Saturday, November 28, 2009

The friendliest city no one is visiting

My first visit to Memphis was about 1992, to a work conference at Rhodes College, which is what is considered "Midtown" Memphis.  Outside of Graceland, this is where most of the tourists go - Zoo, Pink palace, Art Museum... even the bumper stickers say "Midtown is Memphis."

Which leaves the poor downtown district all dressed up with no one to serve.  This photo -- not from our trip -- is a fairly true representation of Beale St foot traffic, and this is likely a Friday or weekend night.  At the beginning of the week, and certainly on the Friday following Thansgiving, the streets were empty.  It was like renting out a downtown for your vacation.

Fully staffed.

The other title of this post could be, "What if they gentrified and nobody came?"

The large office buildings and storefronts along Main, Union, Front, and the numbered streets were bought by commercial developers as condo space, retail, and business, but missed the market -- by time or appeal is not clear -- and this move-in ready infrastructure is available for the taking.

AutoZone and Toyota still hold the downtown, the courthouse system (including law offices, bailbonds, and copy centers) is plentiful, and several major hotels and historic attractions (more below).  There are just no locals.  Staff we talked to at hotels and restaurants said people live and work outside of this small square, and the people who do work in the area serve the tourists, and don't have the kinds of jobs that put them outside on daily errands.

The Main Street trolley, which cuts through the middle, and loops around the river, has reduced fare of 25 cents at lunchtime, but is ridden mostly by tourists treating it like a sightseeing tram (which it does very nicely) and mothers with strollers and too many shopping bags.  At the end of the trolley loop is a giant riverfront warehouse converted to lofts, where the trolley stops at the entrance awning, and where every unit has a view of Arkansas.  Now leasing at about $500/mth or you can buy for under 200K in most buildings.

Not that the trolley is necessary; we walked every block of this district -- more than once -- when we weren't riding by carriage (cocktails delivered to your pumpkin!) 

The only place we encountered crowds was at the 11am Duck March, and then I expect these people took off for Graceland, the casinos, and the zoo, leaving us as the mayors of downtown.  We decided our secret names to the locals were "them ladies," or some variation of it.  Perhaps "Austin/Boston," since that story always generates conversation.  One docent asked if we were sisters or classmates, and I remembered that you have to love the South for keeping the word "classmates" in normal conversation.

If you are planning your trip to Memphis (and would you please, these people are like Canada-nice, the food is good, the music great, the streets are clean, and the sights plentiful)  here are our recommendations, with traffic-driving links.  Every one of these venues can be found in the outlined area. ("A" is our residence -- formerly the Wm Len building, now turned hotel).  Incidentially, this building, and 11 thousand others are registered as Historic Places -- this is more than Boston, and certainly Austin -- and doesn't include those that were listed but demolished during urban "renewal."

National Civil Rights Museum - This can take a few hours, if you tend to read everything, which we do.  Even without that detail, plan an hour, and be aware that school groups may be attending, which could also slow you down.  NCRM has opened a 2nd site across the street that leads you to the boarding house and the bathroom window from which James Earl Ray sent a single shot.  The sightline is shocking, and the fact that the building still exists is even more so.  Lots of information here about the investigation and conspiracy theories, which is too much after everything you have been through at this point.

Beale Street - go a couple of times.  There is food, music, souvenirs, and a Bourbon Street vibe without drunks, hookers, crowds, hurricane carts, strippers, and whatever that smell is.
We recommend Miss Pollys, BB Kings, Blue City Cafe, Schwabs (even though it closes at 5, we could see it was awesome).

Rock and Soul - I list this under must-do because you can get both Stax and Sun exhibits in the same tour, plus the rest of Memphis's music scene.  By this means, we skipped both the Sun tour (which seemed inflated for Elvis pilgrims) and Stax, but you could easily do all 3 in a day.

Belz museums - I am putting this under must-do because I dragged my feet and arched my back about it and I was wrong-wrong-wrong.  All respect to the MFA's Asian collection, but the people want spectacle.  How there is any gigantic jade and ivory left in China is a mystery.  (right: a section of a carving of a mammoth tusk.  And it is not the only one.  deal with it, MFA).
The Belzes also run the Urban Land Institute, working to revitalize the riverfront neighborhoods.

Bardog - we adopted this local because the hotel did not have a bar and because it had a Memphis-business folk Happy Hour scene.  The food is much better than the menu indicates.  Order the "chicken cutlet," which is actually marinated grilled chicken breast, roasted red peppers, tomatoes and pepper jack on grilled Texas toast with shoestrong fries.  That, kids, is how to describe that sandwich.  Consider it.  You have a great little bar.

Worth the Price
Hughey's -  Burgers and bar bands.  Some of the food in Memphis is trying too hard, but if you keep it real, you will eat well.

Flying Fish - Woodman's southern style: fish in a basket, beer in a bottle, Pete's on the table.  More expensive a lunch than you expect, but you are not going to fry okra at home, are you?

Center for Southern  Folklore - free - art gallery/event space, and apparently a co-op celebrating folk art and history .  This was the best giftshop we visited in terms of variety, price, and service.  We also learned about the Labor Day music festival there.

Peabody ducks - because they are free.  But come at 10:30 and wait around, because if you come at 11, you can not actually see the ducks.  They are very short.

Carriage rides - there are several companies, but they all feature cinderella lights and a friendly dog.  30 mins for $45; 60 for $75 (per carriage load).  This is a good  starter tour to give you a sense of where things are, and entice you to go off Main and Beale.

The Tea Shop - The Tea Shop was in view of our window, and next door to Bardog.  The Tea Shop is the kind of local insider's place that would not bother to have a website.  Most tourist staff will not recommend it, because it is not soul food or BBQ, and the food is nothing at all special (unless you have missed your pimento cheese sammich, which they serve).  But it is where real Memphians are, the hostess/owner will call you "darlink," and you will experience the true integration of this unique southern culture.

Cotton Exchange - this is a surprising tour that uses an iPod soundtrack and neighborhood walk to make the information more lively.  The exhibit also includes interviews with Exchange members and their descendants, and underscores that cotton is not a bygone industry.  As usual, there was not quite the book I was looking for in the giftshop to "say more."

We skipped it, but doesn't mean you have to
Some of it was time, some was money - most was we decided to eat instead.  These were on our list, but didn't make the final cut.  Check them out.

South Main Arts - while you are at the civil rights museum, you are in "South of Main," where a few antique stores and Pearl's Oyster House may attract your attention.  Gulf oysters - not so very far to travel.  (notice the picture on wikipedia - we really aren't kidding)

Mud Island was closed for the season, but I can recommend this day trip from my previous visit.  Engineering stuff for dad, activities for kids, and one damn minute for mom.  I noticed that the website spells "mud is land," which is actually the history of this little land mass.  Another place where you should expect field trips.

Gibson Guitars - My "classmate" thought she should leave some things for her return with family

Full Gospel Tabernacle - sadly, there was no Wed night service due to the holiday.

restaurants we missed because there are only so many meals in a day: Rendezvous, Wangs, Flight, Sauces, McEwen's

You can skip...
Victorian Village - unless you intend to re-hab and buy one.  Think High Street/Sycamore in Petersburg, but in the 1970s, before anyone had bought them.  It was a long and sprawly walk including crossing Danny Thomas (you wouldn't like him when he's angry) to get to a few white elephants, fewer of which are occupied, one of which is open to the public.  The desk staff at the hotel made fun of us for it.  Click the link and you've done it.

Majestic Grille - or just have a drink there.  The building is lovely, and the service (as always) attentive, but Meh on the food.  GThis was our most expensive meal, but not the best.

Felicia Suzanne - I want to rate this higher, because the European-style waitering and the room felt very fancy, and the chef sent an amuse that was the world's best little crab puff, but the food was actually complicated in its presentation, and ordinary in flavor.  The fact that I kept calling it Francesca's also hints at the impression it left.  If you are looking for your dress-up evening out, you might consider one of the others we missed.

Not in the neighborhood, so we didn't go

Thanks Memphis - that hit the spot.  We hope this helps drive some business.
not too much now....


  1. Thank you for visiting our city and posting your experiences. The people of Memphis want you to come back soon!

  2. Your t-day travelogues rank right up there as required reading! xo to both of you - Baroness

  3. Thank you so much for the kind words about Memphis. I'm really glad you enjoyed your trip. (You've also listed some of my favorite places in your must-sees).

    I'm a native Memphian, and I run a blog called I Love Memphis. It's there to promote all of the awesome things to do and see and eat in this wonderful city.

    If you ever make it back, please let me know. I'd be happy to show you some of my favorite spots (the HiTone in midtown is the best place to hear live music, the Cove in the Broad Ave. Arts District is one of my favorite watering holes, and I got married at Earnestine & Hazels, a total dive bar / juke joint in South Main).

    Again, I'm glad your trip to Memphis was enjoyable!

  4. Thank you so much for visiting Memphis, I love your post!!! I hope you will return to see us soon. Have a wonderful day!!

  5. Thanks for visiting our fair city. I would suggest you go to Earnestine and Hazel's, Raiford's and a show at the Hi Tone next time. Nice work though.

  6. No locals? I assure you, your timing played a large part of this.

    I've lived, worked, and played in downtown Memphis for about 6 years now, and know most of people around here. Rarely a night goes by that most of the places you walked around don't fill to capacity, and most of them are people who live right here, not people from elsewhere.

    Yes, Thanksgiving week was a rare dead week for around here. Half of downtown went to family gatherings for the holidays, and the other half went to see various football related events in other cities. The locals that were left happened to gather at two or three private parties in the South Main area, leaving downtown a bit deserted.

    But next time you come back, take the time to stop downtown again, preferably not on a holiday weekend. Also, not in May, we're packed to capacity then! :)

  7. I echo Otto's comments with respect to local residents greeting visitors and supporting downtown.

    Not sure who you spoke to, but downtown Memphis boasts two thriving residential developments that anchor and support businesses in the district.

    Harbortown to the north and South Bluffs on the southern end of downtown consist of an unusual mix of gorgeous homes and upscale apartment living.

    In between these two areas many people live in blocks peppered with condomiums, high rises and apartments that support the tourist areas and core of downtown.

    Thanks again for visiting our city, and please come again soon. (and bring a lot of friends!!)

  8. definitely check out a show at Odessa next time you com through town.


Comments Build Community! We thank you for yours. Spam comments are not welcome and will not be posted.