Weekend in . . . Memphis

There’s a lot more to Tennessee’s ‘other Music City’ than blues and barbecue

Maybe even more Music City than Nashville, its country cousin to the east, Memphis has strong affiliations with not one musical genre but three. It is the birthplace of rock’n’roll, the cradle of soul and, though the blues weren’t born here (that distinction goes to the rural parts of the Mississippi Delta), it was the Memphis-based musician and “Father of the Blues”, WC Handy, who helped get those “lonesome songs” out into the world. But there is far more to Bluff City than blues and barbecue.

A watermelon and feta salad can be found alongside great smokehouse meats; zydeco and indie rock are within earshot of soul; and up-and-coming areas such as Cooper-Young are giving the city’s older haunts some stiff competition. For this short visit, it may be best to leave out the Graceland juggernaut, though if Elvis is on your bucket list, head out any morning to Graceland’s Meditation Garden where the King is buried – it’s peaceful and free.


4.30pm - Genesis

“The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel, ” wrote the historian and journalist David L Cohn, so grab a Peabody Punch (€12.30) and avoid the madness downstairs by staking a claim on the hotel’s opulent mezzanine. From there, you’ll get a gander at the famous Peabody ducks while absorbing the lush ambience of this classic hotel. The duck story is a Southern Gothic gem dating from the 1930s that involves a former manager and his hunting buddy, some Jack Daniel’s sippin’ whiskey and the placement of live decoy ducks in the hotel’s fountain.


8pm  - Big food, big flavour

Restaurant Iris, in a quaint Victorian house, feels breezy and intimate but is deadly serious when it comes to its French-Creole dishes, which are based on local and seasonal ingredients. The restaurant is small enough that the chef, Kelly English, may come out for a visit. Start things off with Rod Bailey’s darkly savoury raviolo with brown butter and mushrooms (€15.85), or a lobster knuckle sandwich with tarragon and tomatoes (€15.85). A signature dish is the surf and turf, a New York strip stuffed with fried oysters and blue cheese (€34.35), and it’s just like it sounds, profusely rich.

10.30pm - Do the Hustle 

Grab a cab downtown to revisit the hyperkinetic 1970s in Paula and Raiford’s Disco (cover €8.80 to €13.20). Not for the seizure prone, the club, with its illuminated dance floor, packs a criminal amount of fun (and rope lights); the disco playlist will bring out the Donna Summer in anyone. Bubbly Paula runs the bar while her septuagenarian father, Robert Raiford, spins music. Well drinks, €7; call drinks, €8.80. Ask Uncle King Raiford to carve out some time to take you at night’s end to your final destination in his white stretch limo (tip only required). He knows where it is.

1am - Nightcap

Wrap up the night incognito at one of Memphis’s best-kept secrets: Kings Palace Cafe’s Absinthe Room. Beyond the barely visible door, which looks like the entrance to a speakeasy, a dark stairwell leads to one of the city’s friendliest bars. The clientele is diverse, the couches comfy and the jukebox and pool tables inviting. The absinthe drinks are a vivid sight, each with a small, flaming sugar cube. Expect to pay between €8.36 and €13.20, depending on the brand. Make sure everyone in this party gets a cab home.


8.30am - Wake Up!

Brother Juniper’s is famous for its breakfast and brunches – particularly the creative omelettes – so get there early. The restaurant is owned by the Koplin family and has its roots in a spiritual community in the 1960s, and though that story is a little fuzzy, this family of four works together like four greased pistons. The breads are baked daily, the jams made in-house, and the coffee is roasted locally every three days. Try the pesto-tomato omelette with mozzarella cheese, served with home fries and coffee (€11.05).

10.30am - Lest We Forget

Head downtown to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel (adults, €13.20). More than $27 million was recently invested in the museum, and the result is an informative and visually compelling walk through history. The sprawling complex, developed around the motel where Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated on April 4th, 1968, traces slavery and the civil rights movement from the 17th century to the present. Creative, modern and immersive, this tour is arresting and rewarding.

1 pm - Slow Wins the Race

Go east to the Bar-B-Q Shop, on Madison Avenue, a classic smokehouse that’s known for ribs that can bring forth a moan of ecstasy from loyal customers. The place is also famous for its pulled pork sandwich piled with an extraordinarily tasty coleslaw on Texas Toast. The baked beans might send you into the kitchen to ask what the secret is (it’s a secret). A rack of ribs with sides (€20.23) is a handful, but the half rack with two sides (€14.07) is manageable for one. For more “bark,” order the rib tips, but be prepared for a mound of meat.

2.30pm - Take a Load Off

Get off your feet and get schooled on Backbeat’s Mojo Tour (adults, €24.64), replete with singing Beale Street musicians who moonlight as guides and raconteurs. You may think you know about the story of Elvis’s leg quiver, but the 90-minute bus tour covers enough music history to ameliorate any guilt you might have about not getting inside the very worthy Stax Museum of American Soul or Sun Studio, a rock’n’roll landmark. For summer visitors, buses are blessedly air-conditioned, and the tour allows patrons to get onstage at the Levitt Shell, where Elvis is believed to have given his first paid performance.

5pm - Brain Freeze

Freshen up with a serving of 1950s Americana at Jerry’s Sno Cones (€1.32 to €3.52) in a cute pink building on Wells Station Road. Wedding Cake, with vanilla almond syrup, is a favourite, but order the Supreme, which includes a big dollop of vanilla soft-serve ice cream. These confections bypass the rational part of the brain. It’s like discovering a new element on the periodic table. Cash only, closed on Sundays.

7pm - Feed the Spirit

The Four Way on the corner of Mississippi Boulevard and Walker Avenue has been serving up soul food since 1946. The current owner, Willie Earl Bates, who first ate there when he was 10, bought the place in 2002.

The restaurant has a storied past, having served many Stax Records artists (Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes) as well as movers and shakers of the civil rights movement, and was integrated when few restaurants were, all of which helped make south Memphis the Soulsville USA it is now. The turkey and dressing with greens and mac and cheese (€6.59) will make you give thanks, and you can’t go wrong with either the fresh baked peach or apple cobbler.

9pm - Pub Crawl

Some of the best food and drink (and shopping) in Memphis is in the Cooper-Young district. Start out at Alchemy Bar with a Sparkling Pears (Absolut Pears vodka, pear purée, lemon, star anise, prosecco, €9.67). Walk south down Cooper Street to Bar DKDC where Karen Carrier has made a name for her international small plates (try the Thai-inspired crispy pork dumplings, €5.27, or the Jamaican-styled Smokey Bacon Honey Paddy, €4.40). Then, to avoid the weekend delirium on Beale Street, set your GPS to 250 Peabody Place, a parking lot just off that main street and walk to Rum Boogie Café (€4.40 cover). “Authentic” blues joints can come and go, but this bar consistently delivers great music (and rum drinks).

The club has a door to the little Rum Boogie Café’s Blues Hall next door, considered one of the last real blues sanctuaries on Beale.


10am - At Your Service

Ease into the day at the Beauty Shop Restaurant in Midtown, with an ambience that neatly combines a little kitsch with refinement. If a “hair of the dog” is necessary, the grapefruit Big Boy Mimosa (€7) is refreshing. The space is a former beauty salon that purportedly coiffed that now famous sky-high beehive do for Priscilla Presley. The eggs Florentine with fried oysters (€14) should set you up for a good part of the day.

Noon - Oxygen

Wrap it up at one of the city’s outdoor spaces: Overton Park, a 342-acre green space that includes the Brooks Museum, the Levitt Shell, the Memphis Zoo and other attractions. Stroll through one of the park’s most extraordinary spaces, the 126-acre Old Forest State Natural Area, on the National Register of Historic Places (it’s over 10,000 years old), having never been tilled or farmed - rare for any space, urban or otherwise. In the spring, the forest floor is covered with bright yellow wood poppy, and even winter affords a close-up look at flocks of golden-crowned kinglets, tiny gymnastic songbirds.

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