Food and Drink in Memphis
No one should leave town without digging into barbecue. You'll be asked if you want it "wet or dry," which refers to a preference for meat brushed with sauce or rubbed with dry spices before being smoked.
Central BBQ: We ordered our barbecue dry for our Sunday lunch at the packed downtown Central BBQ (there are three), across the street from the National Civil Rights Museum. Three of us shared ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket, mac 'n' cheese, cole slaw and beans, and then checked out the back room to look at three wall murals depicting life in Memphis. Near the front door in December was a Christmas tree decorated with blue lights and topped with a smiling pig's head. (147 E. Butler Street; 901-672-7760; cbqmemphis.com; open daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.)
Rendezvous: Some locals swear by Charles Vergos' Rendezvous; opened in 1948 across Union Avenue and down an alley from The Peabody, it's renowned for charcoal-grilled pork ribs. It also claims to have developed the Memphis dry rub, a mixture of salt, pepper, garlic, chili powder, oregano and paprika. (52 S. Second Street; 901-523-2746; hogsfly.com; open Tuesday to Thursday, 4:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., closed Sundays and Mondays)
Blues City Cafe: Blues City Cafe is a big,down-home spot on Beale Street, with a long grill where diners can see cooks at work. Their motto is "Put some South in your mouth." Chef Larry's Down South Turnip Greens are beyond delicious, with Italian sausage, hot sauce and spices. There's also catfish, ribs, skillet shrimp, large steaks, "the world's best tamales" and a sublime apple dumpling that arrived sizzling in a cast-iron skillet, and topped with ice cream. (138 Beale Street at Second Street; 901-526-3637; bluescitycafe.com; open Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 a.m., and Friday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 a.m.)
Majestic Grille: Located downtown in a onetime movie theater built in 1913, The Majestic Grille still screens silent films as diners eat, and sponsors special events. Winner of "best brunch" citations in local publications, its brunch menu items range from flatbreads and burgers to artichoke- or crabcake-eggs Benedict and smoked salmon hash. Steaks are a specialty at dinner. (145 S. Main Street; 901-522-8555; majesticgrille.com; open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (brunch) and 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (brunch) and 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday)
The Peabody Memphis: Along with watching free procession of mallard ducks at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily, The Peabody Memphis also draws locals and visitors to eat and drink. Among several options is afternoon tea with scones, cakes and sandwiches, served from 1 to 3:30 p.m. in Chez Philippe restaurant (which switches to fine dining fare at night). At the Lobby Bar, surrounding the ducks' fountain, it's possible to sink into a chair for coffee, drinks and dessert anytime. Locals have named it the "best people watching" site in Memphis. (149 Union Avenue; 901-529-4000; peabodymemphis.com.)
Restaurant Iris: The showplace of Chef Kelly English (a native of southern Louisiana who trained with New Orleans celebrity chef, John Besh), Iris is set in a renovated home near Overton Square. Local polls have voted it best restaurant, best chef, best fine dining and best service. Among menu items is a New York strip steak stuffed with fried oysters and blue cheese. (2146 Monroe Avenue; 901-590-2828; restaurantiris.com; open 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday)
The Second Line: Next door to Restaurant Iris is The Second Line, a much more casual option with po'boys, gumbo, catfish and more. (2144 Monroe Avenue; 901-590-2829; open 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., weekends open 11 a.m.)
Felicia Suzanne's Downtown Memphis: Felicia Suzanne's Downtown Memphis' menu has a touch of Charleston, S.C. and New Orleans (she cooked beside Celebrity Chef Emeril Lagasse). Try shrimp and grits, buttermilk fried chicken livers, or duck three ways. (80 Monroe Ave; 901-523-0877; feliciasuzanne.com; open Friday for lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner from 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday)
Best Cocktail in Memphis
Where to begin? Favorites at The Peabody Memphis' Lobby Bar include the Peabody Cocktail, with rum and Southern Comfort mixed with orange and pineapple juices and a dash of grenadine. The Peabody Mint Julep is made with Early Times Mint Bourbon, a sprig of fresh mint, and a secret something or other.
Local on the Square -- located on Overton Square -- makes a Velvet Elvis, with Justin Timberlake's 901 vodka, lavender syrup, Champagne and orange juice.
Partying college kids head to Beale Street's Silky O' Sullivan's for music, barbecue (of course) and Divers, a lethal drink served in a yellow gallon bucket. Ingredients are "secret," but one blogger wrote he'd heard it's made from lite beer, Hawaiian Punch, rum or gin, and creme soda. They actually pay for that.
Don't Miss in Memphis
National Civil Rights Museum: The National Civil Rights Museum, which was renovated and reopened in 2014, moves many visitors into reflective silence and, at times, tears. Built around the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the museum continues across the street in the one-time boardinghouse where James Earl Ray stayed when he shot MLK. After looking through the bathroom window from which Ray is believed to have made the fatal shot, visitors can read about investigations into the question of whether Ray acted alone.
Beginning with slavery, the museum moves on to cover the entire Civil Rights movement; exhibits span big-screen videos of crowds singing "We Shall Overcome" to a "burning" bus like the one that carried Freedom Fighters; a figure of Rosa Parks sitting alone on a bus to the Selma marches to a jail cell. On a recent visit, when a 7-year-old asked her mother, "Why did they burn the bus?", her mother responded quietly, and the child said, "That was mean." Every American should spend several hours there. (450 Mulberry Street; 901-521-9699; civilrightsmuseum.org; open Monday and Wednesday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., closed Tuesdays)
Sun Studio: A star-maker when teenagers hovered over 45 rpm records, Sam Phillips' studio is the self-described "birthplace of rock 'n' roll." Today's tourists take selfies in the very spot where Elvis first recorded when he was 18. Before The King came along, BB King, Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner and Carl Perkins recorded here; Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison recorded here later. Check out the original equipment, hear stories of the artists and listen to outtakes of recording sessions. (706 Union Avenue; 800-441-6249; sunstudio.com; open daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum: Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum is at FedEx Forum a block from Beale Street, and offers an introduction to Memphis music for those who don't have much time. (Third and 191 Beale Street; 901-205-2533; memphisrocknsoul.org; open daily, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.)
Stax Museum: Telling the story of another onetime recording studio, Stax Museum is farther afield but worth the trip to learn -- and hear -- about the birth of soul music, "which began in the church and cotton fields." The museum also delves into blues and has fascinating exhibits, including the rebuilt interior of a 1906 Mississippi church and Isaac Hayes' 1972 gold-trimmed Cadillac, lined inside with white fur. Otis Redding and Sam & Dave were among the record company's stars. (926 E. McLemore Avenue; 901-942-7685; staxmuseum.com; open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., closed Mondays)
Graceland: Of course, you have to see where Elvis lived and died. The pricey tour now is high tech, with iPads given to visitors as they self-guide through the first floor of his home. (It's called a mansion, but doesn't seem mega-big by today's standards.) His grave and those of his parents are near the pool. You can also see his costumes, automobiles and airplane, and, no surprise, buy stuff at 11 shops. The new official 450-room Guest House at Graceland is scheduled to open in October 2016. Meanwhile, the Heartbreak Hotel is still next door.