Retrospective: Memphis

Memphis, the largest city in Tennessee is set on the Mississippi River and best known for the "King" Elvis Presley, the kitschy souvenir roadside attraction that is Graceland, and for the live rhythm and blues performances one can find almost daily in the parks and clubs along Beale Street. There is a bit more to this sleepy outpost, and just a few days are enough to uncover its unique qualities.

As the taxi makes its way along the river, I take note of the soot-covered refinery chimneys pumping white gusts of smoke into the blue sky, the tony South Bluffs community with its beautiful homes overlooking the shores of Tennessee and Arkansas just a few miles away.

After a quick lunch at Huey's, a neighborhood diner recommended by the staff at The Madison, I find myself wandering the nearby district. It's a Wednesday afternoon just before New Year's, and the downtown area of Memphis is deserted, eerily quiet for someone used to the nonstop hustle and bustle of New York and its outer boroughs.

Luckily there is a full house of patrons at Eighty3, the hotel bar, and I settle in with an espresso martini and delve into the friendly  conversations of which there are aplenty, while waiting for Claire to arrive.

I'm personally not a big fan of BBQ but Claire is a lover and aficionado so we make our first dining experience at the renowned Rendezvous BBQ located on it's own namesake alley just behind South 2nd Street. The BBQ restaurant boasts: "Not since Adam has a rib been this famous," and though tasty, I agree with Claire in that the meat was a bit dry and didn't quite fall off the bone like one would have liked.


After a continental breakfast at The Madison, we make our way to The Peabody (sadly just missing their famous duck parade) to begin a walking tour of the downtown Memphis area.

Following the guided instructions provided by Frommer's we discover the city's most famous attractions, including an introduction of Beale Street (with our first live concert in WC Handy Park) and the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum structure incorporates the location of Martin Luther King, Jr's assassination, The Lorraine Hotel. 

I found the exhibit to be quite moving, thanks in part to the introductory film The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306--told from the point of view of Reverend Kyles, who was present on that fateful day. 

The day of touring ends with a late lunch at Gus's Hot and Spicy Chicken and a trolley ride back to the hotel for a rest before checking out some live rhythm and blues. 

Later that evening we head out for Beale Street, starting at the Blues City Cafe with Brad Birkedahl and the Burnin' Love Band followed by karaoke (signature rendition of Walking on Sunshine) at the Superior Bar, just a few doors down. Here we learn some hip hop dance moves from new friend Shae, before calling it a night early Friday morning.


We wake to another beautiful Memphis morning, and venture to the Blue Plate Cafe for a hearty Southern breakfast. We order a tasting menu that includes biscuits and gravy, fried green tomatoes, eggs, grits, pancakes, bacon and hash browns, accompanied by juice and coffee. And even though we're not likely to finish everything, we take the leftover biscuits and deep friend green tomatoes as snacks for our day at Graceland.

The drive takes all of 20 minutes; and there's time to browse the gift shop before queuing with the other visitors for our tour. The crowd's demographic is mostly white, and young due in part to the many football fans in town for tomorrow's football match at the Autozone Liberty Bowl. We are surrounded by sweatshirts in red and gold as Bearcat and Commodore fans rally in the Memphian attractions. 

The decor of Graceland proper is quite different not quite as ostentatious as I thought. Claire and I disagree on the level of tackiness; in my experience as a child growing up amid gaudy Italian design with plastic-encased brocade couches, white faux Christmas trees and mirrors everywhere, I find Elvis' choices in most cases modest. The living room with its cream-colored couch and baby grand seems almost elegant for the 70s, and the mirrored dining room table with its black lacquer chairs and teak accents are not at all what I had expected. The famous Jungle Room, features an indoor waterfall and carved wood furniture, a "lush" forest green shag rug. Together with the tapestry ceiling in the pool room (see below) are the most 'decadent'--obvious examples of an acquired decor preference from the psychedelic decade. Though given the cribs of celebrities today, Elvis' pad somehow pales in comparison. 

The most impressive parts of Graceland, include Elvis' hall of fame walls covered with gold and platinum records, his custom-designed cars and collection of aircraft, as well as a wall of donations for all of his philanthropic efforts. 

Next stop the Gibson Beale Street Showcase for a tour of the guitar factory--the detail and care that goes into each guitar during its 3-week long creation process certainly inspires the inner musician to own one--until hearing the price tag. Gibson guitars cost anywhere from $800 to $10,000. 

We catch a light dinner at The Majestic Grill, formerly a silent picture house that entertained Memphians for three decades, before heading back to Beale Street for more live music. This time we find ourselves enjoying the sounds of James Govan and the Boogie Blues Band, the house band playing at the Rum Boogie Cafe for the past 17 years.


Brunch finds us in the Cooper-Youth district, a 1x1 block square of restaurants and bars. We take a break from the southern cuisine with pasta and pizza from Cortona, a local Italian restaurant. The last day of 2011 and there are worse ways to close out the year than with lunch al fresco in sunny 62 degrees.

We drive through Midtown and East Memphis, checking out local shops Crazy Beautiful (where Claire finds a killer pair of new jeans), the University of Memphis/Tiger bookstore (where we picked up tattoos and pom-poms for the game tonight), and Flashback, a vintage shop (where a vintage airstream is parked in the lot):

Claire & Andrea, 12.31.11
Back in Memphis, we shower and change before heading over to the FedEx Forum for the Memphis Tigers vs. Charlotte 49ers college basketball game, and our final night of fun. We head over to Bury Our Blues in WC Handy Park and stumble upon new rock band, Prosevere performing center stage. Beale Street is packed, a mini-Times Square for the annual Hard Rock Guitar Drop at midnight. Afterwards we return to Rum Boogie Cafe for an encore of the house band tunes, and then head over to Huey's for greasy grub to wash 2011 for good. We may have celebrated the new year one hour behind but we definitely felt the east coast celebration in central time!

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