Planning a stop in Memphis, Tennessee? Here’s where to eat, drink, and stay, and what to see and do.
Before I visited Memphis, I associated three things with the city: blues, barbecue, and Elvis. While Memphis’ rich musical and cultural history can’t be denied—and let’s face it—you’re never far away from your next favorite meal, the city is about so much more than the bright lights of Beale Street and perfectly smoked brisket.
Memphis recently celebrated its 200th anniversary and is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. While I was there in October, I discovered a diverse and vibrant food scene that includes a food hall that’s a restaurant incubator for refugee food entrepreneurs, a brunch spot serving Cuban food in a former liquor store, a beauty shop that’s been transformed into a whimsical eatery, and plenty of delicious stick-to-your-ribs soul food alongside chef-driven fine dining. Paired with amazing local museums, a thriving arts scene, and more than enough bourbon hot toddies to go around, Memphis was the fall foodie getaway I didn’t even know I needed.
If you have a few days in Memphis, Tennessee this winter—or any time at all—and plan on seeing, doing, and eating as many awesome things as possible, here are a few not-to-be-missed places to check out.
Where to Eat and Drink
At this downtown hotspot, chef Eli Townsend offers an inventive take on soul food fusion. Think: fried catfish in phyllo pastry, ginger and Hennessey infused peach cobbler, and their signature soul rolls—perfectly fried egg rolls stuffed with mac and cheese, turnip greens, and fried chicken (I call these “The South in one bite”). Grab a drink before dinner or go for brunch so you can experience the fried chicken and stuffed waffles. Just make sure you leave room for dessert. Townsend’s beignets (topped with homemade sage infused marmalade) are to die for.
Located in a former liquor store along Broad Avenue, this popular brunch spot serves up Southern comfort food with a Latin American flair inside an adorable space best described as “mid-century tropical chic.” Try one of their delectable breakfast options paired with house-made biscuits or their Cuban platter—a lunch plate piled high with savory shredded pork, yellow rice, black beans, and fried plantain wedges. Don’t leave without trying their “biscuit beignets” (deep fried biscuit dough dusted in icing sugar).
Craving some authentic soul food? Look no further than this iconic Memphis restaurant known for its “meat and three.” Choose your meat (the fried chicken and catfish are favorites), your choice of sides (I went with yams, fried green tomatoes, and the greens—all of which were delicious), and wash it down with a large glass of lemonade. Whatever you choose, you can’t go wrong with any of the Four Way’s stick-to-your-ribs Southern classics. Note: If you want to eat like a local, order your meat with a side of their signature spaghetti.
Have you ever been to a restaurant where everything—even the dinner rolls—is absolutely flawless? Meet Gray Canary, the latest venture from chefs and owners Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman. The pair use a variety of different cooking techniques (from Latin American asado to backyard BBQ) with the aim of creating a dining experience that captures “a moment in time, a memory of a meal painted in vivid colors”—and they succeed. Biting into their freshly pulled from the oven Parker House rolls or any of their seafood dishes is like being transported to your culinary happy place.
Memphis Southern Food and Culture Tour, $55 on Airbnb
Let a local show you around some of her favorite restaurants.
What to See and Do
Located at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. stayed numerous times during his fight for civil rights, this incredibly moving museum should be a required experience for all humans. Journey through the history of the American civil rights movement from slavery to the present and see the hotel room where MLK spent his last days. If you’re staying downtown, take the streetcar along historic Main Street to the Museum and stop for some local-approved food at Central BBQ after your visit.
While Graceland and Sun Studio are popular tourist attractions, don’t sleep on the Stax Museum of American Soul. Located in the historic Soulsville (the birthplace of Aretha Franklin), this incredible museum is a must-see for music nerds. Stax is responsible for launching the careers of iconic artists like Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Mavis Staples, and so many more. The piece de resistance: Issaac Hayes’ gold trimmed Cadillac that’s available for viewing on a 360 degree rotating platform (cue: the theme song to “Shaft”).
Founded by Ekundayo Bandele in 2006, Hattiloo is the only freestanding Black repertory theater in five surrounding states. The modern performing-arts venue is known for high quality productions that support African-American playwrights, musicians, and actors. Expect to see a mix of local and international talent like Katori Hall, Angie Stone, and “Black Panther” star Danai Gurira.
Follow an evening of live theater with dinner at nearby Restaurant Iris where you can experience chef Kelly English’s take on French Creole cuisine (the crawfish boil gnocchi and rum punch are must-tries).
Built in 1927, this former Sears distribution building has been transformed into a 1,200,000 square foot “village within a building,” which includes independent restaurants, apartments, boutiques, a theater, medical center, and even a high school.
Make sure to stop at Global Cafe, an international food hall that hosts three immigrant/refugee food entrepreneurs cooking and selling an eclectic mix of affordably priced dishes from their home countries. They’re currently serving authentic dishes from Syria, Sudan, and Venezuela. Try their amazing baba ganoush, shawarma, and stuffed arepas.
Where to Shop
Once a derelict stretch of industrial and commercial spaces, the historic area has been revitalized and is now home to 70 unique local businesses, including boutique shops, art galleries, artist studios, restaurants, and bars. Check out Falling Into Place for their amazing selection of candles and the Mbabazi House of Style, a design house that uses traditional African fabrics to create stunning modern apparel. Also stop by City and State, a coffee shop-meets-boutique where you can sip on one of their rosemary black charcoal lattes while browsing a hip selection of home goods.
Located a stone’s throw from the National Civil Rights Museum, the South Main Arts District is home to a slew of art galleries and stylish retailers, including Stock and Belle. Inside this expertly curated boutique you’ll find delightful home decor, clothing, and locally made items, including handmade jewelry from IV by David (and yes, there’s a great coffee shop inside!).
Hip and eclectic, explore Memphis’ Cooper Young neighborhood for the perfect vintage find. Lovers of high quality vintage will love the selection at Fox + Cat, while vinyl fiends are sure to have a field day at Goner Records. If the thrill of the hunt is what you’re after, make time to visit Flashback, the self-proclaimed “vintage department store.” While you’re in the area, grab a meal at The Beauty Shop, a modern American eatery (sporting vintage hair-dryer chairs and glass-brick booths) which was formerly Priscilla Presley’s curl-and-dye spot.
Where to Stay
By far one of the coolest repurposed spaces I’ve ever seen, this boutique hotel used to be Grand Central Station, a railway hub originally built in the early twentieth century. The original lobby has been transformed into a chic meeting spot and cocktail lounge that pays homage to its history (complete with large neon signs advertising yellow cabs and transfer buses). Guests can unwind in the hotel’s two-story Listening Lounge/Bar which houses a 500-album vinyl record collection (featuring Memphis artists) or enjoy Central Station’s daily curated playlist on custom designed EgglestonWorks speakers available in every guest room.
With its chic ’70s-inspired interiors and a cheeky rooftop bar overlooking the Mississippi River, The Hu Hotel is another classic Memphian space that’s been given a recent revamp. In the lobby you’ll find a coffee and cocktail bar (which also serves as the boutique hotel’s front desk) and The Hu Diner, which offers upscale takes on Southern comfort food. Each of the 110 rooms feature images of popular spots around town that have been faded to appear as if they were always a part of this warm space’s history.
Described as “an urban home base surrounded by the pulsating beat of the blues,” this revamped 1960s hotel located on B.B. King Boulevard oozes mid-century charm. From the playful guest rooms and oh-so-Instagrammable lobby to the rainbow-colored courtyard that surrounds a heated outdoor pool, the Hotel Indigo is the perfect option for budget-minded travelers who don’t want to sacrifice personality for comfort.
Memphis Lodging, various prices on Airbnb
Or explore your Airbnb options in town.
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