- North America,
- United States
Highlights from one of my favorite cities, Memphis, Tennessee -- the home of the blues!
Peabody Hotel, Tennessee
Memphis, Tennessee 38103
Tel: 901 529 4000
This 14-story Italian Renaissance Revival landmark has been the preeminent Memphis hotel since opening downtown in 1869. Renovations brought the indoor pool and athletic club into the 21st century, and the 464 guest rooms got a refresh in 2006. The menu at tony Chez Philippe is an Asian-inflected version of la cuisine Française. Marble pillars, hand-painted skylights, a charming bar, and a manned grand piano grace the lobby. The slightly stuffy mood lightens daily at the stroke of 11 a.m., when an elevator opens, and five mallard ducks emerge to the strains of Sousa's "King Cotton March." After waddling down a red carpet, they ascend three stairs into the lobby's ornate central fountain to splash around. The spectacle is reversed at 5 p.m., when the celebrated ducks retire. Like many things uniquely Memphian, the Peabody Duck March comes off as endearing, weird, and wholly sincere. You can visit the ducks' rooftop aerie during between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., though you may prefer their posh accommodations to even your own.
See + Do
Beale Street, Tennessee
New Orleans has Bourbon Street; Memphis has club- and bar-lined Beale—"The Home of the Blues." Cornetist and Beale Street resident W.C. Handy published the first Blues song, "Memphis Blues," here in 1912; his house is now the W.C. Handy Home and Museum (352 Beale St.; 901-527-3427; closed Sun and Mon).
Elvis, in his adolescence, revolved through the clubs here, infusing himself with the ingredients he would later use to shape rock 'n' roll at Sun Studio, just a few blocks away. When shopping on Beale, the King patronized an establishment that has become the oldest continually operating shop in Memphis: A. Schwab Dry Goods Store. Opened in 1876, it serves customers with the motto "If you can't find it at A. Schwab's, you're better off without it"—the wares range from penny candy to overalls to souvenirs (163 Beale St.; 901-523-9782; closed Sun).
To experience the bluesy heart of Memphis nightlife, head for Beale on a Saturday night. For about $12, you can grab a wristband in lieu of paying individual cover charges and amble to and from participating clubs (Fridays and Saturdays only). Live music hot spots on Beale include B.B. King's, where the "Queen of Beale Street," Ruby Wilson, reigns many a weekend (143 Beale St.; 901-524-5464; memphis.bbkingclubs.com); Rum Boogie Café, which has the best house band in town, led by soulful James Govan (143 Beale St.; 901-528-0150; www.rumboogie.com); and the New Daisy Theater, a former movie house that now hosts national acts (330 Beale St.; 901-525-8979; www.newdaisy.com). In late spring, the Beale Street Music Festival showcases dozens of renowned musicians, blues and otherwise, at Tom Lee Park, where Beale terminates at the Great Mississip'.
Memphis, Tennessee 38103
Tel: 901 523 2746
If you only have time to hit up one Memphis barbecue pit, Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous should be it. You'll find it in the basement of a nondescript building in an alley across from the landmark Peabody Hotel. Red and white checked tablecloths, local memorabilia, and news clippings dating from the '40s serve as décor in this cavernous 750-seat space. The waitstaff is strong-willed—don't dare ask 45-year-veteran server Robert Stewart, Sr., to change your order—and the pork ribs are quintessentially Memphian. There are two barbecue rib camps in town: "wet" (the gooey sort cooked in sauce) and "dry" (marinated in a vinegar-based solution, then cooked with spices). Vergos' technically fall in the later category, but Rendezvous management feels the term "dry ribs" unfairly maligns the chef's well-marinated, lovingly seasoned masterpieces. Other menu items include a simple sausage and cheese plate and a pork shoulder dinner, served with a side of beans and slaw. But hordes of locals and tourists swear by the tender, moderately spicy ribs.
Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Hi Tone Café, Tennessee
Tel: 901 278 8663
At this funky, 1950s-themed bar in Midtown, beer-swilling twentysomething hipsters and older music obsessives take in Memphis's current crop of music pioneers. Both regional favorites, such as emotive singer-songwriter Garrison Starr and bluesy rockers the North Mississippi Allstars, and national acts take the stage. Elvis—Costello, that is—filmed a 2004 concert video here with Emmylou Harris. The small stage area gets jam-packed at concert time; arrive early, or you might not get in.
See + Do
National Civil Rights Museum, Tennessee
Tel: 901 521 9699
Through fund-raising efforts, the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation purchased the defunct Lorraine Hotel, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, at auction in 1982. Nearly ten years later, the first museum to trace America's civil rights movement opened its doors at the tragically historic site. In 2002, an $11 million expansion added 12,800 square feet of exhibition space, including the exhibit "Exploring the Legacy." The exhibit traces the path American civil rights have taken since King's death and also details other historic civil rights movements worldwide. Each year, the museum honors significant contributors to civil or human rights with three Freedom Awards (national, international, and lifetime). Past recipients include Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, and Bono.
Tel: 901 276 8015
Visions of fried green tomatoes and rightly seasoned turnip greens dancing in your head? You'd better make your way to this Deep South soul-food institution. The veggies alone (22 varieties daily) are cause enough to visit, with the eggplant casserole and the sublime mac 'n' cheese seeming straight from the pages of How to Make the Richest Side Dish at Your Church Potluck. Proprietor Charles Cavallo's meats and desserts also fit the bill nicely, notably the country fried chicken and gooey pecan pie.
For a city of fewer than 700,000 residents, Memphis's theatrical scene is surprisingly varied. The gold leaf- and red velvet-ornamented Orpheum was once a vaudevillian venue but now stages Broadway road shows (203 S. Main St.; 901-525-3000; www.orpheum-memphis.com). Theatre Memphis, the city's oldest community theater group, was organized in 1921 and puts on regional premieres and locally produced revivals such as The Pavilion and A Little Night Music (630 Perkins Ext.; 901-682-8323; www.theatrememphis.org). Excellent sister theaters Circuit Playhouse and Playhouse on the Square produce more artistically adventurous fare, like the civil-rights musical Caroline, or Change and Martin McDonagh's dark The Pillowman (1705 Poplar Ave. and 51 S. Cooper St.; 901-726-4656; www.playhouseonthesquare.org).
See + Do
Cooper-Young District, Tennessee
For quirky shopping, eclectic dining, offbeat coffee bars, a swell farmer's market, and several smart galleries, head to Midtown Memphis's hippest neighborhood, centered at the intersection of Cooper and Young streets. Park on the southwest corner, behind Café Olé, and walk to Young Avenue Deli, fish-happy Tsunami (928 S. Cooper; 901-274-2556; www.tsunamimemphis.com; closed Sundays), or Casablanca, a Moroccan/Greek spot where ebullient proprietor Aimer Shtaya playfully regales the dining room with anecdotes (2156 Young Ave.; 901-725-8557; www.casablancamemphis.com). You'll want to drive to most other highlights, such as David Mah Studio (888 S. Cooper; 901-272-8880; www.davidmahstudio.com; by appointment only), Otherlands Coffee Bar & Exotic Gifts (641 S. Cooper; 901-278-4994), and retro store Flashback, Inc. (2304 Central Ave.; 901-272-2304; www.flashbackmemphis.com). In mid-September, the district's businesses host the popular Cooper-Young Festival, a celebration of art, music, crafts, and food.
Tel: 901 321 0082
Yilma Akilu and his wife, Seble Haile-Michael, are Washington, D.C., transplants who came to Memphis at the urging of a hungry friend to open this reasonably priced, humbly decorated Ethiopian restaurant. If asked, the charming hosts will explain the menu, how their homemade cottage cheese is prepared, and the proper way to scoop up Ethiopian food using strips of injera bread in lieu of utensils. The combination dinner allows the curious to sample a selection of rich lentil and bean dishes, extremely spicy stewed chicken, and mild, sweet cabbage prepared with butter, garlic, and turmeric. For the full experience, request to be served communally at one of the restaurant's authentic woven tables called mesobs.
See + Do
Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Tennessee
Tel: 901 761 5250
The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, formerly a private residence, encompasses 17 acres of grounds and houses an admirable collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and decorative arts. Chagall, Renoir, Rodin, Gauguin, and Degas are represented in the permanent collection, along with a sizable portion of French artist Jean-Louis Forain's work, acquired in a deliberate effort to gather works by lesser-known, accomplished Impressionists. Temporary exhibits change four to five times per year. A stroll through the formal and woodland gardens makes for a tranquil, and sometimes peacefully moving, addition to an afternoon spent sightseeing.