Memphis Gets Its Groove Back
Many thought the city’s gold record days were done, but now it’s climbing the charts
Memphis is the reason I'm here. It's where my parents met and had their first date at the Memphis in May International Festival. Even though I didn’t grow up there, the city has always felt like my second home. Whether I’m driving down Union Avenue, walking past Overton Square, or sitting in the lobby of The Peabody hotel, I’m experiencing the city’s dynamic present, overlaid with memories of my family’s past.
At The Peabody hotel, it's 1943, 1984, and 2017 all at once. My grandmother dances to big band music on the Skyway while my mother sits on a sofa in a sequin dress and heels and I sip a gin and tonic in the Lobby Bar. Over on Elvis Presley Boulevard, I see my grandfather photographing the chaotic scene outside Graceland the day the King died 40 years ago.
On North Watkins Street, the old Sears, Roebuck and Co. distribution building where my great-grandmother Mittie worked has been reimagined as the Crosstown Concourse, a buzzing hive of lofts, restaurants, and start-up spaces.
With all the revitalization, it’s easy to forget that, not so long ago, many thought Memphis had lost its soul. The lights of Stax Records, home of Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding, went dark; once-shiny downtown developments were left cavernous and lifeless; the recession brought a whole new kind of blues to the city. On annual pilgrimages back, my parents didn’t recognize the Memphis they loved. The coat of paint Mama had put on the tiny porch of their first house near Rhodes College was all chipped away.
But now, the Bluff City is back because residents believed—literally. The words “Believe Memphis” appear printed on the T-shirts of Memphis Grizzlies basketball fans and painted on the windows of Silky O’Sullivan’s pub on the bedazzled Beale Street. The words have been stamped on the spirit of the city where you don’t see it so graphically. From nationally recognized restaurants (that aren’t all about barbecue) to renewed neighborhoods and progressive start-ups, Memphis has its groove back.
If there’s one thing Memphis is known for, aside from barbecue and Elvis, it’s the ducks that march twice daily from the elevator to the fountain at The Peabody, a tradition that began in the 1930s when a few hunters placed their live decoys in the lobby fountain. While the ducks steal the show, this historic hotel stands apart from the fanfare with a mesmerizing, kaleidoscopic ceiling of stained glass and inlaid wood over a marble mezzanine (with old-fashioned phone booths intact) and a bustling lobby that’s a great spot for grabbing cocktails and people watching.
More options have opened downtown, including the industrial-chic Hotel Napoleon with modern fixtures contrasting with exposed brick and oversize gingham drapes. . If you think a Graceland stay sounds cheesy, think again. At The Guest House at Graceland, , a newly constructed hotel, the vibe is much more Blue Hawaii chic with just the right amount of Viva Las Vegas. Away from the business of downtown, in Memphis' Victorian Village neighborhood, there's the ornate James Lee House (pictured above). Jose and Jennifer Velázquez bought the home from the city for $1, but their restoration of this former home belies that miniscule down payment. Splurge on The Isabel Suite, a catbird seat encircled by five arched windows and the original door that students doodles on when the building was the Memphis College of Art.
With the opening of Catherine & Mary's, chefs Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman have become as synonymous with the Memphis food scene as ribs and dry rub. on the bottom floor of the renovated Chisca Hotel (now a luxury apartment building) builds on their Southern-Italian cooking connection. Inspired by their grandmothers (the restaurant’s namesakes), Catherine & Mary’s combines the spirit of their playful pizzeria, Hog & Hominy, with the elegance of their first endeavor, Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen. Their fourth location, Porcellino's Craft Butcher (a hybrid coffee shop, butcher, and bistro) offers house-cut steaks, homemade cannoli, and their staple tomato sauce, “MawMaw’s Gravy,” in to-go containers. Don’t miss the dim sum-style lunches, at which servers push small plates on wooden carts.
Embedded within the booming bunch of newly constructed apartments along the Mississippi River, Loflin Yard, has worn in quickly with Memphians who come to relax and listen to live music on a sprawling, Adirondack chair-spotted lawn between two buildings that were once a locksmith shop. Line up at one of two ordering windows outside the bar for a barrel-aged Negroni and chicken wings smoked with white French oak and dressed with pickled cucumber salad and chili garlic sauce.
Tucked into the darling downtown of Cooper-Young, a neighborhood with a bevy of bungalows, The Beauty Shop Restaurant serves fresh, produce-driven dishes in Priscilla Presley's former "curl-and-dye spot," now decorated in Mad Men fashion. Reserve one of the glass-walled booths under an original Belvedere dryer hood.
While there are other hidden gems to discover, like the Korean Bi Bim Bop Burgers at the Kwik Chek convenience store on Madison Avenue (trust me), and rum-spiked banana shakes at combination venue, table tennis bar, diner, and ice cream shop Railgarten, there’s the business of barbecue. there's also the business of barbecue.
Nonbelievers might call this downtown joint a tourist trap, but don't pay them any mind. The beehive-like basement known as Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous (with its coal-fired, Greek-seasoned ribs) remains a gold standard of the dry rub style. Worth the drive to the suburbs is Germantown Commissary, a former general store that prevails as a local favorite; each pulled-pork plate is dotted with a deviled egg. each pulled-pork plate is dotted with a deviled egg. Central BBQ goes steady with the college set, who come for the pork-topped nachos. Other tried-and-true 'cues to taste: Cozy Corner Restaurant, Payne's Bar-B-Que, and Tops Bar-B-Q.
WATCH: What To Do In Nashville
There’s no better place to start off a morning in Memphis than the patio of Muddy's Bake Shop in Midtown in midtown with a latte and a ginger scone, but don’t be surprised to find yourself returning later in the day for another coffee refuel and pick-me-up slice of pie from a case brimming with Technicolor treats.
Anchoring the Broad Avenue Arts District, Wiseacre Brewing Co. founded by brothers Kellan and Davin Bartosch, has developed a cult following with colorful, intricately illustrated can designs and a laid-back attitude toward craft beer. Fans pour into their taproom to drink pints of Tiny Bomb, a floral Pilsner, or Gotta Get Up To Get Down, a coffee stout. Down the street, The Cove mixes a kooky pirate-ship ambience with impressive drinks while hosting bands and Lucky Cat Ramen, a popular pop-up serving Asian specialties.
Downtown dive destination Earnestine & Hazel's has had such past lives as a pharmacy, a beauty parlor, and a brothel. Now revelers come to listen to local acts while cooks sling their signature Soul Burgers on the well-seasoned griddle. If the jukebox is playing your song, it might not be a coincidence; reportedly haunted, the vintage machine has an uncanny knack for picking the perfect tune for the moment. Nearby, Paula & Raiford’s Disco may appear an unassuming nightclub from the sidewalk, but inside it reveals a glowing, phosphorescent jungle of rope lights and a light-up dance floor. Although co-owner Robert Raiford passed away this year, his daughter Paula and other family members keep the party going.
For more sophisticated cocktail sipping, settle into one of the jewel-tone wing chairs near the fireplace at the Mollie Fontaine Lounge in an 1886 mansion. In the South Main neighborhood, sign up for a tour of the newly reopened Old Dominick Distillery by the great-great grandsons of the company’s original distiller. Take advantage of their unmatched view of the skyline from the rooftop framed by an oversize sign featuring a neon speckled rooster.
Billed as "Kindergarten for Grown Folks," Five in One Social Club combines a gift shop where customers can peruse a selection of “Made In Memphis” T-shirts and tchotchkes with a community workshop where participants learn about indigo dying, printmaking—even cutting old wine bottles into glasses. Just two blocks away on Broad Avenue, City & State, another split-personality shop, serves pour-overs from a rotating cast of regional roasters in one room and curates a selection of goods from local artisans in the other, like ombre-glazed Danish coffee mugs by ceramicist Brit McDaniel of Paper & Clay.
From Big Star to Booker T. & the MG's, the Memphis music section at Shangri-La Records is where to find the classic vinyl, while Goner Records, a Cooper-Young shop and label, is helping write another chapter in the city’s music history. (Tip: On the way there, stop at the big red “I Love Memphis” mural at the intersection of Cooper Street and York Avenue for the city’s most popular Instagram photo op.). Inside the sprawling new Crosstown Concourse building, The Curb Market has grown into a full-fledged co-op and grocery store with a butcher counter and another for prepared meals. Stop by to pick-up locally produced honey and grits.
Despite all its new development, parts of Memphis remain frozen in time as reminders of the city’s integral place in American history and culture. At the National Civil Rights Museum, housed in the former Lorraine Motel, a wreath of roses hangs from the balcony where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated nearly 50 years ago. With a recent $27.5 million renovation, the museum’s new layer of technology helps transport a new generation of visitors to iconic events of the Civil Rights Movement. Watch King’s “Mountaintop” speech that was given at the Mason Temple in Memphis.
While tourists head to Beale Street, locals hit Lafayette's Music Room on Overton Square to hear Memphis musicians like John Paul Keith.
In a tiny room on Union Avenue, you can touch the walls where the sounds of an 18-year-old Elvis Presley’s debut recording reverberated for the very first time. Sun Studio, square footage belies its impact on American music. It launched artists from Johnny Cash to B.B. King. The site of Presley’s first concert, the Levitt Shell, stands as one of the last remaining band shells built by the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. Nestled into Overton Park, the rainbow-like venue produces 50 free concerts every year.
Down in the Jungle Room, the waterfall still cascades in front of a sea of palm green carpet, but today visitors to Graceland can click on their own iPad tablets for a deeper look, via videos and narrated stories (by Elvis superfan John Stamos). In November, red velvet drapes and glowing white trees appear throughout the house to mark the start of Christmas at Graceland (Presley’s favorite time of year) along with a public lighting ceremony that illuminates the life-size Nativity scene and hundreds of blue lights along the driveway.
Another Memphis icon, Stax Records and The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is celebrating 60 years of hits from artists like Isaac Hayes and Carla Thomas. While the city almost lost the seminal studio of soul music, its reopening in 2003 has given a home to artifacts like the organ used in “Green Onions” and Hayes’ custom, fur-lined Cadillac. A new charter school and music academy adjoin the facility now.
Although visitors are quick to head to Beale Street, you’ll find locals listening to John Paul Keith and other Memphis musicians at places like Lafayette’s Music Room in Overton Square and Hi Tone on Cleveland Street.
But where you’ll really find the spirit of Memphis is in the stands at a Grizzlies game at FedExForum, where this NBA team has become the physical manifestation of the city’s momentum. Their “grit and grind” style gave them a historic season and brought Memphis a new nickname: “Grind City.” Fitting for a place coming back from the bottom; fitting for one whose citizens don’t stop believing.