This post is a look back at places Downtown that have come and gone. These are places where I hung out, or that otherwise had some significance, since I moved down here in February 2002 that have since closed their doors.
Empire Coffee – Once upon a time I hung out in coffee shops, not bars. Seriously. During 2003-2004 I was in there as much as I’m in the Saucer now. It was at the corner of Main and Madison where Winfield’s is now. Coffee and other drinks, free Wi-Fi (which had a lot to do with me spending so much time there). Toward the end they started serving beer.
A lot of the coffee shop’s appeal had to do with the owner, Coffee John, who always had interesting stories to tell, most of which began with “I got really drunk last night and…”, and some of which were actually true. There was also quite a cast of characters who hung out there – I could do an entire post (or several) just describing them. And I could also sit and look out the window and watch the bum-and-pigeon show.
Speaking of which – Coffee John had the best approach to handling the bums that I’ve ever seen. They were downright AFRAID of him and never panhandled anywhere near the front of his shop. He was proof that business owners don’t have to just live with the panhandling problem, and that it will go away if aggressive action is taken.
After the place closed I pulled the Empire Coffee sandwich board sign out of the trash and carried it up to my apartment. I need to get that back to John at some point. Of course, before it was Empire Coffee it was
The Map Room – Also a coffee shop, but with the most ragtag assortment of furniture ever seen. They had these veggie balls, 5 for $5, which were the best things ever. They tended to have a lot of bands in the basement on the weekend, some of which were really good, some not so much. After Mongo’s Planet closed the Map Room was the only place in town where a 14-year-old could go to get a Bud Light.
Downtown Blue Monkey – My Sunday brunch spot for well over a year in 2004-05. $12 bottles of champagne and a special brunch menu. Great times, sitting there drinking mimosas, picking on Terry, and watching whatever sport was on TV. This is where we started the tradition of watching really stupid stuff on ESPN and making fun of it. One week they had a Scrabble tournament, I kid you not. The two final contestants both looked and dressed like they were going on Match Game ’76. Except it was 2004.
I also went there during the week. Buffalo wing egg rolls! Their trolley car crisps were good too. Pretty much the entire menu was good. The place was everything a neighborhood bar should be. Can’t wait for it to reopen. The Sunday brunch crew has pretty much all agreed that the Monkey will be our new hangout once it opens.
Cafe Samovar – Russian restaurant on Union, in the space that most recently housed Meditrina. I started hanging out there in 2002 when a couple of my former math students from the U of M were belly dancing there on the weekends. Could always count on friendly conversation at the bar, and then one day I ordered the food and realized what I had been missing! I rated Samo’s food as the best in Downtown Memphis while it was open. Unfortunately it was a victim of Downtown’s big comeback… as more and more restaurants opened, people had more choices, and came to Samovar less and less. Greatly missed and will never be duplicated.
Amber Palace – Another place where my students belly danced. Indian restaurant on Second across from the Peabody with amazing food. I liked their murg tikka masala and murg vindaloo. For those not in the know, murg = chicken. You can always tell it’s a quality joint if they have good murg. The naan bread was out of this world too. The managers introduced me to Flying Horse, Kingfisher, and Taj Mahal beer, which I went on to try again on my way to getting my plate at the Saucer. I was very sad when this place closed, although I must say I’m quite fond of its replacement (Big Foot Lodge) too.
Club Ten – One of the most unique things ever to happen to Downtown Memphis. This was a private nightclub: You paid $150 a year for membership, and that got you in the club from 10 to 2 Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. You could also bring guests in. It only lasted for six months because its financial backers moved across the pond, but while it was open it was wildly popular.
Living only two blocks away, there was no doubt that I would buy a membership. Great music – I believe they had Mark Richens DJing most of the time it was open. The decor was cutting edge, and so was the drink list. Normally I hate places where drinks cost $9 and up but at Ten I never minded. You could put them on your membership and be billed at the end of the month, which I always thought was a nice touch. The bartenders, the doorman, everyone made you feel right at home. To be taken to Ten as a guest was a privilege indeed. God I miss that place. Elements of Ten were incorporated in other Downtown spots – Swig, Bluefin – but it’s not the same. I wish someone would revisit this concept.
Ten was on the second floor of the Toyota Center at Third and Monroe. There was also a private dining club called The Plaza Club that shared space with Ten, but I was never a member of the Plaza Club so I’ll leave it off my walk down memory lane. I did get to eat there a couple of times as other people’s guest and was very impressed.
Club 152 – Yes, I know it’s still open. But I’m listing it because it was an entirely different club 3-5 years ago. There were a variety of good bands playing the first floor on weekends – The Gecko Brothers, Nation, Venus Mission, even the Dempseys occasionally. About 10:30 the second floor would open and the crowd would migrate upstairs to dance. The big deal was securing passes to get to the private party on the third floor, which opened at midnight and featured tunes spun by David the Worm. My friends and I used to spend the hour of 11 PM-12 AM rushing around the club trying to find the manager that had passes.
Oh and the man, the myth, the legend himself, SKIPPER hung out there. If you spent any time in the Memphis club scene in the ’90s you know who Skipper is.
Mike’s – This was a little breakfast and lunch grill across from the Shrine Building on Monroe. They did meat and two for lunch, but I more commonly went there for breakfast on Sunday mornings before heading to Sleep Out’s or the Blue Monkey for brunch. At the time, the Shrine, the Claridge, and the Wm. Len (Residence Inn) were still apartment buildings, and were fairly inexpensive and a lot of service industry people lived there. I always enjoyed coming in to Mike’s on Sunday morning to see who had hooked up the night before.
Cupboard Too – This was my “make my mother jealous” place. You see, in 2002 when she came to visit I took her to the Cupboard in Midtown, and she raved about the food for weeks afterward. So whenever I had a day off during the week, I’d hit the Downtown version of the Cupboard for meat and two at lunch, and then call my mother or e-mail her to tell her what I had eaten. This place is most definitely missed, but at least the one in Midtown is still there. Its loss is also somewhat mitigated by the fact that we got an awesome Italian restaurant in its spot – Conte’s – after it closed.
Dawgie Style – One of the more recent closures. It had just opened the night of Rapscallion Party I, our trivia team’s first gift certificate party. After we drank up our winnings at the Saucer, we decided to give Dawgie Style a try. The owner was closing up shop for the night, but he saw us coming and not only did he re-open, but he gave us free Budweiser as well. Everyone in the group was appreciative except for one particularly drunk team member who said, “Budweiser? Fuck that shit! GET ME A DUVEL!!!” He’s not on the team anymore. Dawgie Style had several varieties of hot dogs, including a Chicago dog, a New York dog, a Memphis dog (with BBQ sauce of course), and your garden-variety dogs like chili cheese dogs. On the weekends they’d cook up special off-menu items. Had an awesome Italian roast beef burrito there one Saturday.
I think location did Dawgie Style in more than anything. Being in that block of Madison between Second and Third, it’s just a little bit out of the way. When I think “Where do I want to eat?” I tend to mentally walk down Union, and Second, and Monroe, and the Main Street Mall. It hardly ever occurs to me to think about Madison. Too bad. The people who owned it were super nice and we miss them and we miss the dogs.
King of Wings – You can probably guess what they were well known for. They had some of the best wings Downtown, but eventually I started going to Big Foot for my wings instead. Note to places that serve hot wings: DON’T BE STINGY WITH THE BLUE CHEESE DIP!!! A little cup vs. a big cup of blue cheese with an order can make a big difference in the restaurant selection for wing lovers. I do miss KoW though. They had hamburgers and other reasonably-priced fare, which is something that is needed Downtown.
That German restaurant on Second next to the Rendezvous – My absolute favorite meat-and-two lunch place ever Downtown. Same deal as the other lunch spots – meat and two veggies for a set price, usually between $6 and $7. But the lunch entrees were German. I loved the schnitzel (veal) dishes. Back in 2004 a friend recommended I go there and try the jagerschnitzel, and for a long time I avoided the place because I was scared of any dish with “jager” in the name. But I finally gave it a try, and it was wonderful. I was so sad when I got a job in East Bumblefuck later that year and couldn’t get Downtown for my German lunches anymore. Right when I got on with the City Schools in ’06, and Downtown was once again within driving range for lunch, the place closed. The decor looked like it had not changed at all since about 1970. The best restaurants are like that (case in point: Pete & Sam’s).
Market on Main – It wasn’t as large as a Super Wal-Mart or even the Schnucks on Union by any means, but this grocery store had most everything Downtowners needed to live from day to day. It was located right in the heart of the Downtown core, in the first floor of Pembroke Square near Main and Gayoso. Stayed open until 8 weekdays and 10 weekends. Its deli made some kickass sandwiches. In my early years Downtown, during Memphis in May I’d stop in there to buy bottles of Sprite. I’d pour out the Sprite, pour in bottles of Smirnoff Ice and walk around Beale Street drinking “Sprite.”
The Market closed in early ’05 because, from what I was told, the lease got too expensive. Holiday Ham took it over, and I thought to myself, if a successful grocery store couldn’t afford to be there, how is a place that sells ham sandwiches ever going to make it? I was right. Holiday Ham closed after about a year, and Circa took the location over. Downtowners still have Jack’s Food Store, as well as the convenience store inside the Shell station at Main and Auction. Or they can drive to Miss Cordelia’s or Midtown Schnucks. Or West Memphis Wal-Mart, if they don’t mind doing business with the devil. Still, though, for the selection and convenience it offered, the Market is one of the most missed businesses Downtown.
Main Street Convenience Store – Or “Ghandi Mart” as my friend Kelly called it. This was a teeny-tiny store in the first floor of 99 Tower/Renaissance Apartments. It selection wasn’t that great, and it had some weird brands, but there was one advantage – it stayed open until 10:30 at night, well after Walgreens, the Market, and Jack’s had closed.
Joey’s Pizza – Possibly the best pizza place ever Downtown. They had a pizza with white sauce (instead of the traditional tomato sauce) that was excellent. Good calzones too. And cheap beer. This was also located in the ground floor of 99 Tower/Renaissance. If this place had been located a few blocks farther south, where there was more foot traffic at the time, this place would’ve done HUGE business. Now that Joey’s is gone my vote for best pizza Downtown goes to the Black Diamond. Haven’t tried Roma’s pizza yet though, so there may be a new contender.
Pie in the Sky – Location, location, location is everything and this pizza parlor didn’t quite have it. When people think of places to eat Downtown, they think, what’s on Main, Second, Beale, Union, Monroe. This little pizza parlor at Front and Gayoso, across from Barton Flats, simply flew under people’s radar when Downtowners were deciding where to go to eat. And car traffic on Front may have seen it and wanted to check it out, but there wasn’t anyplace convenient to park nearby. Cayenne Moon down the street suffers from the same problem but has somehow managed to keep its doors open.
I did have good memories of Pie in the Sky the few times I went in though. I could tell it was a family run business and they were always SUPER nice to me. They had good beer prices and I’d occasionally go in with a friend for pizza and beer.
Their pizza menu, a carryover from Midtown, may have hurt them a little bit too. Their three most famous pizzas, the Moon Pie, Sun Pie, and Bluto’s Revenge, were all vegetarian. In Midtown, where there’s a disproportionate percentage of vegetarians, that’s probably a plus. But a lot of us Downtowners like dead animals on our pizza. Not that their signature pizzas weren’t good – I tried all three and they were very tasty. Still, though, it may be a case of tailoring the menu to the neighborhood.
There’s something new going in there, a bakery with the taste of “aloha”, whatever that means. If anyone has the 411 on this place, e-mail me. They’re going to have to promote the hell out of it to overcome the location disadvantage.
Stop 345 – Another venue hurt by location. Stop 345 had a large space it rented out for parties and events, and a smaller bar where they had some of the most reasonably priced food in town. Problem is, they were located too far away from most Downtown apartments and condos to develop a regular crowd. They tried. They even printed the bartenders’ names for each night in their weekly Flyer ad, something I’ve never seen a bar in Memphis do. They should’ve promoted heavily to Echelon at the Ballpark/Fielders’ Square, the only apartment complex within short walking distance. Currently the venue operates as My Greek Cafe, which I’ve never been to because it’s too far a walk from my other hangouts. I wish them well and I hope I make it down there someday, as I’ve heard good things about the food.
Cafe Francisco – One of my favorite coffee shops to take my laptop. And I’m not even a coffee drinker! They had good hot chocolate, good sandwiches and good platters (Mediterranean especially). I also heard good things about their frittatas on the weekends, but I never got up early enough to try them out. And the owner Julie was SO nice. She was one of the first people I met once I moved Downtown. The place closed in fall ’07 because the surrounding neighborhood has been in transition for years, due to King Willie being indecisive about what to do with the Pyramid, which anchors the area.
Gordon Biersch – This was a place I never quite got into for some reason. The bar was a locals’/service industry hangout, much like Sleep Out Louie’s and the Blue Monkey were at the time. But, for some reason it never felt like MY place. Not sure why. I’d go in occasionally and have a beer and their Looziana Crawfish Pizza, which was one of the most decadent pizzas I’ve ever tasted. But I never really felt comfortable hanging there for hours, as I did at SOL and the Monkey at the time and the Saucer now. Closed around the beginning of 2005 due to being an “underperforming location,” despite the fact that they were indeed turning a profit. For a year we all wondered what would happen to it, speculating that it might become the location for a new Downtown Boscos. Then one day I ran into my friends Patrick and Deni and they told me they were opening a new restaurant there – that, of course, became the Majestic Grille.
Sgt. Jalapeno’s Tortilla Factory – This little Mexican place on Adams in the Comfort Inn didn’t make it, and I think it was due more to timing issues than location issues. I went in there the week it opened, and the family that operated it was extremely kind to me. They asked what channel I wanted the TV on, brought me this excellent bean soup, and recommended dishes from the menu. I got the cheese enchiladas with ground beef on top and they were outstanding.
So why didn’t they make it? They opened one month before Rio Loco. With a larger menu, a full bar, and a prominent location on Union, Rio Loco simply made everyone forget about Sgt. Jalapeno’s. Too bad because Jalapeno’s really brought a different and unique style of Mexican to Downtown. Location currently sits empty.
Buckley’s – Only went there a few times for meetings, but they had excellent steaks and good mixed drinks. There’s still a location in East Memphis. The Downtown location became Rio Loco.
Pancho’s – Margaritas were good there. If you’re a fan of eating cardboard, you probably would have enjoyed the food there as well. At least there was free cheese dip.
Elvis Presley’s Memphis – They had the best house band in town – The Dempseys. Otherwise the place sucked. And speaking of places that suck…
Prime Minister’s – This place brought joy to the lives of Downtowners… specifically, joy in making fun of what a horrible restaurant it was. The comments I heard about it were pretty consistent – bad food, rude service, and a snooty and inconsistent dress code. I knew several people who were told they couldn’t come in because they didn’t have a jacket on. I knew other people who went in there sans jacket and were seated right away. WTF? This place got blacklisted among Downtowners pretty quickly, and without the locals’ support it shut down. When it closed I thought to myself, “Downtown Memphis will never see another restaurant this bad again.” Unfortunately, I’ve been proved wrong on that point a couple of times. I wish I had known my current group of friends then – would love to see what kind of derogatory nicknames they’d come up with for PM’s.
I wonder if Koeppel ever reviewed PM’s? He probably gave it four stars.
I am so glad Raiford’s is not part of this list. Thanks for bringing it back and keeping it the way it was.
Sleep Out Louie’s – The place I remember most fondly of all. In March ’03 I was wandering Downtown one afternoon, bored out of my mind. I ran into a friend I had met an an Mpact Memphis event a couple months prior. “You should come to Sleep Out Louie’s for brunch on Sundays,” he told me. “A bunch of us come up there and socialize and drink and act stupid. If you want to meet some great people, come by.” So I did the following Sunday, and immediately found a home.
Over the years I extended my Sleep Out’s visits beyond just Sunday… I’d go in there to hang out on weeknights, or to watch the Fish Races on Fridays or Pam & Terry on Saturdays. I took a year off from brunch there after the Monkey opened, but when I came back they treated my like I had never left. By the beginning of 2006 the current Sunday brunch crew had begun to assemble. By that point we all had other hangouts as well – mine were the Saucer and the Tap Room – and whenever we met someone particularly cool who would make a good friend, we’d tell them, “you need to come to brunch on Sunday,” back as I was told years before.
One of the reasons Sleep Out’s was our home was the people who worked there. They were as much as a part of the gang as any of us were. They took SUCH good care of us. And they were our friends who joined in on the fun. Whipped cream fights, duck farts (shots), you name it. They also took our suggestions seriously. In early ’06 they asked us what could be done to improve the place. Someone asked for NTN Trivia and they talked management into it. I jokingly made a comment around that time: “You want to improve the place? You need to hire some Romanians!” I was kidding, but months later they did exactly that: They hired a Romanian girl. And she was one of their best waitresses ever. And hot, too.
The owner/management company that ran Sleep Out Louie’s decided in February ’07 to cut ties to the people who had supported them over the past 20 years. They closed the doors on February 24, with one last big Pam & Terry party. After that there were Sleep Out’s refugees wandering the town for months. I pulled many of them into the Saucer; others landed at the Russwood Park Grill in the Holiday Inn for a while. Hopefully one day in the future there will be a locals’ bar that unites people the way Sleep Out’s did.
Whew! That’s all I can think of, so I’ll bring this long, long list to an end. Coming later this week: A chance to drink at a museum, bums, and reminders about cheap food and free drinks.