I'm going to Memphis, where the beat is tough.
August 24, 2010 6:58 PM   Subscribe

First-time Memphis trip this fall - would love some MeFite recommendations. I have perused all the past threads, but there aren't many, and some of them are quite old so I'd like to check in with Memphians and regulars to see what's fresh.

Mr. Pineapple and I are driving from Dallas (via Texarkana / Little Rock) for a Friday-Monday trip. We are staying downtown but are happy to drive wherever, to better appreciate the city beyond its center. We plan to get a Flyer for reference when we get to town.

I care most about the food. He cares most about the music.

Regarding barbecue, he is not a pork person (Don't get me started. He doesn't eat pie either, but it's too late for me to divorce him now.), so we'll need at least one other meat on the menu. Neither of us cares much about catfish. Everything else is fair game.

I abhor doing anything touristy because I am your standard elitist snob, who verges into annoying hipster territory when I travel. But I am going to make an exception for Graceland because we think it's on the list of Things Southerners Ought Do At Least Once In Life.

So far we have identified the following as interesting:

• Central BBQ in Cooper-Young (and, what else to see/do in Cooper-Young?)
• Rendezvous for the tourist experience and to say we went... but clearly we would also want to eat BBQ somewhere else as well, because grilling ≠ barbecue
• Cozy Corner? Germantown Commissary? Payne's? Interstate? Talk to me. I'm wary of Neely's and Corky's due to their national exposure; I don't have a compulsion to eat where the TV people came from.
• Arcade Cafe
• Gus's Chicken (or Uncle Lou's?)
• Sun Studio
• Gibson Factory
• Shangri-La
• Beale Street
• Earnestine & Hazel's
• Stax Museum
• Civil Rights Museum
• Restaurant Iris or Erling Jensen: pick one?
• Brother Juniper's... is it worth the trip, if we've eaten at our fair share of quirky breakfast joints?
• Al Green's Tabernacle Choir... we were planning to roll pretty casual this trip; would we need church clothes for this?

I'm sort of indifferent to the Peabody ducks... if it's a Buckingham-changing-of-the-guard thing where all we'll really get to appreciate is the other 1,340 spectators? Meh.

What to see and do in Central Gardens?

Memphis Tigers are playing away during the weekend we are planning. Is there any other possible game-day traffic of which we should be aware on a fall Saturday?

Disappointed that the Dempseys are no more... but what other Memphis-y live music would you recommend? We like everything.

Obviously we can't get all of this stuff in, in 2.5 days. What are your must-sees? Does Graceland really take half a day to see properly?

Feel free to link me to a past Memphis AskMe answer if it's still accurate. (FYI, things we've considered and crossed off already, in the interest of time: National Ornamental Metal Museum, Memphis Zoo, Graceland Too, Pink Palace.)

Bonus Graceland question: We're intrigued from an American popular culture perspective, but we don't fall in the category of wild, weepy Elvis fanatics. Which of these is worthwhile? We'll spring the big jing if it's culturally valuable, but not if it'll be wasted overkill that will eat a full day.

Thanks in advance for TCB, MeFites.
posted by pineapple to Travel & Transportation around Memphis, TN (14 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'd recommend Shangri-La Records' "Low-Life Guide to Memphis" as your tour guide.

You have a great list. You can supplement it with the New York Times article about Memphis night life from earlier this year. (I would skip Mollie Fontaine's, though.) If you're out late, do not miss Raiford's!

For BBQ, Memphis is a pork town, so you'll have to get past that. I like Rendezvous ribs and Central BBQ. You are right to avoid Corky's.

I would go with Gus's over Uncle Lou's. Uncle Lou's is in a strip mall and is kind of far away from everything except for the airport.

Graceland will probably take you more than half a day. Graceland Too is great, but it's probably an hour from downtown Memphis.

If it's a nice day, don't be too quick to cross off the National Ornamental Metal Museum. It's located between an Indian mound and a beautiful stretch of the Mississippi River. If it's a nice day, it's one of the prettiest spots in Memphis. Same thing goes for Rhodes College in midtown. Princeton Review named it as one of the ten prettiest college campuses.

The Dempseys were great (you can see them in "Walk The Line." I don't know who has filled their void.
posted by Frank Grimes at 7:28 PM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

I was born in Memphis, but left at an early age. I still have friends and family there, and I took my SO for his first visit there last fall.

If you aren't huge Elvis fans, then just seeing Graceland itself is probably enough. We lucked out by going at 3pm on a Tuesday, and at one point were the only people in the house other than security guards. If it isn't too crowded, I would say that you could do the tour in three or so hours. I think we were there for about two. It's an interesting pop culture pilgrimage. Although you'll probably be surprised by how humble Graceland is in some ways.

The Peabody is actually pretty wonderful aside from the ducks. We went at night, after the ducks were in bed, had a drink, and then went to the roof for a really lovely view of the city. And you can see the ducks in their special little duckhaus too. There's also a small museum room with the history of the hotel on the second floor overlooking the lobby that's got some interesting stuff.

Not far from the Stax Museum is Victorian Village. It's worth a drive-by at the very least.

The Civil Rights Museum is a must seem. Although strangely, I've never seen it. It was closed the day we planned to go. I remember that for most of my childhood, the Lorraine Motel was in danger of being torn down, and I am pleased that there is such an amazing museum there now.

I can't speak too much about food, because when I'm there I am totally get some home cooking from my kin. But the Rendezvous has always been a family favorite.
posted by kimdog at 7:31 PM on August 24, 2010

Well, I don't live in Memphis, but my sister does. When we visited her we went on the Sun Studio tour, and it was really cool. (I'm not even the biggest music fan out there, and it was still really cool.) I also saw the Peabody ducks. It takes about 5 minutes to watch. Get there about 15 mins early to get a spot up on the second floor looking down. (The hotel lobby is also beautiful, and how many chances are you going to get to see a duck walk down the red carpet?) Huey's is the local hamburger/bar/grill joint of note, and the Flying Saucer has an amazing beer selection if you are into that sort of thing. That is the extent of my Memphis knowledge, hope it helps some.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 7:33 PM on August 24, 2010

On a visit a few years ago we tried every BBQ place we could find. Hands down favorite was Payne's. It's in an old gas station and is definitely not touristy.
posted by Zebtron at 7:54 PM on August 24, 2010

If you're staying downtown, even if you don't feel like seeing the ducks (oh, why the heck not ;), you might still pop in at Peabody Deli and Desserts inside the Peabody Hotel. The Peabody has an Austrian pastry chef named Konrad Spitzbart, and he is absolutely world-class. It's great that you don't have to eat at one of the Peabody's restaurants to score one of his chocolate creations, which are beautiful and taste as good as they look--you can just go and order them with coffee at the little shop in the hotel, or take a couple of boxed delights back to your own hotel.

Have fun in Memphis!
posted by sister nunchaku of love and mercy at 8:11 PM on August 24, 2010

Best answer: Just moved away from Memphis. Brother Junipers is great, but is always a long, long wait on weekends. I would strongly recommend Bryant's on Summer Ave instead. There's always a line there too, but it's much quicker and it's my favorite breakfast in Memphis. It is pork heaven as far as the first meal of the day goes, but there will be enough options to satisfy your profoundly misguided husband as well.

Have not been to Iris, but have heard great things and know its in a great neighborhood to see and hang out in. Have been to Erling's, which is great, but is a pain to get to and is pretty stuffy.

The P+H (on Madison), the lamplighter (also on Madison), and Young Avenue Deli (on, you guessed it, Young Avenue- at Cooper) are all great midtown, hipsterish bars.

The New York Times article on Midtown was a great suggestion, but I have no idea why the poster suggested you cross Mollie Fontaine's off the list. It is one of the most unique and excellent dinner spots in Memphis (eclectic tapas and small plates) and is also a great late night bar (as long as you're comfortable with a largely but not exclusively gay crowd).

Looks like you're doing a pretty short trip, so I'd recommend prioritizing the Civil Rights Museum over any others (Graceland included- which I once went to out of motivations similar to yours and still found stupefyingly dull). Also, be sure to talk to the lady protesting the Civil Rights Museum out front. She's been out there for years and makes an interesting, if not compelling, argument about how the museum has ushered in the gentrification of the neighborhood (although walking around the neighborhood you may note that said 'gentrification' is considerably less comprehensive than a lot of real estate developers probably hoped it would be).

Re: Al Green's church, I have not been personally, but it is my understanding that casual is probably not going to cut it. If I remember correctly, you will also likely be asked to introduce yourself to the congregation.

You're on the right track with central BBQ- they do respectable smoked chicken in addition to exceptional pulled pork and very good ribs. Also, if uninitiated, avail yourself of BBQ nachos. Despite the conceptual difficulties and/or lack of visual appeal you may experience, you will not regret the decision to order them.
posted by jimmysmits at 12:21 AM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Commissary in Germantown is great, but be warned: you're going to want to pick up a few extra bottles of the sauce to bring home with you. I bought only one and I've lamented it since the sad day I used the last drop.
posted by ColdChef at 5:56 AM on August 25, 2010

Me & Mr. Doodley got married at Graceland, so we think it's pretty cool, but the all day tour isn't for everyone - just see the mansion. Really.

The Civil Rights Museum is really cool, but you'll need a good cry afterwards. Sun Studios is consistently fun and rewarding. The Stax Museum is awesome but also full of tragedy in its way. Bonus, though, it's also a music school now. I think your ticket in helps pay for scholarships.

Here's where you want to dine at least once:

Ellen's Soul Food Restaurant

The first two links are different addresses for the same business. 601 South Parkway is where she used to be (the building is/was being renovated last time we went) and 2497 Elvis Presley Blvd. is the "temporary" location we last visited. Note that's where the phone number is - just call first.

Anyway, Ellen's - awesome soul food: half chicken, or meatloaf or smothered pork chops, greens, johnnycakes, peas - don't miss it, for real!
posted by toodleydoodley at 6:53 AM on August 25, 2010

Aww, I was going to recommend the zoo, the Pink Palace, and the Ornamental Metal Museum. Oh well, an excuse for another trip! Tea at the Peabody is a nice way to get away from the heat, and watching the ducks is a lot of fun. The Civil Rights Museum is awesome and well worth a visit. For what it's worth, I prefer Corky's over Rendevous, but I'm aware that I am one of the few who feel this way.
posted by Mouse Army at 7:16 AM on August 25, 2010

Best answer: Ok, some more ideas for your trip...maybe you should consider staying longer? I don't know how you'll squeeze everything in!

The Cove - a strange nautical-themed bar on Broad Street. NOT a touristy place. Very much a dive, but great fun, and always great music. I've not eaten there yet, but have heard good things about the food.

Kudzu's on Monroe - another dive bar, FANTASTIC hamburgers, our favorite bartender in town, Martin - he'll pour you a strong one. The third weekend of every month they have a great cover band, the Rhythm Hounds.

Also seconding P+H (where I met my husband - I like to keep it classy), and the BBQ nachos at Central Barbecue. No, really...get them.

You said you're staying downtown...if you are lucky and come during the third Friday of the month (and before you go see the Rythm Hounds - see above) take the trolley down to South Main, which is a quickly developing artsy/gallery area that is really my favorite place downtown. Third Fridays means that it's Trolley Night - trolley rides are free and most of the galleries and shops have open houses/wine + cheese, etc.

Central Gardens hosts a Home Tour every year (I think it's in September). Here is the website.

Cooper Young has some fairly new restaurants (I am ashamed to say that I haven't tried these yet, but wanted to let you know about them!). Au Fond and Grace are two fairly new additions. Au Fond is touted as a "farmtable" marketplace, advertising their cheeses and breads for sale, and seems to be pretty popular at breakfast/brunch times. Grace is a more upscale dinner place, and while my coworker had rave reviews about the food, he also said that it's pretty pricey for what you get. Another new restaurant in Cooper Young is Sweetgrass, just across the street from the other two, and seems to be pretty popular.

Not sure when your trip is scheduled, but a few art fairs to keep in mind, if you're into that sort of thing: The Pink Palace Arts & Crafts Fair (Oct 7-10), and the River Arts Fest (Oct 23 + 24)

And here is a great blog that's all about Memphis, if you need more ideas. But wow, I was impressed with your list. You've done your research!
posted by elisebeth at 9:07 AM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I personally found the River Walk at Mud Island fascinating and fun: http://www.mudisland.com/c-14-river-walk.aspx But that may be attributed mostly to my weird love for all things "scale model."

When we saw Graceland, we did it in the afternoon, after having been to a historic home elsewhere in Memphis. (The historic home has since closed, but its original owners were antique collectors in the pre-Civil War era, so a lot of the furniture was even older than the house.) It was a fun way to see Graceland - going from the sublime to the ridiculous all in one day.
posted by 100watts at 9:57 AM on August 25, 2010

Best answer: I'm with elisebeth, you've got an impressive list! Everyone has already given you great advice, which I favorited, and here are my votes on the current suggestions:

From your list:
Central BBQ and Rendezvous
Gus's Chicken
Stax Museum
Civil Rights Museum*
Arcade Cafe*
Earnestine & Hazels (My favorite bar in memphis. Best jukebox ever. Get a soul burger and walk around upstairs.)*
*these last three are all in the South Main area.

From other people's suggestions (mostly bars!):
Molly Fontaine Lounge (Bonus: in Victorian Village)
The Cove
The P&H
Young Ave. Deli (Cooper Young area, sub-par service but fantastic food/beer. Get a pint of Ghost River, the only locally brewed stuff)
The I Love Memphis blog that elisebeth linked to is a great resource
Metal Museum (if you have time and it's a pretty day)

My own additional suggestions:

-The Magic Kids are a local indie band getting all kinds of buzz right now. Other local bands I like: Amy Lavere, Two Way Radio, River City Tanlines, Jack O and the Tennessee Tearjerkers.

-The Hi Tone is probably your best bet for shows, Memphis bands and otherwise.

-Elmwood Cemetery is beautiful for a walk. The grounds are gorgeous and quiet.

-Cooper/Young suggestions other than the above restaurants are Goner Records, a vintage store next door that I can't remember the name of at the moment, and Burke's Book Store.

Final Notes: If you abhor touristy things, then Beale Street is only worth a quick walk up and down, just to say you saw it and drank a beer outside in plain sight of the police. Do please walk through A. Schwab's Dry Goods, though. It's totally weird and worth it. I still haven't been to Graceland, so no advice there. Umm...I think that's it! Me-mail me if you have any weirdo questions that don't fit in the thread. Hope you have a great time!
posted by a.steele at 11:54 AM on August 25, 2010

Best answer: Tad Pearson's American Dream Safari is pretty cool. Kudzu's is great, we're partial to Nancy Apple on Thursday nights. If your trip is Sept 18th, the Cooper Young Festival will encompass many of the items on your list. Celtic Crossing and Sweetgrass are also good.We can all argue endlessly about the best barbecue, we like The Bar-B-Q Shop. Central BBQ's nachos also come in chicken flavor, I eat a half-order every Sunday night and they're really good. Ghost River Beer is really good. Beale Street gets a lot of criticism these days but there are still some great blues locals that play regularly, you just need to know how to find them. Memail all of us with your dates and we can keep you so busy you will not want to go back to boring old Dallas. For everything else, we used Yelp on our smartphone during our last great vacation and were never, ever steered wrong. For Graceland, take the Platinum tour, that's an extra $4 worth for sure and it will probably take you 2 or 3 hours. I pick Iris over Erling Jensens. And I think you can skip Brother Junipers, not worth the long lines IMHO. We're all excited to have a Memphis question!
posted by raisingsand at 8:30 PM on August 26, 2010

Response by poster: Following up... we are getting ready to make our Memphis pilgrimage in a couple weeks, and this has all been immensely helpful and useful! Thanks for the ideas and input—including from you MeFites who mailed me directly.

If the thread is still open, I'll pop back by and let y'all know what we got up to during the trip.
posted by pineapple at 2:45 PM on September 28, 2010

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