Modern-day Overton Square at night — Photo courtesy of Jessica Grammer for Overton Square / Loeb Properties
The year was 1969, and the voters in Memphis had just approved liquor by the drink. (Yes, you are reading that correctly – 1969). Local lore has it that the approved license was driven from the state capitol in Nashville straight to the T.G.I. Friday's restaurant in the Midtown neighborhood of Overton Square, marking the square as the city's new nightlife hotspot.
During the 1970s, a dozen restaurants, a few dozen shops and a whole lot of fun defined Overton Square. There was a skating rink in the winter, live music, a disco, pub crawls and even faux snow during the annual Christmas celebration
In the '70s and '80s, Overton Park was where the cool people went to play — Photo courtesy of Memphis Heritage / Special Collections at The University of Memphis
By the late 1980s, however, the square was losing steam, and only a few restaurants remained. There was talk of razing the whole area; while the nearby Playhouse on the Square was attracting theatregoers, this part of Midtown was a ghost town on most evenings.
Today, the square is back, and how.
The renaissance of Overton Square is thanks to a few factors. The first was the gastronomic build-up of another struggling Midtown neighborhood, Cooper-Young (CY). Once a few chefs (including Sweetgrass's Ryan Trimm) put their new restaurants in CY, more chefs – especially the young guns in town – started to follow.
A view of Madison Avenue, circa 1980; Babalu Tacos & Tapas is in the TGI Friday's location — Photo courtesy of Memphis Heritage / Special Collections at The University of Memphis
Kelly English opened Iris just a block or so from the corner of Madison and Cooper, the main intersection of Overton Square. The Playhouse moved into brand new digs. Local property developers, Loeb, experimented with a pop-up Christmas shop in one of the long-empty landmarks on the square. The company made a commitment to improving the infrastructure, throwing serious development dollars into the project. And the neighborhood just bloomed into fabulous-ness.
Now, the square is almost full once again, with 15 restaurants, a handful of stores, a yoga studio, a day spa and salon and more.
You can get pizza at Bosco's, tacos and tapas at Babalu, fro-yo at YoLo and candy at Sweet Noshings or clothes at The Attic. The Square is home to three live performance theaters and a movie theater, and the neighborhood is hopping on any given night.
Sunday brunches are packed with the hip, the young, retirees and the post-church crowd of families. It's even ground zero for full and half marathon training.
These days, the social gauntlet in Memphis seems to be how quickly you experience one of Overton Square's restaurants: the faster you can claim to have grabbed a meal, the more social cred you have.
Marathoners-in-training gather in Overton Square for a group run — Photo courtesy of Jessica Grammer for Overton Square / Loeb Properties