Beyond Blues & BBQ: How Memphis Transformed Into an Essential Southern Stop
The birthplace of rock and roll is justifiably popular among music fans and BBQ lovers. But the home of the Kings (B.B. and Elvis) has been transforming and now offers visitors a whole lot more.
Three things strike me within an hour of touching down at Memphis International. First, where is everybody? The airport seems deserted, its doors opening onto a yawning expanse of empty concrete. Second, Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds” is blasting from unseen speakers. Does the city’s most famous son still cast a long shadow over his adopted hometown? Finally, as my chatty Uber driver Tucker makes his way to the Peabody Hotel downtown, I wonder: Why do so many buildings appear to be vacant?
As is often the case with travel, first impressions are misleading. Yes, passenger traffic has dropped off a cliff at the airport over the past 10 years (tumbling from 11 to 4 million annually in the last decade, thanks largely to Delta buying Northwest and moving operations to Atlanta). And yes, Elvis has left the buildings, but his presence remains. And OK, there are a few hollow high-rises here and there.
But, as Tucker insists, Memphis is changing—and offers a lot more than first meets the bleary eye. As I discover over the course of three days, the city has been undergoing a revival, building on its famous attractions to become a superb place to live, work, and visit.
Downtown: Longtime legends and emerging stars
I begin my trip just down the road from the Peabody on Beale Street, the beating and backflipping musical heart of the city. Here, music and dancers pour out of every doorway and multiple exhibitions contextualize the region’s musical and cultural history.
The Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum demonstrates how music spread around the rural South via radio, itinerant musicians, and mail order records before exploding in the heart of the city, while the Memphis Music Hall of Fame houses hallowed items like Isaac Hayes’s tour organ and a Cadillac owned by Jerry Lee Lewis. Both are great primers for the rest of the city’s essential stops: Stax and Sun Studios, Graceland, and the National Civil Rights Museum, at the site of MLK’s assassination.
Outside these deservedly well-known institutions, though, modern Memphis is begging to be explored. Throughout the Downtown district, old and abandoned premises have been given new life, emerging as world-class hotels and restaurants.
Over the course of three days I experienced several of the latter, enjoying a hybrid of Southern and Italian cuisine at Catherine & Mary’s (housed downstairs in the former Hotel Chisca, where Elvis got his early radio play) and eggs en cocotte at the European-feeling Cafe Keough (which squats at the bottom of a former bank).
Downtown’s reinvention will continue throughout 2019. The South Main District in the southern part of Downtown is undergoing nearly $500 million in development, with a new Arrive Hotel set to beautify a 100-year-old warehouse significantly, while in North Main the Hu Hotel has undergone renovation and two more buildings are being transformed into a Loews Hotel and an apartment complex as part of a billion-dollar deal.
Midtown: Destination Dining and Popular Public Spaces
From Downtown, it’s easy to jump in an Uber with one of the city’s many friendly drivers and explore other districts. Take Midtown, an artsy region, where much of the entertainment centers around the recently renovated Overton Square. Here, public art and murals are dotted among several theaters, while restaurants and bars host live music several nights a week.
I ate at chef Kelly English’s recently reopened Restaurant Iris, housed in a 116-year-old bungalow close to the square. Memphis-Creole creations were the order of the night, and dishes like crawfish toasted ravioli with pickled okra, and seven spice brisket with lima beans, lingered long in my memory.
While the food was high-end and the decor fairly formal, the atmosphere was decidedly relaxed. In fact, I ended up drinking with the owner and his friends for some time before eventually decamping to the nearby Bar DKDC in the hip Cooper-Young District a few blocks south. Here, Mexican masks stared down from the walls over comfortably worn furniture while a young band jammed in the corner.
Next door was the Beauty Shop, a retro restaurant that used to be a hair salon frequented by Priscilla Presley, where tables are separated by glass cube partitions and seats perch under vintage hair dryers. The place was closed—the hour was late—so it went straight onto my “next time” list.
Broad Avenue and Crosstown: Creative Hubs and Innovative Restoration
Another locals’ spot brimming with boutiques, studios, and creative spaces, the Broad Avenue Arts District is worth at least a morning. At the newish City & State artisan store and coffee shop, clothes, handbags, candles, and other crafty items are on offer, and lattes are served with a smile and a friendly chat. Everyone was wearing a birthday hat when I stopped by, including the dog.
Down the road is the Liquor Store, formerly a—well, you can probably guess. All retro stools, chrome fixtures, and palm prints, the restaurant is an Instagram dream serving up sweet potato hash and some serious biscuits.
Perhaps the most dramatic transformation in a city full of them is the Crosstown Concourse, a former Sears distribution center that’s metamorphosed into a cherished multiuse space. Within this striking, multistory “vertical urban village,” ambitious restaurants (including a global café featuring immigrant chefs from Sudan, Nepal, and Syria) mingle with nonprofits, markets, a gym, a library, exhibition spaces, and apartments.
My last night in Memphis coincided with Zoo Rendezvous, an annual food festival and fundraiser that sees dozens of the best local restaurants (and P.F. Chang’s) set up stalls among the animal cages at the city’s zoo, just north of Overton Park. Several stages provided music. A heavy storm tried unsuccessfully to dampen spirits, but Memphians don’t seem to let a bit of lightning get in their way of a good time, and the evening was a raucous end to my trip.
As I stood munching on alligator kebabs and bison rice balls by the gorilla enclosure, sipping an IPA from local brewers Meddlesome while a band blasted out Justin Timberlake covers, I realized Tucker was right. Memphis is metamorphosing. I can’t wait to see where it goes next.
>> Next: Where to Go in 2019