Welcome Tar Heels, Sooners, Orange, and Zags! Several people have suggested that I write a local guy’s guide to Downtown Memphis, so our NCAA South Regional visitors can find their way around. Hopefully this will help you find the good spots that the locals like, and avoid the tourist traps.
- The first thing you need to do is pick up a copy of the Memphis Flyer, our weekly arts & entertainment newspaper. It will give you a more comprehensive overview of what’s going on in Memphis than I possibly can write here. A new issue hits the stands every Wednesday. It’s a free publication.
- If you need to ask for directions Downtown, look for the Blue Suede Brigade. These are Downtown guides employed by the Center City Commission. They’ll have on white safari hats, white shirts, and khaki pants or shorts. If it’s cold outside they’ll have on blue jackets. They can answer any questions you have, and they have maps and coupons that they can give you.
- The Main Street Trolley is a great way to get around Downtown, for locations that are too far to walk. It runs from 6 AM to 11:45 PM Mon-Thur, 6 AM to 1 AM Fri-Sat, and 10 AM to 6 PM Sun. It costs a dollar to ride.
Where to eat
- People have been known to travel hundreds of miles to get to Gus’s Chicken, on Front near Pontotoc. Not much in the way of ambience in the place, but many Downtowners believe it’s the best chicken in the world.
- For a good burger not far from the FedExForum, check out Dyer’s. It’s on Beale between Third and Fourth. Good milkshakes too, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic.
- You may have heard of Memphis’ most famous BBQ joint, the Rendezvous. If you want to eat there, it’s in an alley running north off Union Avenue across from the Peabody Hotel. However, I think the ribs are better at Blues City Cafe (Second at Beale). Good tamales and crab au gratin there too.
- If you want something a little bit nicer, the Majestic Grille (on Main just north of Peabody Place) has great steaks, chicken, seafood, flatbreads, salads. It’s my favorite restaurant Downtown. Even though it’s a nice restaurant, you can still walk in there casually dressed.
- Some other recommendations: Rio Loco (Mexican, on Union between Main and Second); Huey’s (burgers and bar food, Union at Second); Happy Mexican (Mexican, at Second and Talbot); Bluefin (sushi, on Main just north of Peabody Place); Kooky Canuck (Canadian-themed bar food, on Second south of Union); Flying Fish (seafood, on Second just south of Union); Texas de Brazil (meat meat meat, Second just south of Union).
- Breakfast recommendations: Blue Plate Cafe (Court Square); Elliott’s (on Second between Madison and Monroe); Arcade Restaurant (Main at G.E. Patterson).
- Lunch-only restaurant recommendations: Alcenia’s (soul food, on Main just north of the I-40 bridge); Leonard’s BBQ Buffet (Main at Adams); Little Tea Shop (meat and two, Monroe between Front and Main; be sure to meet owner Suhair, a Downtown icon).
- A good place to start is the Flying Saucer at Second and Peabody Place, in my opinion the best bar Downtown. They have 70 beers on tap, another 125 in bottles, and they also have beer flights and beer mixers. 5 TVs plus two more big-screen projection TVs that they turn on for most NCAA tournament games. Pool table, two dart boards, free wi-fi. Every day they put one of their premium beers on “Fire Sale” for $2.75. They do have somewhat of a limited liquor selection, as this is mainly a beer bar. The Saucer is where I’ll be watching this weekend’s tournament games, so if you see me, feel free to say hello.
- Down the street from the Saucer (Peabody Place between Main and Second) is The Silly Goose, a fairly new bar that is catching on with the locals. Extremely huge liquor selection (something like 300 bottles). 10 beers on tap including PBR, 30 more in bottles, wine. Comfy couches in the back. 2 public computers if you need to check your e-mail. Free Wi-Fi as well. 4 TVs for game watching.
- Bardog Tavern, on Monroe between Front and Main, is another place locals love. Well-stocked bar, 10 beers on tap including PBR. Unusually good food menu for a bar – the sliders and the spaghetti and meatballs are my top recommendations. 2 TVs upstairs, 1 down. Extremely friendly staff and regulars.
- If you must hang out on Beale Street, the Tap Room is a place many locals go. Unpretentious, just 20 beers on tap plus lots of liquor. Good mix of locals and tourists in there most days. You can order food off next-door restaurant King’s Palace menu. Food is very good – the Chicken Pontabla and the Mardi Gras Pasta are two of my top recommendations.
- A note on smoking: Memphis still permits smoking in bars under certain circumstances – in particular, the bar can’t let anyone under 21 in. All of the bars listed above, and Calhoun’s below, permit smoking. Huey’s (Second and Union) and Kooky Canuck (Second just south of Union) would be good places to try if you have people under 21 with you.
- The main sports bar where locals go is about half a mile south of the FedExForum – Calhoun’s, on G.E. Patterson Avenue east of Main. Nine TVs plus a 120″ projection TV on the back deck. They have the NCAA Madness package. They also have Buzztime trivia/poker, only bar Downtown that does. 10 beers on tap including PBR. No liquor or wine, however. Very friendly regulars and bar staff. Extremely small bar, so you may have trouble finding a seat, although the back deck they recently added expands their capacity by 20.
- I don’t recommend any other place Downtown that uses “Sports Bar” in its name. You’ll have a better time at the “watering holes” listed above.
Where to hear good blues
- B.B. King’s club at Second and Beale has some excellent bands. Highly recommended. They have a good restaurant on the third floor, named Itta Bena, which is the town where B.B. was born.
- Elsewhere on Beale, Mr. Handy’s Blues Hall (near Third) tends to have some really good blues bands. Small bar, so get there early for a good seat.
- A block south of Beale on Lt. George W. Lee Avenue is Ground Zero Blues Club. This is a large club, but it has that authentic juke joint feel. They have live bands Thursday through Saturday.
More live music
- Wednesday and Thursday nights, March 25 and 26, a band called The Dempseys plays Blues City Cafe’s Band Box, at Second and Beale. I cannot recommend highly enough that you go see this band. They play stuff like Elvis, Johnny Cash, and rockabilly tunes, but they play it like no one you’ve ever seen, doing crazy stuff on stage and trading instruments mid-song. They played in the movie about Johnny Cash’s life, and they played for former president Bush and Japan’s prime minister when they visited Memphis. Absolutely a must-see, even if you don’t think you’re into that type of music.
- The Hard Rock Cafe, on Beale between Third and Fourth, has really impressed me lately. Local bands on a great sound stage. They have one of the best music memorabilia collections Downtown (including Elvis stuff). They are known to donate proceeds from their door to local charities. Never mind that they’re a chain – they’re a good club and good neighbor.
Where to dance
- The Red Rooster (Second at Lt. George W. Lee, one block south of Beale) is a big club with good bands on the weekend, and a DJ spinning tunes between sets. It’s extremely popular and gets packed weekend nights. Full bar. Good food – the nachos and pizzas are my favorites.
- Hollywood Disco (Vance at Mulberry, just east of Main) is a small club that spins great disco and ’80s tunes. Very unique decor with handprints on the walls, white leather couches, disco lights. They sell quarts of Bud Light to drink. You can carry liquor in and they’ll sell you set-ups. They have a limo if you need a ride home or back to the hotel. Only open Friday and Saturday. Doesn’t open until 10 PM; doesn’t get busy until after midnight, but by 1 the place is usually packed.
- The National Civil Rights Museum (Mulberry between Huling and Butler) is definitely worth a couple hours of your time for a tour. In its former life as the Lorraine Motel, it’s where Dr. King was shot on April 4, 1968. The museum’s exhibits chronicle the civil rights movement in the United States.
- A. Schwab on Beale is a good place to visit for unique souvenirs. It’s a “dry goods” store that’s been there since 1876.
- If you need a drugstore, there’s a Walgreens at Main and Madison. Open ’til 8 weekdays, 7 Sat, 6 Sun.
- Grocery and convenience stores: Shell station (Main at Auction); Jack’s (Main at Jefferson); Easy Way (Main at Jefferson); convenience store (Second at Madison); Second Street Shoppers (Second South of Union); Frank’s (Main at Vance); Riverside BP (Riverside at Carolina).
- Don’t give money to panhandlers. Many of them will try to do a “tour guide” gimmick similar to what the Blue Suede Brigade does, except with a very aggressive request for money at the end. Sometimes they will try to hand you a Downtown Merchant Guide or other free publication. Just say “no thanks” and walk away. Also, don’t give money to anyone who tries to charge you to park on a public street or at a metered space – these are scammers and what they’re doing is illegal. These people are generally not homeless and your money will be used to support their alcohol and crack addictions. If you want to help the homeless, donate to the Memphis Union Mission instead.
And that’s it – hope that helps!
If you have questions I didn’t cover here, you can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note however that I started a new job this week, so I can’t promise a speedy turnaround time on answers, but I’ll do my best. Welcome to Memphis, and I hope you have a great time this weekend.