When it comes to dining, Memphis has come a long way recently, thanks in no small part to a few innovative chefs who put down roots in the city's artsy Midtown neighborhood called Cooper Young.
Located the the blocks around the intersection of Cooper and Young, CY has emerged as the city's premier dining destination. Chefs Karen Carrier and Ben Smith were the first to bring their culinary genius to CY; Carrier's Beauty Shop combines unexpected ingredients for a twist on comfort food, while Smith's Tsunami takes seafood to another dimension. A few years later, Ryan Trimm opened his Low Country-inspired Sweet Grass to wide acclaim, then the ultra-hip Alchemy opened in a huge space, offering small plates, creative cocktails, a giant U-shaped bar and some of the best people watching in the city.
The great thing about dining in Cooper Young is that it's easy, at least in terms of finding a perfect fit for what you want - be it coffee and a fresh cinnamon roll to a fried green tomato BLT. The hard part is two-fold - first, parking is at a premium (we advise paying a valet fee - so worth the frustration of the hunt) and second, deciding which restaurant to try. Admittedly, the latter is a nice problem to have.
This retro coffeehouse has been a fixture in the trendy Cooper-Young district since 1992. Befitting of any coffeehouse stereotype, you can sip a steaming cup of joe while listening to live acoustic music or poetry readings and browsing the constantly rotated local artwork that decorates the walls. Everything about Java Cabana screams retro and fun - from the mugs to the vintage decor to the mixed bag of Memphis personalities that frequent the tiny shop. The coffee and specialty drink list is lengthy, and simply a blast to read through; nothing seems to break the $5 a cup mark either, which in our book is pretty cool. They also offer sandwiches, scrumptious desserts, and even breakfast.
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.
You'll probably find a full house at this longtime CY fave, and after sampling its excellent Pacific Rim-inflected cuisine, you'll understand - and want to return often. Tsunami is decorated with funky, colorful works of art, and the menu is artful as well. Dishes change frequently, but you can typically find homemade soups and entrees like sake-steamed mussels with red curry sauce or fresh tuna with wasabi vinaigrette. A small plates menu is available, and seafood figures prominently on the menu - no surprise there, given the name. But no matter which entree you choose, save room for dessert, from the lush banana-chocolate lumpia - like and egg roll - to a trio of sorbets.
This trendy, festive restaurant is just as the name implies. Set in a 1940s beauty shop, some guests dine in refurbished hairdryer chairs, and you can almost see the ghosts of the wash-and-set,set that used to come in for a curl. Nevertheless, the kitschy theme isn't what keeps the place packed. Its eclectic fare is intriguing yet delicious, and that's especially true when it comes to breakfast. Sunday brunch means French toast made with challah, big mimosas, a variety of egg dishes, and even a beef tenderloin sandwich for those really needing to splurge. It's all part of the attraction that is culinary genius of Karen Blockman Carrier, the mind behind this and a variety of other popular, funky Memphis restaurants.
It's a bit ironic that such a huge space is dedicated to small plates - but after a signature cocktail or two from the mixologists at the wrap-around bar in this Cooper-Young eatery, who pays attention to irony, anyway? Alchemy works so well in this huge space because it buzzes with a hip, every-everything kind of crowd, from BoHo Midtowners to groups of suburban moms to urban hipsters. Our favorite tiny plates - and they are small, so take our advice and over-order, especially if you plan to imbibe - are shrimp and grits, the duck spring rolls and the Spanish Manchego cheese with roasted red peppers.
Chef Ryan Trimm opened a more casual version of his super-popular Sweet Grass, right next door - hence the name of this Cooper-Young spot, which is as popular as its more upscale neighbor. A bar runs along one wall of the restaurant, with counter seating in the middle, and tables scattered throughout the rest of the available space, giving Next Door a real pub-y feeling. The menu offers smaller and less expensive versions of Trimm's low country entrees from Sweet Grass, including shrimp & grits. But there's plenty exclusive to Next Door, like mac-and-cheese croquettes and a delish fried green tomato sandwich; amazing homemade potato chips come with most sandwiches.
This funky little spot in Cooper Young opened in 2013 with little fanfare but loads of fans; chef Karen Carrier's latest nightspot / restaurant is fresh and hip and a great addition to the neighborhood nightlife scene. Decorated with treasures from around the world - and plenty of tag sale chic - DKDC offers small plates with an international flair. There are only a handful of items on the menu, with a few special offered most nights; these are all small plates, mind you, and the offerings completely change every five weeks or so. There's no one country or cuisine that's prominent - but the offerings seem to come in themes - like Creole, when as I write this there are crawfish empanadas, boudin balls and New Orleans-style shrimp on the short menu. Cocktails are served up in an array of containers, from Mason jars to juice glasses, and include twists on tradition - like a blackberry julep. And there's a small but very good wine list as well.
Don't be thrown by the name; this cavernous space is indeed a deli - and a tasty one, at that. Young Avenue has one of the broadest menus we've ever laid eyes on; there's everything from killer fish and chips to a cowboy pita to a pimento cheese sandwich, salads, and smaller plates for kids. Yes, kids are welcome – and we'd advise to bring them during daylight hours, as when the deli starts rocking, it's a grown-up scene. The beer list is expansive, with what just might be the longest beer menu in town, a mix of the most exotic beers on tap and in a bottle or can - and you can indeed order a Bud Light or something of that ilk, but why would you, when you can have a Ghost River Wee Heavy or a Rogue Shakespeare Oatmeal Stout?
Stone Soup brings a veteran of the Memphis restaurant scene, chef Sharron Johnson, back into the Cooper Young neighborhood following a great run with the now closed Buns on the Run. Johnson offers everything that is comfort food - breakfast features egg platters and omelets and biscuits and gravy, plus hue cinnamon rolls and other bakery delights. Lunch means plate lunches, sandwiches (including the amazing Big Rex - a everything is made on premises, and some things - including herbs and a few veggies - come straight out of the restaurant's garden. Take out is a big business at Stone Soup, and the market area is a real delight, offering daily baked goods and produce and products from local purveyors.
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.