Travel

Eating like “the King” in Memphis, Tennessee 

From catfish sandwiches to an Elvis-worthy lunch, these are some must-try spots in the music city of Tennessee

  • Apr 24, 2023
  • 661 words
  • 3 minutes
The historic Arcade Restaurant in South Main District. (Photo: Phillip Parker)
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The birthplace of blues, soul and rock ’n’ roll, Memphis is the musical heart of America. It is home to the Blues Hall of Fame, the Smithsonian-created Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, Sun and Stax Records and — most famous of all — Graceland. For most cities, that would be enough, but Memphis has a growing reputation as a foodie destination. Already well known for its barbecue cuisine, soul food and Southern delicacies like fried catfish, the city has more recently embraced a fusion of flavours, in the process blossoming into a culinary capital of the U.S. South. By all means, visit the storied clubs and bars, the museums and recording studios, but put aside some time to experience Memphis the taste influencer.

The Four Way food counter. (Photo: Alex Shansky)
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The Four Way

Open since 1946, this legendary soul-food eatery was one of the few places Black and white diners could sit together in the 1960s. A favourite of Stax musicians and civil rights leaders, the restaurant still lives up to its reputation as a community meeting place. The fried green tomatoes, fried chicken, and catfish sandwich are all must-haves, and no meal is complete without sides of cornbread and slaw. And don’t forget a towering wedge of lemon meringue pie for dessert.

The Elvis sandwich at Arcade. (Photo: John Geiger)
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Arcade Restaurant 

This diner is Memphis’s oldest, situated in the South Main arts district, its furnishings still evoking the early days of rock ’n’ roll when a young Elvis would stop by for a fried peanut butter ’n’ banana sandwich. You might be lucky enough to sit in the coveted “Elvis booth” at the back of the restaurant to enjoy a hearty egg and sausage breakfast. But for a true taste of the culinary delicacy that fuelled rock ’n’ roll’s meteoric rise, definitely opt for the King’s iconic sandwich of choice.

Catherine & Mary’s

It may not have the historical pedigree of the first three restaurants on this list, but Catherine & Mary’s has good reason to be proud of its “grandmother cooking.” The menu highlights Tuscan food with a Southern twist, all served against a contemporary industrial-chic backdrop. Situated in the South Main arts district, C & M’s has a firm understanding of what the present and future of culinary Memphis looks like. The lumache cacio e pepe (an indulgent cheese and pepper pasta dish) was exquisite, as was the bucatini with gulf shrimp. And here’s a surprise: brussels sprouts that defy the general rule that something this tasty can’t possibly be good for you.

Central BBQ. (Photo: Craig Thompson)
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Central BBQ

Memphis is synonymous with barbecue, and with so many options it’s hard for one to stand out. But Central BBQ succeeds. This is the place to go for pulled-pork sandwiches — “slow smoked Memphis style” — and wings guaranteed to lift you up, whether wet, naked or jerked. The rustic ambiance of Central BBQ, with naive murals featuring blues artists, perfectly suits the down-home cooking. When in Memphis, do as the Memphians do.

Bishop

Set in the trendy new Central Station Hotel, Bishop has made its mark with regionally influenced French cuisine. The space is inviting — spacious yet intimate. An extensive wine list offers a selection of unique European wines. Try the beef bourguignon with turnips and mushrooms and the mussels and frites with fennel, white wine and crème fraîche. Or seek forgiveness for your sins over the decadent Bishop burger. With two patties, you might just need the help of a pastoral staff to get up.

Itta Bena. (Photo: Alex Shansky)
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Itta Bena

You have to clamber up the fire-escape stairs to get in. But once you enter this elegant restaurant hideaway above B.B. King’s Blues Club, you’re met with all the warmth and charm of an old-school speakeasy. The service is first-rate and the dining fine Southern, with live music (of course! It’s Memphis!). Try the Cajun pasta and the shrimp with grits. Great ambiance and fantastic service in a place named after the birthplace of blues legend B.B. King.

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This story is from the May/June 2023 Issue

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