Memphis, Tennessee. Though perhaps best known around the world as being the home of Elvis and Graceland, the American city is also the home to some of the best BBQ in the country. And in popular revitalised areas like Overton Square and the Cooper-Young district, it’s finding its cuisine is reaching even further, often served in rooms beaming with musical history. In our recent trip to the great city, we had the chance to enjoy Memphis’ finest food, drink some of their finest beer and dance to their best music. Today we’ll take you to just seven of the places you have to pay a visit next time you’re in the “Birthplace of Rock n Roll”.
Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous
52 S 2nd St, Memphis, TN 38103
Our meal at one of Memphis’ most famous restaurants started with a golden ale beer from local brewery Ghost River. It and High Cotton are favourites of the local craft beer scene, as are two more you’ll meet later in this article. We’re told the water of the city makes beer taste particularly delicious. You won’t see us arguing the fact. But Rendezvous is all about the dry-rub ribs, which you can see pictured above – of course accompanied by a plate of pickles and some beans and slaw.
It’s been a Memphis tradition since 1948, and you can taste it in the recipe. It’s delicious, and the meat falls right off the bone, as their secret recipe of spices and herbs explodes in your mouth. Just go for a small or a large order of the ribs, don’t worry about anything else on the menu – though there are plenty of other options, from chicken to brisket and lamb riblets. But it’s all about the ribs.
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken
310 S Front St Memphis, TN 38103
Gus’s Fried Chicken is now a chain that runs right across the United States, but it all started here in Tennessee. First in Mason, in 1973 as Maggie’s Short Orders, and then as Gus’s Fried Chicken in 1984. Though the original location still stands, a little under an hour away from Memphis, their downtown location was the first “franchise” to open in 2001. It’s since expanded to over a dozen locations, and having tasted it elsewhere, I have to say that nothing beats the original. Well, as close to the original as I’m probably going to get anyway.
A couple of pieces of their famous (and perfect) hot & spicy fried chicken with some sides is the way to go. Not that there’s really any other option here, barring the fried green tomatoes and fried pickles! Though you can choose whether you want the light or the dark meat, in a room that is thankfully heavily air conditioned (it’s generally going to be pretty damn hot outside in Memphis). They’ve also got some incredible desserts… if you can fit it in. Both the mac n cheese and coleslaw sides are perfection, and there are several other options too, including their equally popular baked beans.
Lafayette’s Music Room
2119 Madison Ave, Memphis, TN 38104
Lafayette’s Music Room, which first opened in 1972, sits in the heart of the revitalised Overton Square, and has a vibrant music history, with the likes of Billy Joel, Big Star, KISS, Barry Manilow, J.J. Cale and Leon Russell all playing here as part of their early touring cycles. Local outfit Deering & Down were performing the night we visited the venue, and enjoyed their $9-12 wood fired pizzas. Alongside the excellent pizzas, you can get your hands on Burgers and Po Boys alongside mains like Blackened Mahi Mahi, Chicken and Waffles and their decedent “Midtown Mac n Cheese”. The prices are reasonable, the food tastes great and the music seems to be continually enjoyable. Come for the music, stay for the food and drink!
95 S Main St, Memphis, TN 38103
Right across the street from Lafayette’s in Overton Square is another venue which oozes with history. Once called Yosemite Sam’s, the venue was a place where you’d be able to see Jerry Lee Lewis perform. Now it’s part of Overton Square’s revitalisation and it’s an affordable restaurant and bar – or, as they call it, a “Gastropub”. The menu is extensive, as is their beer list. I stayed local and tried the Memphis Made Lucid Kölsch as well as the Wisacre Ananda IPA, both excellent beers. I finished off my enjoyable time at the bar with the Angel’s Envy Rye Whiskey, which is amongst the best Rye I’ve ever tasted. To help soak up the drinks, I enjoyed some share plates of the Mac n’ Gruyere Tots with Spicy Marinara ($9), and their take on the Canadian Poutine, complete with short rib gravy ($8.5).
2249 Central Ave, Memphis, TN 38104
I barely met a person in my entire stay in Memphis who didn’t tell me that I had to pay a visit to Central BBQ, which is located right by the incredible Civil Rights Museum. This is the original location, which opened in 2002, and has since born two other locations, Downtown and in East Memphis. The Sausage and Cheese Plate ($9.99) is a must to share, and I couldn’t help myself but get a side of their mac n cheese ($2.25 for regular). And for my main dish? I got my hands on their Pulled Pork Sandwich, which you could have in regular size (4 oz. of meat, $4.99), or as a large (7 oz, $6.75). The slow smoked pork shoulder was beautiful, and the BBQ sauce perfection, though if that wouldn’t have taken your fancy you could alternatively enjoy some beef brisket, pulled chicken, smoked turkey breast and even a rare vegetarian option: the portabella mushroom. Definitely among the best BBQ I’ve ever had.
94 S Main St, Memphis, TN 38103
While most of the food you’ll find in Memphis caters to traditional American fare, Oshi have delivered a stunning fusion menu that brings the traditional American Diner cuisine together with a Japanese edge. As the name suggests, Burgers are the focus here, like the El Guapo Patty Melt ($10), with a chorizo and Beef Patty, Gouda, Grilled Onion,Pickle, Chili Aioli and Jalapeño Cornbread. But while people might come for the burgers and fries – which you’re encouraged to eat with chopsticks (The Kimchi Fries are a must) – then stay for the $10 boozy milkshakes, like the “Tune In Tokyo”, with Vanilla Vodka, Coffee, Vanilla Ice Cream, Patron XO and Chocolate Pop Rocks or the “Godzilla”, with Crème De Menthe, Godiva White Chocolate, Vanilla Ice Cream, Oreo Pieces. Thirsty yet?
Hog and Hominy
707 W Brookhaven Cir, Memphis, TN 38117
“Italian Dining with a Southern Drawl” is how they sell the last stop on our list, Hog and Hominy, and their pizzas are just as good as they look. They have some variations you’d expect, like the wonderfully named “Crybaby” (meatballs, fontina, chili flakes, tomato sauce, $15), and some that are more original like the “Down with the Shrine” (corn, fontina, leeks, garlic, cream, olive oil, $16). But all are cooked to perfection on fabulous dough.
In addition to the pizzas, they serve a number of contorni options – or, vegetables and salads – plus desserts, wood fired oysters and more. Also look out for their Sunday brunch menu, which includes the “Gut Bomb” – biscuit, scrambled egg, pepperjack, porcellino’s bacon, grits – Steak and Eggs and the BBQ Shrimp and Grits (hanna farm grits, gulf white shrimp, tasso), with their impressive range of Pizzas also available. This is one of a kind menu that’s definitely worth a visit.
Unless otherwise mentioned, photos were taken by the author. Some meals were provided with the kind support of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau. While in Memphis, the author stayed at the Peabody Hotel. All prices are in US dollars and were correct at the time of printing. Please refer to the respective websites for the latest menus and prices.