The best restaurants in Memphis combine Southern comfort, global influence & local ingredients
By Sally Walker Davies
Memphis Local Expert
Ten years ago, no one would have guessed that Memphis would be the foodie destination it is today.
As the hometown of the annual World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest - aka the 'Superbowl of Swine' - one might think that Memphis is all about barbecue - and certainly, we do adore our pulled pork sandwiches and pork ribs. But dining in Memphis has gone way beyond barbecue, thanks to a group of young chefs dedicated to the local farm movement and the more experienced chefs who mentor them.
In choosing our list of the ten best dining experiences in Memphis, we've chosen a group of restaurants that bridge cuisines and neighborhoods, and go from all-out glamorous settings to comfortable, casual surroundings. Our ten choices include some of the city's best-loved establishments, some new, reservations-required superstars, and of course - our favorite barbecue joint.
Nothing beats the Peabody Hotel's Chez Philippe for the ultimate fine dining experience; its traditional French cuisine and refined atmosphere combine for an unforgettable evening. Erling Jensen and Paulette's are longtime favorites of Memphians, as is Folk's Folly - the slightly dated but nevertheless excellent steakhouse that caters to the political and social elite of the city. Hog & Hominy is the casual and fascinating eatery from the city's two hottest chefs - and definitely worth the wait (you can play boccee to pass the time). And about that barbecue joint: everyone has an opinion about the best barbecue in town; Central Avenue is our go-to, both for the food and the laid-back atmosphere, as well as its big deck.
No matter where your palate takes you in Memphis, our choices all promise a stellar experience and a taste of the city that you just can't miss.
10 Central BBQ
In a city replete with barbecue joints, the debate over a favorite is ongoing. Central is one of our favorites, thanks to the huge patio that's open during fine weather (often with a band tucked into the corner), the homemade potato chips with bleu cheese dressing, which our table of six agreed recently were the work of the devil, they're so delicious, or maybe it's just the atmosphere - fun and funky, with that aroma of smoking meat wafting from the pit. The magic numbers for Central are 250 (as in degrees) and 14 (the number of hours meat is cooked). The pork is always tender, the ribs have just the right balance of crust on top and moisture inside. Probably our favorite dish is the pork barbecue nachos, which feature a two cheeses - the melt-y nacho cheese down under, then a layer of pulled pork, then shredded cheese on top. Y-U-M. Central's patio is always hopping, and many times there's a band on Friday nights, or Saturday and Sunday afternoons. The beer selection focuses on local brews like Ghost River, and the staff - from the counter help to the food runners - are super-friendly. A second location is further east, at 4375 Summer Avenue. (901-272-9377)
9 Erling Jensen - The Restaurant
Tucked away on an East Memphis side street, Erling Jensen is a bit difficult to find but worth the trouble. Grounded in French tradition but much broader in scope, this fine restaurant has been a favorite for years, its personable chef, Erling Jensen, a fixture both in the kitchen and the dining room. The menu masterfully combines lamb, game, beef, and seafood with fresh vegetables and rich, flavorful sauces. Wild game is a highlight of the menu, with offerings including pheasant breast with risotto, or New England red deer chops, and elk. A huge array of salads, wide selection of seafood and tempting desserts including housemade sorbets round out the broad menu. (901-763-3700)
8 Southward Fare & Libations
Southward is Chef Ryan Trimm's third Memphis eatery, and although located geographically in another world from his Midtown restaurants, it's like a country cousin to its city relatives. With a focus on food that's locally-sourced, seasonal, and Southern, Southward offers loads of seafood, unusual combinations of ingredients, and cornbread with every meal - albeit filled with a spicy hit of peppers. Dishes range from lamb meatloaf to grilled duck breast to all kinds of oysters prepared all kinds of ways; the pimento cheeseburger is a perpetual favorite, as is the monkey bread French toast on the brunch menus. Small plates are available in the bar, which offers an impressive list of Southern-infused cocktails (think lots of bourbon and St. Germain) and there's even a nice list of mocktails for those who don't care to imbibe. ((901) 761-4344)
7 Mosa Asian Bistro
A fresh -and we mean fresh -take on Asian dining, Mosa is a bistro that combines the best of Chinese, Thai and Japanese dishes - noodle and rice bowls, curries and a host of small plates - in a casual atmosphere that rocks with the business crowd at lunch, and families and couples at dinner. Dishes are made to order, truly some of the freshest Asian cuisine we've experienced. They come out as they are ready, so appetizers can be quickly followed by one diner's entree - the flow depends on how packed the restaurant is. If time is critical, call ahead and order to go. During lunch hours, you order at the counter and take a number, and one of the runners will bring your food. At dinner, table service kicks in, the wine flows, and the staff is beyond attentive - young and friendly, lots of students working their way through school. You won't find a better trained staff with a great (read: genuine) attitude on the planet. The Pao family is ever-present at both the White Station and Kirby locations, always making time to say hello and catch up with customers -and after just two visits or so, you can consider yourself a regular. ((901) 683-8889)
This icon of the Memphis dining scene moved from its longtime house-like location in Overton Square into a smaller space withing the River Inn in Harbortown in 2011, and many were worried that Paulette's would never be the same. That collective sigh of relief you continue to hear throughout the River City is that of diners who find that while the location has changed, the attention to detail, the wide array of Continental options, and the incredible wait staff has remained the same. Since its move to the River Inn, Paulette's is now open for breakfast daily, and that's a real treat as its breakfast offerings are lush - from eggs Benedict with creamy Hollandaise to hands-down the best French toast in town. Weekday breakfast is complimentary for hotel guests. At lunch and dinner, Continental fare rules, with perennial favorites on the rarely-changing menu. (901-260-3300)
5 Folk's Folly Prime Steak House
Recognized year after year as the best steakhouse in Memphis, Folk's Folly guarantees a flawless American feast from start to finish. With its very own butcher shop next door, the restaurant asserts that steak is clearly the specialty. However, the menu also boasts an array of other delicious main courses, including grilled duck breast and Alaskan king crab legs. In typical steakhouse fashion, sides are large and meant to be shared - and are not included with entrees. The restaurant is large and old fashioned, with five dining rooms and multiple private booths. While you're there, stop by the Cellar to enjoy live piano music nightly, along with cocktails and the trademark - and complimentary - fried pickles. (901-762-8200, 800-467-0245)
4 Sweet Grass
With a seasonal menu and a focus on locally grown produce, the menu is never quite the same each evening at Sweet Grass, but one can always count on an artful combination of Low Country cooking combined with an overall Southern flair. Our favorites include a few always-on-the-menu options - the fried green tomato sandwich, such a treat - and the tasty shrimp and grits, peppered with a few scallops to keep your palate off balance. The airy, open dining room has a small bar area and a very small waiting area, so you can always pop next door to Next Door, also co-owned by Chef Trimm, to wait in comfort for a table if there's no spot available at the bar. (901-278-0278)
3 Chez Philippe
The most opulent dining experience in all of Memphis is found at Chez Philippe, located in the lobby of the historic Peabody Hotel. Fortunately for diners, the cuisine matches the lush and elegant surroundings. Traditional French fare is the focus of the chef, with a seasonal menu featuring a marriage of locally grown and produced foods; a full tasting menu of seven courses, or smaller prix fixe menus of three or five courses include wine pairing options, a must-do. Starters include crawfish consomme and a lobster and fennel salad, while entrees feature dry aged beef, Filet Oscar and an array of seafood options. For those who prefer to choose their own wine, a lush menu offers options beyond the $400 per bottle price tag. (901-529-4188)
2 Restaurant Iris
Chef Kelly English is always in the house - as in, the darling house in Midtown that serves as the backdrop for Iris. The homey feel of the individual dining rooms is supplemented by great artwork and a low-key ambiance; you'll be comfortable here is dressy jeans or full-out glam. The cuisine is a nice combination of fresh local ingredients and Cajun flair, thanks to English's home-grown sensibilities - he's a Southern LA (Louisiana) boy. Recent delicacies have included sweet corn griddle cakes topped with Gulf crabmea and a surf and turf that blends a strip steak and fried oysters When the weather's nice, be sure to ask for a table on the small but charming patio. (901-590-2828)
1 Hog & Hominy
The more casual brainchild of young chefs Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman, Hog & Hominy is a tribute to the pair's roots - both Southern and Italian. The result is a mix of vegetable dishes, pork-focused main dishes and wood-fired pizzas -- all set in a super-casual atmosphere yet with refined service. Located just across from their namesake Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen on Brookhaven Circle, H&H, like it's sister restaurant, is housed in a former ranch-style residence. Walls have been moved and opened up to create an active space - and a wall of windows infuses the dining room with light. The bricks from from old chimney found new life as the brick oven, and colorful metal chairs add pops of color to the open dining space. Outside, there's not only a nice patio for al fresco dining - there's a bocce court. My Italian ancestors are rejoicing. (901-207-7396)
About Sally Walker Davies
Sally Walker Davies is enchanted by Memphis' music, history, and characters. From the artsy South Main Historic District to the grittiness of her favorite live music clubs to the sophisticated style of the eastern edge of the city, there’s a Memphis for every mood, and she loves every part of it. Walker Davies is an experienced broadcast, print, and online journalist focusing on travel, writing for the Commercial Appeal, AOL Travel, BudgetTravel.com, and The Tennessean. She is the author of Tennessee: An Explorer’s Guide and the Elvis-themed travel app King Me: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Royalty Tour.
Read more about Sally Walker Davies here.