The Mississippi flows south along the edge of Memphis, but musicians traveled north out of the Mississippi Delta and the South to arrive here in the twentieth century. The birthplace of rock ‘n’ soul and the careers of such legends as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and B.B. King, Memphis has always been a music lover’s Mecca. The tradition continues and each night all along the famous Beale Street live music spills out the open doors of various clubs, bars and restaurants.
The city was named after the ancient capital of Egypt, and though there was no pharaoh there was notably some rock’n’roll royalty. No visit to Memphis is complete without a tour of Graceland. A tour of the estate takes you back in time to when Elvis (and shag carpeting) was King. Hordes of fans now decades after his death still flock to see the mansion, his car collection (yes, that Cadillac is pink), his private planes, and much more.
Where you go next might depend on your style of music: Sun Studio, where Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded their first hits, is open for tours. Not far away is the Stax Museum of American Soul Music which is built on the original site of Stax Records Studio, a legendary player in the soul music industry. This is where Otis Redding, the Staple Sisters and Isaac Hayes began the journey to legend.
The Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum is another fine place to get your groove on. Not many museums can get your foot tapping, but this is certainly one of them. From the music of the sharecroppers through the recordings of the 1970s and beyond, a self-guided audio tour takes you through seven galleries filled with instruments, memorabilia and historical exhibits. Just across the street is a Gibson guitar factory. This facility manufactures the legendary brand’s Spanish guitar. Visitors get an up-close look at the art of an instrument’s birth and afterward can noodle around on a guitar in the factory’s showroom.
For a quieter afternoon the 29 galleries of the Memphis Brooks Art Museum are a nice place to pass a couple hours. The collections include works from the Italian Renaissance and Baroque periods as well as Impressionists such as Pissarro and Renoir, and others.
One of Memphis’ most tragic moments was the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was shot and killed outside the door of his room at the Lorraine Motel. The day before he had given his famous “I have been to the mountaintop” speech. Now the National Civil Rights Museum, the former motel features exhibits which trace the history of the struggle for racial equality and justice in great detail while preserving the site of Dr. King’s untimely death.
When the sun goes down, Memphis heats up a bit. While one should certainly consider an evening at the classy Orpheum Theatre for a concert or a Broadway show, the place to see if you could only choose one, is Beale Street. At night the street is pedestrians only and along several blocks clubs, bars, and restaurants await, laid out like an entertainment menu. And you don’t have to be a night owl; live bands will get you shaking from the early evening to the wee hours. Many clubs have no cover charge so you can bar hop along to the next tune that tickles your fancy. Street musicians and other buskers abound, and the laid-back atmosphere is perfect for a postprandial promenade.
B.B. King’s Blues Club has nightly bands and during the day it’s not a bad place for lunch. Have a bit of shrimp gumbo or a po’ boy sandwich. But be sure to come back at night for the blues.
But as much as the blues might move you, the food in Memphis also has a bit of soul. The traditional dishes of African-Americans are often collectively referred to as “soul food” and in Memphis there is no shortage of places serving it, from big-name dining rooms to neighborly mom and pop shops. Menu items to look for are fried chicken or fried catfish, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, fried greens and okra, peach cobbler, and corn bread or biscuits. To get an idea just how fine fried chicken can be, order some over at Gus’ World Famous Hot and Spicy (310 South Front Street, 901-527-4877). The prices won’t set you back much and it all goes down nicely with a cold beer. Be sure to get some fried pickles or fried green tomatoes on the side. Though perhaps a bit too popular with tourists thanks to an appearance in the Tom Cruise movie The Firm, Blues City Cafe (138 Beale Street) has a reputation for good catfish. Four Way Restaurant (998 Mississippi Blvd, 901-507-1519) is another great soul food option with some memorable sweet potato pie.
When you talk about food in Memphis, the first item on most people’s minds and menus is pork spare ribs. Barbeque is an institution here and you’d be hard pressed to find someone without an opinion on where the best place is to go for it. Slow cooking and plenty of smoke give the meat its tender texture and mouthwatering flavor. But within the finger-licking world of ribs is a very serious debate: dry or wet? The answer to that question determines where a local will send you for dinner.
Proponents of the dry method prefer to rub seasonings onto the ribs before cooking. Sauces, it is argued, would only cover up the true taste of the meat. Not so, say the wet rib fans; smothering the meat in a tangy sauce during the final stage of cooking adds flavor and keeps the meat from drying out. Visitors are encouraged to do their own extensive research. A rack of ribs typically comes with a selection of sides such as baked beans or cole slaw, and a good alternative in any of these joints is a pulled-pork sandwich: slightly less messy but equally tasty.
For a rack of ribs done up with the dry-rub method, Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous stands out above all the rest. The restaurant’s reputation for quality and flavor dates back to its 1948 beginnings. Not far from Beale Street, this very casual eatery – ribs are finger-food after all – is dry rib central. How good are they? Orders come in from around the world and the restaurant ships them via FedEx. The late Mr. Vergos started smoking ribs in the basement of his diner when he discovered an old coal chute he could use as a vent. Today’s restaurant is below street level as well.
For wet ribs check out Corky’s Ribs & BBQ. Founder Don Pelts operated a rib house for 13 years before making Corky’s a reality in the 1980s. Today there are three locations in Memphis. The hickory-smoked meat falls off the bone and their signature BBQ sauce is often rated tops in Memphis and beyond. Just like The Rendezvous, these ribs can travel.
Best time for barbeque? Head to Memphis in May for the three-day barbeque competition when hundreds of teams and their secret recipes come from around the United States or even from abroad to prove their ribs are the best.
For a more formal dinner environment check out The Madison Hotel’s Grill 83. The Kansas City bone-in filet often takes center stage, but the ever-changing appetizers such as a buttermilk fried oyster “BLT” with pancetta, fried green tomatoes and remoulade sauce are always worthy opening acts.
A nice way to end the day in Memphis is to take some afternoon tea at the lobby of The Peabody Hotel. The AAA Four-Diamond property is the finest place to lay your head for the night, and its elegant, early 20th century interiors feel like the bygone days. But even non-guests gather each day to people watch and at 5 p.m. to duck watch. The Peabody Duck March is a tradition dating back to 1933 when some hunters rested their live duck decoys in the lobby’s marble fountain during a visit. It created a sensation and the hotel brought in some resident ducks of its own. When a bellman with a circus background trained them to march each day to and from their cozy little lobby pond, the march was born.
Now this daily promenade is a big production complete with microphone, red carpet and flashing cameras. Go early to get a good perch as the stars waddle their way to the elevator. In the evening, put on your best threads and prepare to be impressed by fine French-Asian fusion cuisine at the hotel’s signature dining room and the city’s finest restaurant, Chez Philippe.
After such a grand meal you can’t help but take an evening stroll. Don’t be surprised if you end of on Beale Street just a couple blocks away, drawn, as so many before, by sweet music for dessert.