From classic breakfast joints to buzzy new restaurants, here's how to spend a weekend in Memphis.
Memphis is closing in on its 200th birthday. The river town that gave the world rock ‘n’ roll and FedEx and epic slabs of Memphis-style barbecue — all from the rowdy spur jutting into the southwestern flank of the Volunteer State — is set to commemorate its bicentennial in 2019. Two hundred years of making history and making waves — which, of course, is certainly cause for celebration. But the thing about Memphis is it’s not just the big moments and the tourist magnets like Beale Street and Elvis’ palatial Graceland that give the city its globally resonant brand. It’s everything else, too.
From the indie music scene to the makers and artisans, the craft brewing community and the food culture here will render obsolete whatever you thought you knew about the place that once caused a writer for Esquire to declare, “Whoever said ‘Good things come to those who wait’ must have been in Memphis at the time.”
Get ready to kiss your diet goodbye and then walk off all the deep-fried foodstuffs it’s impossible to say no to here by visiting some of these memorable landmarks and hotspots in the Bluff City.
With some old-school Memphis soul tunes still in your head thanks to the city’s soundtrack playing nonstop at Memphis International Airport, grab your bags and ask the cab driver to take you Downtown to The Peabody, "the South’s Grand Hotel.” In addition to the warm welcome you’ll get from the staffers who’ll ask for and always address you by name, the Peabody is perhaps most famous for the twice-daily march of Mallard ducks to the hotel’s ornate lobby fountain. Another hotel option to consider would be the new Guest House at Graceland, a 450-room property with an entertainment complex that features restaurants, collections of Elvis memorabilia and more. You can also check out the late singer’s mansion, since, well, it’s also right there, part of the same area. Though you’ll likely have to wait until the next day, since tours of the home generally run until 5:00 p.m., depending on the time of year (you can double-check the schedule here).
If your flight didn’t arrive too late, it may be getting close to dinner time. Should you decide to go with The Peabody, you’ll already be Downtown, making it convenient to check out either of two new dining options from the James Beard Award-winning duo and Food&Wine Best New Chefs 2013 Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman. The Gray Canary and Catherine & Mary’s have attracted buzz, both within Memphis and likewise from the food press outside the city. The Gray Canary — Andy and Michael’s newest of the six restaurants they’ve launched — sits inside Old Dominick Distillery, so if you look around and decide the setting interests you while you’re eating there, consider coming back tomorrow to take the 45-minute tour of the grain-to-glass spirit-making facility. Old Dominick opened in 2017 and started aging barrels of locally made whiskey at the distillery for the first time in Memphis in 100 years. If you’ve still got some post-flight, post-dinner energy left, make your way over to one of the most famous streets in the world. Beale Street is a nearly two mile-stretch of Downtown comprised of restaurants, clubs, live music, partiers and generally raucous nightlife bathed in a gaudy neon glow from the panoply of signs that line the street.
Begin the day in the Broad Avenue Arts District, a funky, offbeat collection of shops and restaurants helping bring some vitality back to a neighborhood in the heart of the city. Start with The Liquor Store for breakfast— yes, it’s a restaurant, and that’s its name. The spot used to house a liquor store, and after the current owner bought it — she also, coincidentally, co-owns the retail store City & State about a block to the east — along with her husband thought it would be funny to put a restaurant there and call it that. They were imagining the future conversations — Where should we go eat today? I know, let’s go to The Liquor Store!
When you’re done, Broad also has an abundance of unique, locally owned shops like Falling Into Place, Five-In-One Social Club and 20Twelve. Incidentally, if you’re looking for a unique souvenir to take home to remember Memphis by, Broad Avenue may offer one of your best bets. Before you hop in an Uber or rental to head to your next destination — and that’s a consideration worth noting, by the way, that Memphis remains very much a spread-out city you’ll need wheels of some kind to visit — consider relaxing on the patio and ordering a Tiny Bomb pilsner at Broad Avenue’s Wiseacre Brewing. Also nearby is a combination bar-arcade called Rec Room. It has a selection of couches you can rent, you tell the staff what video game console you’d like, and then you relax while old-school Mario games are projected up on the wall for you to play. For lunch, check out Broadway Pizza on Broad, a family-owned pizzeria since 1977 that offers comfort food like pizza, burgers and more.
Before you call it a day, if the weather is nice, Shelby Farms can make for a relaxing afternoon. The parkland on the eastern edge of Memphis is five times the size of Central Park in NYC and will give you plenty to do — trails to walk, jog or bike around, plus horseback riding, paddle boats to enjoy on the lake, and more. For dinner, you’ll be in the same neighborhood as Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana — authentic Mexican cuisine in a setting decked out with posters and papers on which the owner has printed funny quips and sayings, some of which involve poking fun at other Americanized Mexican restaurants with pointed reminders that “we don’t serve that here!” And woe be to you if the owner, Pepe Magallenes, is the one sitting behind the cash register when you order and try to ask for something American-style, like cheese on your taco. Be prepared for a swift rejection and a gesture toward the menu and Pepe basically telling you, “There, that’s what’s available for you to order.” Glance around the wall and notice the photos of Pepe, including the ones of him, as a senior citizen, happily skydiving out of airplanes. That’s the man before you, who loves life and serving authentic Mexican cuisine.
If you’ve still got enough gas in the tank after all that, make your way over to Mollie Fontaine’s Lounge, a nightspot in a Victorian-era home in Memphis’ Victorian Village neighborhood that offers cocktails, light dishes and a DJ spinning tunes. It’s where a younger, millennial crowd — basically the beautiful people — hang out. A drink recommendation: try to the cocktail Mollie’s Spirit.
Among the things Memphis has in abundance are breakfast options that do simple extraordinarily well. Bryant’s Breakfast is one of those places. It’s not much to look at inside — your basic dive with somewhat spartan accommodations — but the biscuits are addictive. Get here early, by the way, if you plan to visit. The line of hungry diners stacks up quick.
With breakfast out of the way, time to hit a few music-themed stops. Depending on time, try at least one of these if you can’t do both: Sun Studio, the famous recording studio where Elvis recorded all his early hits, is close to Downtown. Inside the recording studio at Sun, check out the strips of tape on the floor that mark where Elvis would have stood. Bob Dylan, the tour guide will tell you, was so overcome when he visited Sun that he dropped down and kissed that very spot. Continuing on —local brewer High Cotton is just a short walk away from Sun, as is the Marshall Arts Gallery, for any local art fans amongst you.
The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is about two-and-a-half miles south. It honors the legacy of artists like Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers and features exhibits like an authentic century-old Mississippi Delta church inside to help visitors get a sense of the historic origins and traditions that gave birth to soul music. You can also see the Soul Train dance floor, Hayes’ 1972 gold-trimmed Cadillac El Dorado and more.
There’s still a lot more that can be packed into your final day. For lunch in a uniquely Memphis setting, head back in the direction of Downtown. You’re actually headed to the Crosstown neighborhood — to Crosstown Concourse, a 1.5-million-square-foot former Sears distribution center that was redeveloped in a $200 million project to create an urban village with residential, retail, commercial, education and healthcare uses. There are also a number of options there you can try for lunch, like Mama Gaia and Farm Burger. For dessert, it’s off to East Memphis — Muddy’s Bake Shop, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary, is an independent bake shop in Memphis that’s developed a devoted following. The menu is chock full of sweet treats with fun names — cupcakes with names like Strawberry Fields Forever, the Ashes of Old Flames, Pucker Up, Prozac and Frankly Scarlett.
It’s getting late, and we haven’t ventured along the river yet so it’s time to head back Downtown. Let’s start on the southern end of Downtown — the South Main neighborhood. A visit to the National Civil Rights Museum is something every American should plan to make at least once. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed while standing on that balcony, right there — it is a sobering sight to see the families standing there, silent, staring up at it. Pausing, reflecting. Among the exhibits inside, rooms 306 and 307 are preserved to show the way they looked when King and his entourage spent a quiet period on that fateful day in April of 1968.
For dinner, The Arcade restaurant is a couple blocks southwest. It’s a classic diner serving comfort food like burgers and is often sought out by location scouts for film shoots because of the retro design and vibe. The Arcade is also where Elvis had a regular booth before he became a mega-star. An alternative dinner spot: head back to Beale Street for a stop at Blues City Cafe. The barbecue herein is — let’s just say, there’s a reason this was one of Bill Clinton’s favorite places to eat in Memphis. The ribs here are succulent enough to make you see the curvature of the earth and elevate you to a higher plane of existence. Ok, we’re exaggerating. Slightly.
The Memphis riverfront at sunset is a visual marvel, and the M-shaped bridge in the distance is a distinctive Memphis sight. If you’re at the entrance to Mud Island, you could turn left and head over to the Pyramid Arena, which houses a Bass Pro Shops store. Or continue on into Mud Island, follow the road to the right and head into Harbor Town — a collection of shops, stores, apartments so picturesque you half expect to turn and bump into Rory and Lorelai Gilmore, mugs of coffee in hand.
For one final dose of Memphis nightlight before your trip comes to a close, one option is Bar DKDC in Midtown’s Cooper-Young neighborhood. The bar DKDC — for “Don’t know, don’t care” — is a source of live music most nights, and that insouciant vibe embedded in the name makes this as good a place as any to call it a wrap.