Just east of Memphis, Germantown is the kind of town that's pictured next to words like 'idyllic' and 'pastoral' in the dictionary. Will leafy lanes and rolling horse pastures, upscale shopping, plentiful parks and ginormous homes, Germantown has long been a nice escape from the bigger city of Memphis, whether for an afternoon or as a place to call home.
Until recently, you could count Germantown's locally-owned restaurants on just a few fingers and toes - but now, it is full of options for diners. The list we've compiled is made up of those restaurants that are locally owned and operated; we cover the most casual bagel shop and deli to the town's only white-tablecloth restaurant.
Barbecue is a given in this part of Tennessee, and the Germantown Commissary is a deliciously old-time spot to indulge at the altar of pork. With crowded dining areas, delectable pulled pork and pork ribs, and huge slices of cakes and pies to finish your meal, the Commissary is the best-loved of all this town's eateries. Other long-time favorites include the West St. Diner and City East Bagel & Deli - one of the best kosher delis in the whole region. And the venerable Grisanti family's Elfo's is where you go to see, be seen, and to partake in some of the best traditional and trendy Italian fare.
Whatever your taste buds are telling you they crave, you can eat local in Germantown.
Known to many as the "only real saloon" in the Memphis's Germantown area, the Forest Hill Grill (the former Belmont Grill) is a great gathering spot for comfort food among family and friends. This pub-style venue serves daily lunch specials from their award winning burgers and steaks to fried chicken and turkey pot roast. Thankfully, the new owner is still serving the infamous Belmont burger, a regular winner in the 'best hamburger' category in the Memphis Magazine Readers Poll. This is a spot filled with characters; on any given night, it seems the bartenders have antennae, as they're pouring favorites as regulars shuffle in.
This Kosher deli / bagel shop / restaurant has been a staple in Germantown and East Memphis, with a steady stream of patrons from breakfast through lunch. The tables are crammed into the space, but few care, as most folks in this true neighborhood favorite know each other already; if you don't know your neighbors at the next table, trust us when we tell you that you will by the end of the meal. Huge omelets and potato skillets are the breakfast specialty (of course bagels are, too) and the sandwiches and wraps at lunch come with pasta salad, potato salad, coleslaw or chips. We're especially fond of the turkey melt, which is stuffed full of mushrooms and green peppers on top of the turkey and cheese, with a tangy honey mustard giving it a bit of a sweet finish.
Petra Cafe is one of Germantown's best-kept secrets, although those in the know crowd into the tiny restaurant at both lunch and dinner. Petra offers traditional Mediterranean and Middle Easten food, from beef and lamb gyros to falafel, taboulleh, hummus and kabobs, and an array of paninis with a Mediterranean influence. There are also more traditional American-style offerings on the expansive menu, from Philly cheese steak and club sandwiches. If you're a gyro person, you won't be disappointed; the gyros at Petra are rather large and could easily be shared by two, with a Greek salad to complete the meal.
Fish served up just about every way a Southerner would like it is the focus of Soul Fish, originally a Cooper Young eatery that's branching out east with the Germantown location and a fall 2013 opening in East Memphis. The restaurant boasts a homey atmosphere and truly the best fried catfish we've ever had; it also comes blackened, and is served in baskets or atop salads. Most entrees are served up with fries, hushpuppies and slaw, although vegetables are available as well. Chicken and pork also get their due here, and the smoked chicken salad has loads of shredded meat on it.
Since 1985, the Correale family has served up a taste of New York Italian in their little Germantown restaurant, in its present location since 1987. It started as a small pizzeria serving calzones, stromboli, and more; when they made the move to Kirby Parkway, the menu expanded to include traditional pasta dishes passed down through the family. The current chef trained in New York and the Abruzzi region of Italy, and the food is simple yet incredibly authentic. The atmosphere at Brooklyn Bridge does feel like a family home, as tables are close and you can't help but engage with others around the restaurant. This is casual Italian at its very best.
A few local boys have hit the foodie scene hard in Memphis with Swanky's, turning a couple of cavernous strip mall spaces into some of the most popular eateries in town. In the evenings, Swanky's is a hip spot - especially on weekend nights, when there's often live music or a live DJ. Check the website for the schedule and list of bands. During lunch, it's a walk-up and order spot, with the line moving quickly as customers build-their-own burritos, tacos and salads – with the help of the friendly and often teasing food builders. There are grilled entrees including fish tacos, quesadillas and fajita plates. The star of the menu may just be the white queso; it is super creamy and rich, and practically a meal in itself. The fish tacos are another must-order with crispy yet lightly breaded white fish.
The original Germantown location of what is no a three-restaurant local chain is small and usually filled to capacity, especially on weekends. The sushi bar allows patrons to sit right up at the sushi making area, with a U-shapred counter around the sushi chef's work area. Loads of fresh ingredients - exotic fish resting on ice, perfectly cut strips of seaweed, and bowls of fragrant rice - await the master sushi makers. The menu - sushi and otherwise - is huge, as are the portions; one evening, yours truly ordered a chicken teriyaki and shrimp tempura combination that was embarrassingly large, and brought more than half of it home in to-go boxes.
Located in a century-old former country store in downtown Germantown, the Germantown Commissary serves some of the best barbecue around in the tiny building it calls home. At certain times, you may even have to yell your order to the waiter - literally; the restaurant is adjacent to the train tracks, which are busy night and day. While the barbecue is the main attraction, veer off the usual path and try the smoked sausage or pork tamales; tamales are actually a staple in Mississippi and served quite frequently around Memphis. Be sure to save room for homemade desserts, which are reason enough to wait in line - including coconut cream pie and banana pudding.
The food at Las Tortugas is un-American - that is to say,it's made as if you were in Mexico City and hasn't been American-ized. The focus is tortas (sandwiches) and tacos, with an emphasis on all-fresh ingredients - think lots of fresh avocado, cilantro, cotiga cheese, sweet onions, a spiced cucumber salad as a small side, and hand-cut (and thick) chips. Traditional aguas frescas – fruit drinks – are whipped up and are the perfect drink to cool the spice. The food takes its time getting to you, and the prices are higher than most folks expect ($4.95 for an aquas frescas). The wait and the pricetag, however, are worth it, as there's no other taste of Mexico like it in Memphis.
Elegant and graceful, Southern Social lives up to its name with a rarefied, lush interior and a menu packed with Southern favorites, from fried chicken to shrimp and grits. But it's more than the food equivalent of seersucker and white bucs, offering updated takes on Southern classics, as well as a focus on premium ingredients from appetizers to desserts. There's a nice array of steaks and chops from Niman Ranch, as well as a selection of seafood from the Gulf and beyond. Tucked on the side of Germantown Road that narrows to two lanes and next to the town's train depot (where trains still clack by but no longer stop), Southern Social was a much-needed fine dining option in the eastern suburb. The bar is fine spot to sit and sip, and the banquettes in the dining room can be cozy and romantic in the evenings.