Beyond Beale Street
Call it grit. Call it soul. No matter how you slice it, there’s something about Memphis. Like the snaking Mississippi River—that great torrent that forms the city’s watery western border—it won’t be tamed. The essence of the city flavors everything from its signature bathed-in-smoke dry-rubbed ribs to the trendiest of small-plate restaurants. And with the city celebrating its 200th birthday this year, there’s never been a better time to get a taste of it for yourself.
EAT AND DRINK
For breakfast, head to the Liquor Store, a diner for the Instagram generation. You can’t go wrong with the cuban platter—rice, beans, plantains, and a veggie—topped with fried eggs. Of course, the restaurant lives up to its name (a reference to the building’s former occupant) with a full bar menu, which includes plenty of booze suited for brunching. Matcha milk punch, anyone?
Come lunchtime, there’s no need to look beyond the city’s stellar lineup of working man’s food. Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken has locations around the South (and even a couple in California), but the Memphis outpost is widely considered its flagship. Plastic gingham tablecloths and neon signs provide the perfect lowbrow ambiance for its spice-is-right, sinfully crispy chicken. Across town, Payne’s Barbecue may be the definition of no-frills, but its chopped pork sandwich smothered in tangy sauce and mustard slaw won’t have you wanting for anything else. (Though if hot tamales are on offer, you should grab an order.) And just south of Downtown, meat-and-three mainstay the Four Way has fed the likes of Aretha Franklin, Jesse Jackson, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Hip Midtown is where you’ll find a duo of eateries from New Orleans-born chef Kelly English, who taps his hometown for culinary inspiration. There’s modern creole, white tablecloth Restaurant Iris and the Second Line, the younger, more casual sibling where you’ll wash down your roast beef po’ boy with a local draft beer. And English isn’t the only one trying multiple restaurants out on Memphis—after earning much acclaim for Italian-meets-Southern Hog and Hominy, Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman opened the Gray Canary last year. Inside the cavernous industrial-chic space, small plates reign supreme—order the parker house rolls and gruyère-dusted country ham and build your own bite-sized sandwiches.
It’s practically a rite of passage to end a Memphis evening at Earnestine & Hazel’s, a storied (some say haunted) dive bar that counts a church, pharmacy, jazz club, and brothel among its past lives. A downstairs barstool perch is the perfect vantage point for watching soulburgers, the house specialty, cook up on the flattop. But don’t stay seated for too long—the jukebox there is the best in town.
Music has shaped Memphis, and it’ll do you well to get a proper education while you’re in town. Head to Sun Studio, the recording house of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis; and Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which documents the social and musical contributions of Southern soul powerhouse Stax Records Inc.
Back downtown, the National Civil Rights Museum—which sits on the grounds of the Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. King’s 1968 assassination—is a powerful experience every American should have in their lifetime.
With its sleek, mod design, downtown’s newly opened Hu.Hotel harkens back to the heyday of Memphis soul music. But there are nods to the city’s present too—take the minibar stocked with local snacks and spirits. Do yourself a favor and set aside a sunset to take in the sweeping view of the Mississippi from the rooftop bar.