Dining in downtown Memphis covers every base imaginable, and that's what our list covers - some fancy, some no frills, and some all-out must eats. Most of the restaurants listed here are within walking distance of the main business district; a few in the South Main district - like Gus's and Catherine & Mary's - are easy to reach via the trolley. Paulette's is outside the main downtown district, but we still think of its Harbor Town location as being downtown. Barbecue, of course, is a Memphis must; Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous has been pulling in folks with its can't-resist aroma for decades. The Peabody Hotel's lush Chez Philippe is an experience like no other, with gilded columns, an expansive and traditional continental menu and an incredibly divine wait staff. For spicy Southern fried chicken - and we do mean spicy - try Gus's; the best milkshakes and diner-style food is found at the oldest restaurant in town, The Arcade. If you're plans in Memphis only include downtown attractions and spots, then this list will see you through breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a unique flavor to each meal.
HUGE - and we mean HUGE slices of thick, stick-to-your-ribs cheesecake are served up in this unassuming little bakery / restaurant in South Main, with flavors changing daily – a total of something like 80 options in all (although just a dozen or so of those are served daily). Simply get in line, review the options in the bakery case and order - be prepared to wait about 10-20 minutes for your selection to arrive. The presentation is gorgeous, and the dessert worth the wait, with each slice arriving table-side with little fanfare but on plates drizzled with chocolate, raspberry, something simply yummy that goes along with the cheesecake flavor.
The Little Tea Shop is a family-owned downtown home-cooking restaurant. The Old Cotton Row eatery is like stepping back in time, with its vintage lunchroom atmosphere and old-fashioned menu. It's very common to see local business bigwigs chatting up the friendly waitresses, many of whom have worked here for decades; these gals know their regulars well and can even name their children. The food is simple Southern fare, chosen via ballot-style menu – simply grab a pencil, pickup a menu, and start marking off your choices; turnip greens and other lushly prepared veggies are always on the menu, as is chicken salad, and daily specials include catfish or fried chicken. No matter what day of the week, everything is served with corn sticks on the side.
One local politico lovingly calls this Memphis favorite "ambrosia of pork" -but locals simply call it the 'Vous. Charlie Vergos started this Memphis landmark in 1948 - selling pork sandwiches and coleslaw on the street, eventually opening this one and only location tucked into a downtown alley. The best bets on the menu are the sausage and cheese plates, barbeque nachos and full slabs of ribs; the waitstaff can be brusque but don't take it personally - they are simply trying to get everyone served in the cavernous basement that is the main dining area. On any given night, the restaurant overflows with a combination of locals and tourists; upstairs, if there's not a private party, there's a simple bar and waiting area - and be prepared to wait. If there is a private party, don't be surprised if the waiting room is actually the alley; in either case, keep your ear out to hear your name called over the tinny microphone.
Take off for a taste experience at this downtown Memphis restaurant - with flights of both wine and food, the options are seemingly endless. From champagne flights to salad flights to beef or seafood, cabernets or chardonnays, it can actually be a bit overwhelming to choose a combination of food or drink. Our particular favorites are the chicken and waffles - said waffles being made of potatoes, and the shrimp and grits, some of the best we've tasted in town. The good news is that every dish you can try in a flight is also available in a full size - hooray!
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. Paulette's signature popovers and strawberry butter and excellent service are in evidence during brunch, with egg dishes and many entrees offered for under $10. When it is dinnertime, Paulette's turns into one of Memphis' most-romantic spots. For years, it has been known as THE engagement spot in town; the folks at Paulette's have helped many a creative proposal along, from inserting a ring into a piece of dessert to dropping diamonds in a glass of champagne.
The basic brick building on South Front might scare some folks away – but trust us, walk in and load up. Gus's is a franchise of the original in Mason, about an hour from Memphis; that eatery opened in 1953 and the chicken was served up in a paper sack. This is the real deal spicy, crunchy, and juicy, served with white bread. And be patient - your particular order doesn't hit the oil until you've ordered. Cold beer (served up in 40-ounce cans) is a nice contrast to the hot chicken. Sides and starters include fried pickles and green tomatoes, beans and slaw, and strangely enough – fried rice. Assuming you have any room left, chess pie is the way to go for dessert.
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.
Tucked high above noisy Beale Street, but with a great view of the action, Itta Bena is a lush bit of quiet yet rustic elegance that sits on top of B.B. King's Beale Street club. With a practically unmarked entrance (facing Second Avenue, around the corner from the entrance to B.B. King's), the idea is to evoke the feel of a speakeasy in modern Memphis, and it works. While the name seems to indicate Italian fare, nothing could be further from the palate; Southern delicacies including fried green tomatoes, she-crab soup, duck and waffles, and Cajun-grilled shrimp and grits are all worthy of a taste.
Felicia Suzanne Willett is an alum of Johnson & Wales in Charleston, South Carolina, and former protégée of Emeril Lagasse; her eponymous restaurant opened in 2002 in the historic Lowenstein Building at the corner of Main and Madison. Her cuisine is American with a low-country focus, and on any given night you will find the Memphis power elite in the house. There are two dining rooms for a truly upscale experience, plus a gorgeous patio that features both communal and individual seating for a more casual dining atmosphere. When the patio is open (warm weather months, which extends from May through September) Thursdays bring Tacos & Tunes to the patio, a must-hit way to start a long weekend.
From the culinary geniuses that have helped bring Memphis into the national dining spotlight comes the downtown eatery that's just too good for words. Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman - the boys who brought us Andrew Michael, Porcellino's Craft Butcher and Hog & Hominy - have now given us Catherine & Mary's, inspired by their grandmothers' cooking. Think Nona's marinara, but way beyond that – a blend of Tuscan and Sicilian flavors married to Memphis sensibility. Housed in the historic Chisca building, dinner at Catherine & Mary's is a multi-course feast for the palate and the senses. The menu changes monthly, and there's a real emphasis on local producers as well as meat from Ticer & Hudman's craft butchery. Most plates, including the pastas, are sized and priced to share, and our advice is to indulge. Another real emphasis is on desert and drinks, with an in-house pastry chef, a wine director and a craft cocktail genius.