Updated: May 4
Memphis, Tennessee. A big city with a small town feel, and a whole lotta heart. Memphis has a beautifully diverse mix of cultures that is a divine cross-section of America. The perfect balance of urban grit and southern soul that just feels like home. A place I’ve called my home for the past 26 years. I raised two amazing daughters here, where they have thrived beyond my wildest dreams. I worked as a teacher here for 20 years; in the suburbs, the inner city, and everywhere in between. During which time I’ve learned more from my students than they could ever learn from me. And a place where I met the man of my dreams, with whom I am about to embark on an adventure that will lead me away from here, and half way around the world.
As I prepare to leave the city that has become so much a part of me, I find myself thinking about all the things I’ll miss about it. Mouth-watering food that awakens your taste buds and feeds your soul, artistic talent that captures the heartbeat of its people, and music that speaks to your spirit. A city that celebrates its diversity and embraces a history that is far from perfect, but nonetheless ours. As a celebration of my time here, and in an attempt to share my love for Memphis with the universe, I’ve decided to write a series of articles to share all of my favorite things about Memphis. Because food is a way we connect with each other, and also somehow becomes embedded in our memories of a place, I thought it a fitting place to begin.
My favorite thing about the food scene in Memphis is that it’s always changing. Just when you think you’ve been to every restaurant and cafe in town, up pops something new! Don’t get me wrong. It’s the tried and true, hometown favorites that have put the Memphis food scene on the map. Places that have been featured on the Food Network, the Travel Channel, and Southern Living are The Rendezvous, Central Barbecue, Gus’s Fried Chicken, Uncle Lou's Fried Chicken, the Cozy Corner, and Dyer's Burgers, to name a few. There's a reason they come here; the restaurants that abound in Memphis have food that, as we say in the south, is good enough to make you smack your momma.
Ribs & Bar-B-Q
We can’t talk about the best food in Memphis without starting off with barbecue. Everyone around here has their local neighborhood favorite, and honestly, some of the best barbecue is cooked in our own backyards. I mean, in the town that holds the World Championship Barbecue cooking contest every year, you really can’t go wrong.
Even as a local, my favorites are still the names that are synonymous with Memphis barbecue. Go to the Rendezvous for a fun atmosphere mixed with a little bit of playful banter, and some of the most scrumptious ribs you may ever taste. Don't be put off by the alley you have to walk through to to find it. It's part of the charm.
Central BBQ is my go-to for their pulled pork plates and barbecue nachos. They have a location right next to the Civil Rights Museum, one in East Memphis, and another in Midtown.
The Cozy Corner is a must-go for no frills, damn good food. It's not fancy, but it doesn't have to be with food this good. The barbecued ribs and chicken here rival the best you’ll find anywhere. If you happen to be out east, Wolf River Brisket in Germantown is one of my favorite lunch places when I want to treat myself.
Oh, and about that Barbecue Cooking Contest I mentioned earlier. If you happen to be in town during Memphis in May and are able to score tickets to BBQ Fest, you’ll want to come back every year!
Gus’s Fried Chicken is popularly known as Memphis’ most famous fried chicken. Founded in the small town of Mason, Tennessee, Gus’s deliciously crunchy and spicy chicken has been featured on several Food Channel shows, and for good reason.
For me, the real gem in Memphis is Uncle Lou’s. Boasting its own features on the Food Network and Southern Living, Uncle Lou’s Fried Chicken is a little off the beaten path from downtown, but it will be SO worth your drive.
Homestyle, mild, or spiced up with their famous “Sweet Spicy Love” sauce, each piece of fried chicken here is like a piece of crispy, juicy paradise. And the honey butter biscuits? Shut the front door. I don’t know how they do it, but it must be some sort of biscuit making magic. If you’re lucky enough to meet Uncle Lou while you’re there, maybe he’ll share his secret with you!
Barbecue and fried chicken may be what Memphis is known for, but they aren’t the only eats you’ll find in this food-lover’s paradise. Here are a few of my other favorites!
Hometown diners? We've got that covered. How about the oldest Deli in Memphis? Front Street Deli has been around since 1976, but the building dates back to 1853. Its claim to fame is being one of the filming locations for the Tom Cruise movie The Firm, and appropriately enough, all of the sandwiches here are named after Tom Cruise films. The names are catchy and fun, but what makes this one of my favorites is the mouthwatering sandwiches themselves!
Blues City Cafe is a Memphis institution. In the heart of Beale Street, this historic diner/juke joint perfectly combines the blues music and soul food that was born in the Mississippi Delta, and is still alive today in on the streets of Memphis.
Another one of my favorite diners is Elwood’s Shack in East Memphis/ Berclair. It has amazing sandwiches, delicious barbecue, and a pretty darn good brunch! With classic southern comfort food and picnic tables inside AND outside, it tastes and feels just like home.
Speaking of comfort food, Bob’s Barksdale Restaurant in Midtown near Cooper Young will make you feel like you're back at grandma's house for Sunday dinner. Simple but delicious old fashioned breakfast made on the griddle, plate lunches, and homemade rolls that are the epitome of "home cookin".
And my last pick is a really cool restaurant with some history to it. The Arcade Restaurant downtown boasts being the oldest restaurant in Memphis, as well as a being the favorite of a pretty famous patron. Do Peanut Butter and Bananas ring a bell?
The breakfast here is amazing, and the cocktails and spiked milkshakes are perfect for brunch, happy hour, or an after dinner treat! But their most famous claim to fame is that Elvis loved to eat here, and even had his own special booth close to the back door so he could sneak out!
The Cheesecake Corner has the absolute best cheesecake you will ever eat. Along with being some of the biggest cheesecake pies around, they have the most creative flavors, and a selection of fun toppings at your table that send the whole experience over the edge. That's right, this is not just a piece of cheesecake, it's an experience. I challenge you to eat a whole piece by yourself. Just be sure you follow the directions for ordering BEFORE you find a table, or you will suffer the consequences!
There is a plethora of deliciously sweet bakeries around Memphis that have yummy, homemade cupcakes, but for me, Muddy’s Bake Shop takes the cake…pun intended! Creatively named combinations, moist and tasty cake, and just the right amount of velvety smooth, creamy frosting, these cupcakes will send your sweet tooth to the moon and back! Another local favorite with sweets to die for is Frost Bake Shop. They have a huge variety of yummy and creative cakes and pies that taste like home, but my favorite are their cookies. I could literally eat my weight in their collection of "gooey" cookies.
Late night sweet craving? Gibson’s Donuts is your place, as it’s open 24 hours a day. And if you can catch some freshly made donuts, you’ll be in for a real treat. As a self-professed donut addict, I’ve had plenty of donuts in my day, but Gibson’s will always be at the top of my list!
For hot summer days in Memphis (and believe me, it gets HOT here), you absolutely must go to Jerry’s Sno Cones. I am confident in saying it will be the best sno cone you’ve ever had, especially if you try the “supreme”, which is a sno cone gloriously layered with ice cream. There may be a line when you arrive, but it will move fast. And it’s 100 percent worth it. Don't miss the back wall of things to do before you die. Of which, eating a Jerry's Sno Cone should be on everyone's list! Oh Jerry’s, how I’ll miss you!
Upscale restaurants worth the price
There is no shortage of fine dining in Memphis. But with such good food that can be found at more affordable prices, it takes a lot for this girl to spend the money at a “fancy” restaurant. However; special occasion or not, these restaurants are absolutely worth every penny you’ll spend.
In downtown, my favorites are Catherine & Mary’s, Flight Restaurant, or The Gray Canary. In midtown, I like Restaurant Iris, Cafe 1912, or Bounty on Broad. If you’re close to East Memphis, check out Folk's Folly or Hog & Hominy (temporarily closed for reconstruction, but everyone is anxiously awaiting its re-opening). Out east in the suburbs, I recommend Southern Social in Germantown. Reservations are recommended at all of these places!
Pizza and Italian
There is definitely no shortage of cheesy, saucy, delicious pizza in Memphis. My three favorites are Memphis Pizza Cafe, Aldo's Pizza Pies, and Dino's Grill. Memphis Pizza cafe has the best thin crust! Perfectly chewable in the middle and delightfully crunchy on the edges. They also have fun "Memphisy" combinations like barbecue chicken that will have you coming back time and again.
Another favorite is Aldo's Pizza Pies. Aldo's crust to me is more traditionally Italian, thinner and lighter. So yummy! They have one location in midtown with a cool upstairs patio, and a second location downtown with an outdoor patio on the cobblestoned pedestrian section of Main Street.
For delicious pizza and authentic Italian food that’s the closest I’ve found outside of Italy itself, there’s only one option. Dino’s Grill is hands down the best Italian food in town. This little gem in Midtown is family owned and has been in business for over 40 years; everything here is made with fresh ingredients, and a little bit of "amore".
Toasted ravioli that you'll dream about, spaghetti plates you can eat your weight in, and hand made cannoli so good it's like a work of art. Eggplant parmesan, veal parmesan, sinfully delicious garlic toast...there's nothing here I don't like. Dino's gives new meaning to the classic Italian phrase "Entri Come Amici Vada Come Famiglia" - enter as friends, leave as family.
I consider burgers to be one of the major food groups, and should be a staple in every diet. In this area, Memphis definitely does not disappoint. Huey’s is a Memphis institution with burgers that are so juicy and delicious they almost fall apart while you eat them. LBOE (Last Burger on Earth) has won the Best Memphis Burger Contest multiple times, and it’s easy to see why. With creative combinations that are cooked perfectly every time, LBOE is my favorite for Sunday night burger dates with my husband.
And now for the famous Dyer’s Burgers on Historic Beale Street, where they’ve been deep frying their burgers and french fries using the same grease since 1912! Greasy, messy, and delicious...just how a burger should be!
If you want to truly immerse yourself in a Memphis tradition, you must go to Ernestine and Hazel’s for one of their late night Soul Burgers. They don’t cook burgers to order, and they don’t take any nonsense. Just order a beer and a burger, play a few songs on the juke box, and enjoy. If you're feeling extra brave, check out the upstairs...there are more than a few ghost stories about this former brothel turned juke joint.
Brunch in Memphis brings out best in us. It’s the perfect ending to a weekend, or the perfect beginning to a Sunday Funday. No one's judging here! It celebrates family, friendship, weekends, and food. And sometimes breakfast cocktails. That’s right, cocktails aren’t just for evenings anymore. Refer back to the not judging.
Speaking of breakfast cocktails, no one does them better than Sunrise Memphis. Mimosas, Bloody Marys, the ingenious Beermosa, and an Iced Irish Coffee I had no idea how much I needed in my life. And the food. Biscuit “sammies”, breakfast bowls, and delicious plate breakfasts that will leave you happily miserable.
Another favorite for breakfast cocktails and tantalizing food is The Liquor Store. No, it’s not an actual liquor store, it’s a quirky little cafe with yummy cocktails, pancakes I’ve dubbed the best in Memphis, and biscuit beignets that you’ll just have to experience for yourself.
Looking for something unique and special? Cafe Eclectic rounds out my top three. A coffee bar, restaurant, and bakery all in one, Cafe Eclectic is truly one of the places I’ll miss the most. They may not have cocktails, but their coffee bar is the BOMB and their bakery items are all made from scratch. Get the cinnamon roll and ask them to warm it up for you as a breakfast appetizer. Mmmmmmm. Then take your pick from any one of their omelets, scrambles, sandwiches, pancakes, waffles, or other creative dishes. You won’t be disappointed.
Catch a hip and trendy brunch at The Beauty Shop, a super cool 50's style beauty salon turned restaurant. Word has it that Priscilla Presley used to get her hair done here! Their brunch is pricey, but a nice treat if you want a unique experience with yummy food. Another popular brunch spot is Brother Junipers in the University of Memphis area. I love this one for their coffee bar, and a cinnamon roll pancake that will change your life.
Looking for brunch spots downtown? Flight, the Majestic Grill, and S.O.B. (South of Beale) are all outstanding choices. A little on the high end, but if I was going to spend a lot of money on brunch, these would be my top picks. Here are just a few samplings from SOB's brunch menu.
I highly recommend making a reservation if you want to try any of these downtown brunch spots, especially now that many restaurants have reduced their seating capacity to allow for more social distancing. So many brunch spots, so little time!
What better way to celebrate the best eats in Memphis than with food festivals?? The Memphis in May World Championship BBQ Cooking Contest is a barbecue festival, competition, and party all in one. Teams come from all over the world to celebrate their love of barbecue and try to produce ribs, shoulders, pulled pork, brisket, and chicken that is worthy of one of the esteemed titles awarded every year.
Next we have the Best Memphis Burger Fest, which is held in October at Tiger Lane, outside the Liberty Bowl stadium. A burger eating feast that not only judges the best burgers in town, but crowns a Bloody Mary making champion as well! Not to be outdone is the Southern Hot Wing Festival. Running for 17 years and benefiting the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Memphis, the Southern Hot Wing Festival hosts a hot wing cooking contest, as well as a wing EATING contest and Cornhole tournament. Can you get more southern than that? Well, maybe you can. Memphis also has the Rajun Cajun Crawfish Festival every that will hold its own against any you’ll find down in the Big Easy.