For years, foodies took pilgrimages to Memphis for two reasons: Central BBQ and Gus’s Fried Chicken. Today, fine dining chefs, the farm-to-table movement, and transplants with diverse backgrounds have surprisingly made Memphis one of the most happening food scenes in the American South. As new chefs mix global flavors with tried-and-true Memphis traditions, there’s a memorable meal to be had at every price point. Here are a few restaurants not to miss.
1. Babalu: Babalu epitomizes the best of the global flavors that have transformed Memphis dining options. Located in Overton Square — a neighborhood that has undergone a radical food transformation over the last few years — the restaurant pairs exquisite flavors in small plates with powerful margaritas that keep the restaurant packed with locals enjoying a night out. Don’t miss the guacamole, prepared table-side; the wide-ranging taco selection; or the patio with its great view, open during warmer months. And if the line looks too long when you arrive, do as the locals do: Put your name down, then cross the street to have a drink at Local, a gastropub with an excellent beer selection that (naturally) always includes local Memphis beers to sample.
2. Hog and Hominy: Memphis East is worth the drive for many reasons, and Hog and Hominy, a fusion of Italian cooking and Southern culinary tradition, is at the top of the list. Italian culture runs deep in the South, and if you can’t see the connection offhand, Hog and Hominy’s Red Eye Pizza (pork belly, egg, fontina, and celery leaf) will clarify why the two are magic when mixed. In good Southern tradition, you should come prepared to pass your plates multiple times, as the poutine starters and the peanut butter pie dessert are both not to be missed.
3. The Beauty Shop: These days every city has a young, hip(ster) neighborhood. In Memphis, that neighborhood is Cooper Young, and The Beauty Shop, located at the intersection of Cooper and Young Streets, is its foodie flagship. The “Look Good. Eat Good” proclamation on its window bears fruit inside, where your seating choices include old hair dryer seats and tables tucked into salon booths saved from the building’s former life as a 1950s beauty shop (where Elvis’ ex-wife got her regular curl-and-dye). The Beauty Shop serves lunch and dinner, but the best meal to eat here is Sunday brunch, during which you can have your Bloody Mary, buttermilk biscuits, and redeye gravy with a side of superb local people watching.
4. Lafayette’s Music Room: Want to have your food and hear music, too? After all, Memphis is the place that brought Elvis, Sun Studios, rock n’ roll, and soul into mainstream listening. In it’s original form, Lafayette’s Music Room once saw the likes of Billy Joel, KISS, and Barry Manilow cross its stage on the way to stardom. Almost four decades after Lafayette’s Music Room closed its doors, it’s reincarnated and reopened as a spot to hear nightly music while munching on po-boys, fries, wood-fired pizzas, and the best of Southern desserts. With an interior balcony ringing the open space, there’s not a bad seat in the house.
5. Felicia Suzanne’s: Nestled in the heart of downtown, Felicia Suzanne’s offers Southern cuisine in its most elegant form, at an easy walk from many downtown hotels. It’s the locals’ go-to date night or special occasion start — and it makes the perfect way to start a memorable evening followed by a show at the Orpheum Theater (or a great way to end of day of visiting the nearby National Civil Rights Museum, Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid, or Gibson Beale Street Showcase). One reason why the restaurant is a favorite: Open windows look onto walkers strolling down Main Street, which is closed to all other traffic. As for the food, enjoy great service as you dine on low-country dishes like buttermilk fried chicken livers, shrimp and grits, or the perennial favorite: the BLFGT salad, featuring with Porcellino’s bacon, fried green tomatoes, baby greens, and Tennessee cheddar spread.