In the southwestern corner of Tennessee, across the Mississippi River with a view of Arkansas’ state line, lies the great city of Memphis. As one, if not the most popular destination in the state, “Bluff City” immediately elicits sounds of gospel, R&B, hip-hop, rock n’ roll, and of course the blues in one’s head upon hearing the name.
Beyond the music, there is the food —lots of it. BBQ is the name of the game when dining in the city, but soul food also reigns supreme with generational and new soulful twists on down-home recipes that fuel the food scene that rivals that of neighboring Nashville, Little Rock and Jackson that are all within a 3-hour drive.
The story of Memphis is also told through its complicated yet rich history that is undeniably woven into American history. “Memphis is a vibrant, diverse city with a rich culture and history. From the iconic Memphis music scene to the stunning architecture of the downtown area, there is something for everyone to enjoy in Memphis,” shares Kirby Boyd, PR manager with Memphis Tourism.
The Memphis native is part of a larger team that ensures those visiting experience all that the city has to offer in a true and authentic way. She adds, “The city is also home to world-class museums, galleries and theaters, as well as unique restaurants and bars. With plenty of outdoor activities and green spaces, it’s easy to get out and explore the city. The locals are friendly, and the city is full of southern charm, making it a great place to live.”
Made in Memphis
The claim to fame for so many great things that come out of the “Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll” is being able to say they were “made in Memphis.” The city is the birthplace and home to amazing talent and experiences that make Memphis what it is today. Whether you are coming for a quick day trip, three days or a week, with some planning, you can take in the history, enjoy the sights, shake a tail feather and eat well.
For many, the M in Memphis stands for music. Isaac Hayes, David Porter, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland created the soundtrack for so many lives with their honest account of life and love.
To take it back, get that head nodding and fingers snapping to the beat of “Shaft” as you walk through the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. First named Satellite Records in 1957 and then Stax in 1960, the record label is responsible for launching and nurturing the careers of Otis Redding, The Staple Singers, Carla Thomas and Booker T & The M.G’s.
Adding to the city’s musical legacy is a new generation of artists creating new sounds through their own life experiences. K. Michelle, Kirby, the late Young Dolph and Three 6 Mafia have all kept Memphis’ musical influences alive with more creating alongside or coming up behind.
Committed to keeping Memphis’ legacy alive is Songwriter Hall of Famer David Porter, who co-founded Made in Memphis Entertainment in 2015. Known as MIME, Porter and Tony D. Alexander have built a powerhouse that includes the state-of-art 4U Recording studio, MIME Records and MIME Publishing. With over 1700 songwriter and composer credits across musical genres for artists such as Isaac Hayes, the Eurythmics, Drake, Celine Dion, Wu-Tang Clan, ZZ Top and Bonnie Raitt, Porter’s presence in the industry and city is definitely felt.
Do You Know Where You’re Going To?
It’s no secret in the world of tourism that if you got good food, people will travel. Memphis continues to be a delicious haven for sink-your-teeth-in meals that speak to the diversity and creativity of the people who prepare them. BBQ, soul food, African, Caribbean, Italian and Mexican are just a sampling of representation of what Memphis has to offer.
Black-owned restaurants and businesses in the city continue to be the heartbeat of the culture. Joining the mix of nightlife dining experiences over the last year is Supper Club on 2nd. Describing its vibe as “sexy with a bit of flare,” it’s the dress-to-impress dress code for me with a menu that is just as impressive. Pair offerings of tender cuts of steak, soul rolls made with collard greens and yams, lamb chops, and pork bites with a curated cocktail menu for the perfect night out on the town.
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Gianni Murphy knows all about creating elevated dining experiences as the general manager of Mahogany Memphis. Inspired by the Black cinema classic “Mahogany” starring Dianna Ross, the restaurant in the Chickasaw Oak Village, one of the oldest malls in Tennessee, takes pride in serving diners coming from around the country. The food, Murphy shares, is soul food with a dash of Creole.
“We wanted to be the first new Black-owned fine-dining restaurant in Memphis. And I guess we set the standards for all the Black restaurants now from our service, etiquette, our food, just all around the restaurant appearance, our dishes, our cocktails. I mean, we set another standard,” says the 30-year hospitality veteran.
An internal debate will ensue once you begin looking at the cocktail menu with over 20 creatively fun options by a spirit that include Halle Berry (Berry Ciroc with Sprite and Champagne), Dianna Ross aka Mahogany (Crown, Baileys, and Grand Marnier) and Robin Givens Boomerang (Manhattan: Bourbon Whisky, Maraschino liqueur, Dry Vermouth, Sweet Vermouth, fresh squeezed lemon juice, sugar syrup, and bitters).
The food also slays with fun movie menu references when browsing. “The Extras,” aka appetizers, always know how to get the set going, as “The Cast” or entrees give the people what they want. Seafood, oxtails and grits, fried chicken, lobster tail and a whole snapper—all served with enough to share—have not left one person disappointed since it opened in November 2018.
Murphy teases a second concept due to open this summer, saying, “I know Memphis is not going to be ready for it. This is going to be amazing, amazing. I can’t wait until we open it.” Well, you’ll have to follow them on Instagram for the big opening news.
If you want to feel like you’re in your mother’s kitchen, lunch at Alcenia’s is where you want to go, but sure to a little cushion of time to the front and back of your visit for this popular spot. Owner BJ Chester-Tamayo opened the soul food eatery in 1997, which is named after her mother. The colorful exterior and interior immediately evoke happiness and smiles as Chester-Tamayo can be seen welcoming guests with a hug as they sit down.
The food prepared with the main ingredient of love has garnered national attention from the likes of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” “Good Morning America,” the “Today Show,” the Travel Channel and The Oprah Magazine. Chester-Tamayo’s cooking show on YouTube makes it easy for others to attempt to recreate her recipes (passed down from her mother) while adding laughter and fun.
A meal at Curry N Jerk is a celebration of Jamaican and Panamanian flavors and comes with all the Caribbean thrills. Owner Arturo Azcarate opened the restaurant to honor his mother, who he says was an awesome cook. Azcarate moved from Panama as a child to and later to Memphis to finish high school. After a stint in the military and 20 years working for Comcast, he settled back in the city to follow his dream.
“I thought we needed to bring more diversity to Memphis because it’s just soul food and barbecue. “I thought this was the best location to introduce my food to tourists and Memphis residents,” he shared in an article shortly after opening.
Curry goat, jerk chicken, salt fish and beans, shrimp and grits and other Panamanian traditional dishes such as arroz con pollo (chicken and rice) and sancocho (chicken soup) are also on the menu, delivering the diversity he wants to offer.
Come for the food and stay for the music every Friday and Saturday night at the 507 Lounge (named after Panama’s international area code) located downstairs in the restaurant.
If you want to chill after dinner before officially calling it a night, stopping at the Inkwell will satisfy that requirement. Self-described, with many agreeing, as a “dope cocktail bar in Memphis,” this night gem oozes all things relax and chill. Dim lights, a playlist of songs that hits every time, delicious small bites (if you have room), and cocktails curated with intentionality, if there is one place where all the “cool kids” hang out, this is it.
In the morning, don’t grab just any cup of coffee, make sure you head to Highland Heights on the city’s east side for a stop at Cxffeeblack. Bartholomew Jones and his wife Renata Henderson are behind this socially-conscious enterprise that operates out of the Anti Gentrification Cxffee Club, an embassy Jones says that connects the motherland to Memphis. Need a recommendation? Ask for the sweet potato latte.
Because We Should Never Forget
Music and food are reasons enough to head to Memphis, but your visit truly wouldn’t be complete if you left without getting full on the rich history that has shaped the city and the country.
As many advocating for the erasure of Black history would want us to forget, Memphis, like so many southern states that have a dark past rooted in slavery, shares its stories through the lens of resistance and resilience, showing the generational strength that we have inherited in our blood as Black people.
Elaine Lee Turner and her sister started Heritage Tours in 1993 to highlight African American sites throughout the city. When they got a call from Helene Philips, who purchased the Burkle Estate in 1985, only later to find out it was part of the Underground Railroad, Turner was charged with turning it into a museum that today is known as the Slave Haven Museum.
“It was really a wonderful fit because a lot of the history that we told in the Heritage Tour. It just floated right into the Slave Haven Museum because on our tour, we tour the Slave Market District, and we point out places where those slave markets were located,” shares Turner in a phone call.
It took 4 – 5 years of curation and renovation and after soft opening, the museum officially opened its doors in 1998. “We always encourage people to visit the entire museum because it tells a story. The tour itself is about one hour and we want everybody to get a guided tour of the museum. They will have a better understanding of the what the Underground Railroad entailed and background as far as Memphis is concerned, its role was in the slave trade as well as the Underground Railroad.”
From walking through a museum to learning history on wheels, Carolyn Michael-Banks’ A Tour of Possibilities is another must-do experience to see the cultural gems of Memphis. “Queen,” as she will also introduce herself as, makes each minute count during the van tour that is amazing, fun and heartwarming.
The New York native’s background in tourism provided the foundation for her own business, which also offers private tours and virtual excursions. Rated 5-stars by those who have taken the tour from around the country, when you’re in Michael-Banks’ van, you’re simply family visiting from out of town, which means of course you’ll want to come back.
Sometimes they say you have to laugh to keep from crying and that may be the sentiment after taking the A Tour Possibilities before visiting the National Civil Rights Museum. Formerly known as the Lorraine Motel, it was here on April 4, 1968, that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated as he stood outside room 306. Today, the museum is a beautiful tribute to his legacy and those who fought for equality.
A visit here is one of the most important 2 – 3 hours you’ll spend in Memphis. Afterward, head over to the historic and iconic Beale Street to see how Dr. Earnest C. Withers captured the life of King and so many others throughout the South during the Civil Rights Era at the Wither Collection Museum & Gallery. Withers captured more than 1.8 million images throughout his international career and the museum offers a glimpse into some of the most important moments that changed American history.
The greatness of Memphis continues to lie in those who know the city best. As a growing city, the word is getting out about its southern hospitality and persistence for diversity and equality.
Murphy from Mahogany’s, who knows the city’s history, triumphs and struggles well, says, “Memphis is my home. I love Memphis. Yes, there are some things that we can work on and change, but home is what you make it. There’s crime and bad things everywhere, but sometimes you have to surpass all that and think about the good things that’s here. And we have that.”
Ready to go? Of course you are. Start planning here, and then for more things to do and see, visit https://www.memphistravel.com.