. While the menu still might have pictures on it, the flavors and execution of each dish, from the fava bean stew known as fuul topped with a rainbow of spices and garnishes, to the goat prepared in a traditional tanoor oven with rice, belie its humble exterior.
Arguing about who has the best BBQ in Memphis is a national pastime, and one we often engage in. But for the sake of time, sanity, and space, I’ll just leave this down and dirty list of five favorites here. Talk amongst yourselves.
Central BBQ: While relatively new in Memphis’ BBQ pantheon, Central has quickly won locals and visitors over, especially with their unorthodox pulled pork nachos topped with BBQ sauce, cheese sauce, shredded cheese, jalapenos, and a light dusting of BBQ seasoning.
Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous: There are those who now think it’s cool to talk smack about Rendezvous, but while the haters are hatin’, you should go enjoy some of the best ribs the South has to offer—still charcoal fired and spiced with Charlie’s Greek-inspired seasoning.
Payne’s Bar-B-Que: Payne’s, much like videos of infants and puppies snuggling together or Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long,” is generally beloved. Their chopped pork sandwich with mustard slaw will fix whatever problems you might have had prior to sitting down in their modest cinderblock Valhalla of smoked meat.
Germantown Commissary: While this former general store (also known as a commissary back in the day) might take a drive into suburban east Memphis, just the mere offering of a deviled egg as a standard feature on every BBQ plate makes the trip extra worth it.
Cozy Corner: When Cozy Corner’s kitchen caught on fire last year, firefighters found people still eating in the dining room and had to force them to reluctantly abandon their partially eaten rib plates for their safety. That seems like a pretty good testimony to me.
I’ll be heading back to Memphis during Elvis Week in August. Follow me on Instagram at @hayeshannah.