Travel to Memphis, Tennessee – Episode 424categories: USA Travel
Hear about travel to Memphis, Tennessee as the Amateur Traveler talks to Lance from tripsbylance.com about this city where he has lived on and off for 20+ years. Lance tells us that there is more to Memphis than Elvis and Graceland.
Why should you go to Memphis? “Music history, if you are familiar with the Beatles, the Beatles might not exist if it wasn’t for Memphis. There were some great guitar players here. I hear that Elvis was someone those guys looked up to. Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash came around a little while later, but music history is so important to what this city is.”
“And, of course, food. When I travel, I love to dive into the local food, and there is so much in Memphis to enjoy. You might have to loosen your belt a little bit after you leave the city. We are known for some really good BBQ, a little bit of fried food, but there are some really good restaurants in the city that do things with healthy, organic ingredients. The whole farm-to-table movement is definitely alive here.”
“Downtown over the last 15 years, there has been such a revitalization. There is just so much activity, restaurants have followed. There are some good museums down there. There’s a lot going on. Stay near Beale street even though that is kind of the tourist Mecca. It’s a 3 or 4 block street. It is the old African American main street. It’s where their businesses thrived in the Jim Crow south, where they could only have businesses in certain areas. There was so much activity on Beale street. A lot of restaurants and blues clubs, but in the last 30 years, the street went dead. In the mid-80s, they went back in and revitalized it. There’s a lot of bright lights. There’s some music there.”
“There are some great museums there, Sun Studio, where it all started. Elvis recorded there, Jerry Lee Lewis, U2 has recorded an album at Sun. There is so much magic there. It’s a great tour. The Rock and Soul museum opened in the late 90s. It is a Smithsonian project. They wanted to do a museum about the true roots of rock and soul. It’s a great museum. Just outside of downtown, you can go to the Stax Museum. You learn so much about the 60s music that was made here. The National Civil Rights Museum is at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated. It’s a great place to learn the story of the civil rights struggle.”
Lance also talks about Graceland, where he once worked as a tour guide. Civil Rights, Music, good food, and a hotel that has ducks in the lobby. Where else but Memphis?
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Trips by Lance
Rock N Soul Museum
National Civil Rights Museum
Westin Memphis Beale Street
Gibson Factory Tours
Madison Hotel Memphis
James Lee House
BB King’s Blues Club
Blues City Cafe
South of Beale
Ghost River Brewing
High Cotton Brewing
Memphis Made Brewing
Memphis in May
World Championship Barbeque Cooking Contest
Central BBQ Memphis
Corky’s Rib & BBQ
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken
The Little Tea Shop
Shelby Farms Park
I Love Memphis
Road Trip from Kansas City to Cincinnati including Little Rock, Memphis, Nashville, and Louisville
Amateur Traveler wins a SMITTY Award
Carry-On Shame with Spud Hilton – This Week in Travel #168
Chris: This week’s episode of Amateur Traveler is sponsored by Amateur Traveler Trips. We are going to Morocco.
Chris: Amateur Traveler episode 424. Today, the Amateur Traveler talks about music and barbecue and the second most visited house in the United States as we go to Memphis, Tennessee.
Chris: Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host, Chris Christenson. You may have noticed this week that we did put out an announcement that the Amateur Traveler was just a recent winner of Travel and Leisure Magazine’s Smitty Awards – the social media in travel and tourism award – which are annual awards by Travel and Leisure, and it was the winner for… or I was the winner for the best Independent Journalist/Blogger, and that’s pretty cool.
I am also pleased to announce that we have been waiting for the final details but we can now sign up for the amateur traveler trip to Morocco. This is an April 2015 trip. It actually looks like we may be doing 2 trips: a 10-day trip followed immediately by a 15-day. My wife and I will be on the 10-day, but we had a number of people who were really interested in the 15-day. If you ever go to the Amateur Traveler site, I’ll put up a link under Book Travel for that trip.
Chris: I’d like to welcome to this show Lance from Trips by Lance who is also the editor for About.com’s section on Memphis who is come to talk to us about Memphis, Tennessee. Lance, welcome to the show.
Lance: Yeah, appreciate it, nice to be here.
Chris: Well I appreciate it also. Memphis is part of a road trip that I’m planning this summer, so this is a show that I am just completely looking forward to hearing more about the city of Memphis.
Lance: Well, great.
Chris: Why should someone go to Memphis?
Lance: Well, I’m going to see if I can avoid the E-word as long as possible. I’m sure you’ll catch on to what the E-word is eventually if you don’t already know, but music history… if you’re familiar with the Beatles, the Beatles might not exist if it wasn’t for Memphis. There were some great guitar players here. I here that the E-Word, Elvis, was someone that…
Chris: That E-word. (laughs)
Lance: …those guys look up to. That E-Word, yeah, and I said I was going to avoid it and there I go, 20 seconds in. But Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash came along a little later, but music history is so important to what this city is. And of course, food. When I travel, I love to dive into the local food, and there is so much in Memphis to enjoy. Now, you might have to loosen your belt a little bit after leaving the city. We are known for some really good barbecue, a little bit of fried food, but there are some really good restaurants in the city that do things healthy. Organic ingredients, the whole farm-to-table movement, it’s definitely alive here.
Chris: Excellent and what would you recommend for an itinerary. Let’s say I was gonna be in Memphis for a week or a long weekend, what would you see?
Lance: I have lived in Memphis off-and-on for 20 plus years and about a month-and-a-half ago for the first time I stayed in a hotel in the city. We decided to do a weekend in the city. We stayed two nights in downtown. Never left downtown – which meant that we didn’t even go to Graceland – and we had so much to do. Downtown over the past 15 years there’s been such a revitalization. There’s a lot of condos, apartments, businesses – there’s just so much activity and restaurants have followed. There’s some good museums down there. There’s just… there’s a lot going on and honestly you can stay in downtown. Spend two or three days in downtown and have a great trip.
Now, obviously you probably want to leave downtown and go to Graceland but I would start out… stay downtown, stay near Beale Street. Even though that’s kind of the tourist Mecca, it’s pretty cool to walk down. It’s a three or four-block street. It was the old African-American main street. It’s where their businesses thrived in the Jim Crow south where they could only have businesses in certain areas and there was so much activity on Beale Street. A lot of great blues clubs, restaurants were there. Well, in the past 30 years, the street went dead and then the mid-80’s, they kind of came in and revitalized it. There’s a lot of bright lights. There’s some music there, but it’s definitely worth walking the street, maybe checking out a blues club or two.
There’s some great museums downtown. Sun Studio, where it all started, where Elvis recorded, where Johnny Cash recorded, Jerry Lee Lewis. U-2 has recorded an album at Sun. There’s just so much magic there. It’s a great tour it’s just, I don’t know, maybe 30 or 45 minutes, but you get to go in the studio. There’s an actual X on the floor where Elvis stood and recorded “That’s All Right Mama,” which was, I believe that was his first hit and that’s just a really cool experience.
Chris: And when you talked about Sun Studio you mentioned that right after a sentence about “there are some great museums”. So it is now a museum? Or is there a tour of it or how does that work?
Lance: At night, it is an active recording studio.
Lance: During the day, you enter the building, there’s a cafe. I’ve met Rufus Thomas – he’s an old Memphis singer. He was just hanging out in that cafe back in the mid-90’s. Just randomly walked in the first time I took the tour and he’s just sitting there, so it’s a pretty cool experience to just go in that cafe and have some coffee or a sandwich before you go on the tour. You go in to a back room and then they actually… I don’t know what they did in this upstairs area when it was a really active recording studio in the 50’s and 60’s, but upstairs is kind of a museum where they have just a lot of artifacts and information about the different musicians who recorded there. The tour starts there and then you go down, you enter the office into the recording studio and you kind of stand there and they will play little pieces of songs from different artists who recorded those songs there and the tour guide will tell you about those songs, tell you about that artist. It’s actually a very entertaining tour. So, it’s not exactly a museum where you’re going through and seeing…
Lance: …a lot of exhibits, but it is an active recording studio at night.
Chris: How much do you have to know about that music in that era before you go on the tour. For instance, I was surprised – you mentioned the Beetles – when we went to Liverpool, I’m not as much a Beatles fan as my wife and daughter are, and yet I got a lot out of the tour because of how they presented it. Is this something where I need to know my Muddy Waters from my… whoever, I can’t come up with another name. (laughs)
Lance: Well, I don’t think it’s necessary. I think it certainly helps your experience when you. . . when they play that song you say, “Ah, that’s beautiful. I didn’t know that song was recorded here.” But my wife – she’s lived in Memphis since the late 90’s – she know’s a little bit of the music history but some of the obscurer artists who recorded there. When you hear that song like, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that artist”, “Rocket 88,” which is, it’s said to be the first ever rock-and-roll song. I guess those type of things are argued. Cleveland likes to argue certain things since they have the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame.
Lance: But “Rocket 88” was an Ike Turner song and that’s credited as being the first rock’n’roll song. Unless you’re a serious music buff you don’t really know that until you’re at Sun Studio and you hear about the story about they came from the Mississippi Delta… they came up to record that song. There’s a really weird sound in the song that makes the song… I can’t really explain it, but there’s this kind of a gritty sound. Well, the reason that’s there – and I learned this on the Sun Studio tour I took six weeks ago – as they were driving up, their amp fell off the top of the car and it tore and so they taped paper over the tear and it gave a different sound that came out in the recording. Well, the type of things that Sam Phillips would do at Sun Studio… he didn’t say, “well, we can’t do that, we got to fix that.” He would just go with it and just let the magic happen, and that’s just the great stuff that you can only learn while going on that Sun Studio tour.
Chris: Excellent. Now, just before you started talking about Sun Studio, you mentioned there are a number of clubs and there are a number of museums. So, could I get you to elaborate on which ones you would recommend, both in clubs and museums?
Lance: Yeah. Well in downtown you have the Rock and Soul Museum. That opened in the late 90s, I believe. It’s a Smithsonian project. They came down and they wanted to just really do an exhibit looking at the true roots of rock’n’roll and soul music. It’s a great exhibit. We spent probably two-plus hours there and could have spent even more time there. It starts out in the cotton fields of Arkansas and Mississippi where all of these poor sharecroppers – black and white – where they were just out working the fields and singing their songs and listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. It traces that line from the fields up to Memphis where these poor farmers would come just trying to get a job in the 20s and 30s during the depression they had to go wherever they could to get jobs. Many of them came to Memphis, they brought their music with them, and just over time you have these raw blues music and country music that comes together that… eventually mixed with gospel music… it forms rock’n’roll. The Rock and Soul Museum does a great job of tracing that history. It just barely touches on Elvis, because so much more of the music scene in Memphis is much more than Elvis, much more than Johnny Cash. It’s called the “Memphis sound”. The soul music that was made at Stacks Records – Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Anne Peebles. There’s just so many names. Motown gets a lot of attention for their sound…
Chris: Sure, Detroit.
Lance: … and they certainly deserve that, but there was so much going on in Memphis as well. So, that museum is just a wonderful experience. Just outside of downtown, you can go to Stacks, and I love that. You learn so much about that 60s music that was made here and a lot of the songs that were kind of the anthems during the race riots of the 60s and 70s. Not in a bad way but just the good songs of, “look we need to stop this, we need to come together,” and really all of that music can be tied to the Civil Rights museum in downtown Memphis. So much of the music made in Memphis – it’s a story of black and white coming together – and the National Civil Rights Museum is at the Lorraine Motel. That’s where Martin Luther King was assassinated. The late 80’s the motel was just in disrepair. They were in foreclosure. It was about to be torn down, so people came in and saved it and they turned it into the Civil Rights Museum…
Lance: It’s a great place to learn the story of the civil rights struggle. They just renovated it and reopened it. The April 4th anniversary of MLK’s assassination, they reopened and I have not visited yet, but I hear it’s just really well done, so that’s definitely worth some time downtown.
Chris: And what a poignant place to put that museum too. Memphis being the last place he did a speech obviously, too, the night before he was killed.
Lance: Yep. That’s right and it’s one of his famous speeches. I believe it’s the mountaintop speech.
Chris: And for those who aren’t familiar… so Martin Luther King, obviously a well known person, for those outside the U.S., in the American Civil Rights Movement. I suspect many people, if not everyone, has heard of him, but the speech that he gave in Memphis almost sounded like he knew he wouldn’t make it to the end of the struggle. It’s really like Moses who’s looking at the promised land from across the Jordan River from Mount Ebo – where I just was, actually, last week – but knows he won’t get there himself. It’s that kind of speech. It’s much more poignant speech than the I Have a Dream Speech that he is much more famous for.
Lance: That’s right and the church where he gave the speech. I don’t believe it’s open for tours, but the church is still there. It’s just a handful of blocks away there kind of in the south main downtown area. Yeah, that story… he basically told the people who were with him… not that he came out and said, “hey, I just don’t think I’m gonna make it much longer”, but just in conversations. I’ve read some biographies of people who were in Memphis with him and it was just pretty clear that he knew that the time was near, and unfortunately it was. It happened in Memphis, 1968.
Chris: Any other museums you want to highlight before we move on? Because clubs was the other thing that you mentioned.
Lance: Well let’s see we’re staying downtown.
Chris: Any particular place you would recommend to stay in downtown?
Lance: I think sometimes people will go down and try to stay near Graceland but I just wouldn’t recommend that because there’s only Graceland down there. When I say down there that’s the White Haven community. It’s not far from downtown. It’s probably a 10 minute drive but you can stay in downtown. There’s so many hotels. Other than going to Graceland, you really don’t have a lot of reason to leave downtown which means you don’t have to have a car and that’s a good thing because Memphis isn’t a driving city. So staying downtown you can walk everywhere, you can take the downtown trolley. That’s definitely great.
Chris: Any particular hotels you would recommend in downtown?
Lance: Yeah, there’s a few. When we did our stay recently, we stayed in the Weston Memphis Beale Street. It is just across the street from the Fed-Ex Forum Arena and that’s actually where the Rock and Soul museum is located – at the arena – as well as the Gibson guitar factory is right there on that corner. I have not done that tour but I hear it’s a really cool tour. They make a lot of their guitars in Nashville and in this Memphis factory so you can go in and see the process. Also, the hotel’s just about a block south of Beale St. There’s a lot of restaurants, a lot of things going on. The hotel that, I think, a lot of people really look at and dream about and focus on is the historic Peabody Hotel. It’s just a couple blocks north of Beale Street. It’s a hotel that dates back to, I believe, the 20s. It’s sometimes said that “the Mississippi Delta starts in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel.” Whether you stay there or not, it is a cool experience to go into the hotel lobby, maybe have a drink at the lobby bar. It’s Memphis all dressed up. The fountain is beautiful. Maybe you’ve heard of the ducks. There are ducks that live in a penthouse up on the roof, and they march them down at 11 a.m., they swim in the fountain and then they march back out at 4 p.m. on the red carpet, get on the elevator, go back up to the penthouse.
Chris: (laughs) I have not heard this.
Lance: Yeah, I think it’s four mallard ducks. They just swim around in the fountain and they replace them about every four months. They send them out to a nearby farm and they bring in some new ones. It’s kind of funny watching the crowds line up on both sides of the red carpet in the lobby at 11 and 4 to watch the ducks march. It’s comical, they have a nice little duck march song. The Peabody is also… any time the rich and famous come in town, that’s usually one of the two hotels they stay in.
The British royalty – the princes – they were recently in town for a wedding of some friends. Prince Harry and Prince William were in town, and they stayed at the Peabody and hung out in the city, and President George Bush was here during his presidency and stayed in the Peabody, so it’s an interesting hotel. The third hotel I would recommend is the Madison Hotel. That’s the second historic hotel in downtown. It’s on Madison Avenue just there in the core of downtown. Both the Peabody and Madison, they have beautiful rooftops. I think it’s definitely a great experience to go up to the rooftop. The Peabody – anyone can just walk in off the street, get on the elevator, go up and see views of the river and downtown. The Madison – they have a really cool bar/restaurant up there to just go up and hang out. It’s a very casual place.
The fourth one… now this is brand new – it’s a bed and breakfast and we don’t really have a lot of B&Bs in Memphis but this is called the James Lee House. We call it “edge district.” It’s on the eastern side of downtown, next to the medical district. It’s called “Victorian Village.” There’s a handful of homes from the Victorian era. This house just sat empty for a few decades and some developers came in the past couple of years and put a lot of hard work into it and they turned it into a B&B that I hear is very beautiful. It’s just opened this Spring, so that’s a good option as well.
Chris: And then you mentioned “clubs”.
Lance: Beale Street is kind of interesting in that there are a lot of clubs on the street and, like I said, that’s the historic street. A lot of blues musicians got their start there. BB King – his nickname came about when he came up from the Delta in Memphis, he had a radio show – he was given the nickname “Blues Boy”. That’s where the BB came from. He has his own club there.
Chris: I did not know that.
Lance: He is getting a little older. I believe he is in his 80s now. He does still make an appearance once or twice a year. It’s a very pricey ticket. There’s BB King’s then there’s several other clubs like that. I will say locals don’t make a habit out of hanging out on Beale Street. There are some places – Blue City Cafe is one that has really good food. They have excellent barbecue ribs. If you want to have a drink, it’s kind of like going to New Orleans and going to Bourbon Street. You can go hang out on Bourbon Street, but maybe you want to go a few streets over to where the restaurants might have better prices. Things are focused a little more on tourists on Beale Street. It is fun. It’s definitely worth walking. If you hear some music in a club that interests you – walk in. There’s a little park on Beale Street called Handy Park. There’s usually some little blues bands set up out there during the day and sometimes in the evening, you just walk in the street and happen upon the band and stand there and hang out for 20 minutes and listen to them jam. That is definitely a good time. There is a really good bar scene in downtown. The south main district – it’s an arts district that’s kind of… the civil rights museum is in the south main district. There’s a lot of good restaurants and bars. One of my favorites is South of Beale, three blocks south of Beale Street.
Chris: The name of it is South of Beale.
Chris: Okay. (laughs)
Lance: It is called “South of Beale” but you will hear a lot of people call it S-O-B. It’s a really good spot. It’s billed as Memphis’ first gastropub basically where you have a good bar with a good regional beer selection – good wine, good cocktails – but with chef-driven food. You’re not going to go in and get just hot wings and potato skins and different things you could get at a pub. It’s good food, good salads, good sandwiches, a steak. We go there a lot. It’s definitely a favorite, but then up Main Street there are several more places, lots of good restaurants.
Chris: Okay, and you said “regional beer selection”? Is there a good regional beer we should try?
Lance: Yeah that’s a recent thing to Memphis that I’m very pleased with. It’s one of the things that keeps me living here. I’d say maybe four or five years ago we had our first brewery – Dos River Brewing – they opened for business. It was opened by the man who started Bosco’s Brewing in Memphis, I think around 1980. It is a brew pub that’s in a neighborhood – Overden Square. It’s in midtown which is another great place to go. The brew pub has been there, but he went out and started a brewery, and so their product is available in a lot of the bars and restaurants. You can buy it in grocery stores. Over the past year three breweries have followed, so we have a total of four.
The second one is High Cotton. They have a brew pub that is under construction as of Spring, 2014. You can get their beer in a lot of bars. The third is Wise Acre. This is, by far, my favorite. It is in the Broad Avenue arts district in midtown. It’s kind of and up-and-coming district. They just opened Labor Day weekend of 2013, and their beer is terrific. You can get it at a lot of bars. Their brewery – every Thursday/Friday/Saturday – it’s just a great place to go hang out. It’s very relaxed. They have a patio, brewery, tasting room. They don’t do tours, but it’s just where people come and hang out – a lot of locals. It’s the type of place that if I travel somewhere, I definitely seek it out. It’s definitely a great place to go hang out for a couple hours. We take our son, it’s definitely family friendly.
I did mention four. There’s a fourth one called Memphis Maid. It is in the Cooper Young district which is another restaurant/entertainment district in Midtown. We have three entertainment districts in Midtown that are definitely great places to go hang out for the restaurant and bar scenes.
Chris: And who is Cooper Young?
Lance: “Cooper Young” – it’s named for the intersection. Cooper Street at Young Avenue.
Chris: Okay. Got it. You mentioned a couple things there that I want to drill in on. You mentioned having a patio. A little warm in the summer. When’s the best time to come to Memphis?
Lance: It is warm in the summer. It can be quite unpleasant in the summer, honestly, but that’s still by far, summer, is the big tourist season. A lot of that is driven by Elvis week which is in mid-August. The hottest time of the year in Memphis. I feel so sorry for those people. There are truly a lot of elderly people now, people who were teens when Elvis was coming about in the mid-50’s and it’s not a good time.
Chris: People who… if they tried to do the Elvis moves now they’d break a hip – is what you’re saying?
Lance: (laughs) Yeah, pretty much. Unfortunately. Spring and Fall are by far the best times. I’d say about early- to mid-March through about mid-May is such a wonderful time to come to the city. Unless you have major allergy issues because allergy season can be pretty bad here in the spring, but it can definitely be worth it. The restaurants, everyone flocks out to their patios. The highs tend to be in the 60’s to low 70’s. Now, our weather can be really crazy where the end of March you could have some random day that’s a high of 80, and then three days later it’s a high of 53. It’s just really weird, but in general, it just tends to be highs in the 60’s and 70’s – beautiful weather.
Same thing in September-October. I love mid-September through Halloween. The leaves start to change in October and it’s just so beautiful here. There’s so many trees in Memphis, by the way. The patio season and Memphis in May itself – we have a month-long festival called “Memphis in May”. It’s an international festival. Every year they honor a different country. This year it was Panama. It starts with a Beale Street music festival. It’s a three-day festival down at Thombley Park on the Mississippi River, and there’s just all kinds of national touring acts and a decent amount of local blues bands. They have a blues tent out there.
The next week is just kind of a focus on that country. You might have art openings at different art galleries of art from those countries – maybe an orchestra performance, food festival, just different things tied to that country. Usually the next weekend is the big Memphis party. It’s the world championship barbecue cooking contest. It is a very big deal – we take our barbecue very seriously here. It’s a lot of fun. Then to close out the month – Sunset Symphony – it’s always the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. They just have a big stage down on the river, and the Memphis symphony orchestra plays a concert and fireworks at the end. It’s a great time.
Chris: Excellent, excellent. Well, you’ve anticipated my next question which would be great festivals and things like that to come. Barbecue. We have been dancing around barbecue for some time here. Probably one of four different styles of barbecue that I would identify in the U.S., well five actually, so I think probably the best known being Kansas City, Memphis, Texas, and South Carolina. The fifth that I would throw in is there is southern California kind of Santa Barbara-San Inez Valley style that’s not as well known.
Lance: Okay. I would be interested to check that out.
Chris: Yeah, it’s very good. What is Memphis barbecue and what makes it different from the others?
Lance: There’s really two ways, I’d say, that makes it different. One: the pork. Everything here is pork. I lived in Texas for a brief time. I know it’s all about the beef there. Here, it’s all about the pork. Your sandwich… if you go in and order a pork sandwich it’s pork from the shoulder and they pull it. Some areas… I don’t know if maybe it’d be a Carolina or Kansas City thing or just some random place, but they’ll chop it. They’ll take the large chunk of meat and they’ll just chop it into little pieces to then put on the sandwich. Well here, they take that with their hand and they pull it out and it just gives a different texture to the meat. The ribs – they’re normally dry. A lot of people think that maybe they need sauce on their ribs. We don’t think so.
Chris: I was gonna say, when you say “dry” you mean that they are ‘rubbed’ rather than ‘sauced’ or whatever.
Lance: Yes. You have a dry rub that, during the whole smoking process, they’re putting this dry rub on. There are some restaurants that they’ll put a sauce on it while it’s smoking but you’re typically not going to get those ribs on a plate slathered in barbecue sauce. If you want that sauce, you’re going to have to ask for it. To me it’s like eating a steak. You don’t really have to put steak sauce on it because the meat was already prepared so well and seasoned so well. That’s how you should eat it. The ribs fall off the bone… and back to the sandwich – it’s not that it’s pulled. A Memphis-style barbecue sandwich has the cole slaw on the pork on the sandwich, and that’s actually about the only way I will eat cole slaw. I’m not a fan of cole slaw but it just really goes well with that meat.
One of the questions you can certainly ask a Memphian… but it’s not really a question to ask someone because you’re going to get 50 different answers, “What’s your favorite barbecue”? There’s so many good restaurants here that you can’t really go wrong. I have my favorite, my wife might have a different favorite and that’s fine because they’re both going to be really good. My favorite is Central Barbecue. They now have three locations, but it just started, I think, around 2000. The original is on Central Avenue in midtown. It’s roughly in the Cooper Young district. It’s a really cool place. You go in, you stand in line out the door. The line moves very quickly. You go in, you order and then you can either sit inside or sit out on the patio and they bring your food. They have another one out in East Memphis. It’s a big gathering spot because they have a sports bar room. Basketball is a big deal in this city, and everyone likes to go hang out there and watch the Grizzlies or the University of Memphis Tigers. The third just opened in the past year or so. It’s next to the civil rights museum. It’s on the back side of the civil rights museum. It’s a really cool spot. So, yeah, that’s my favorite but there are some other great ones. The barbecue shop on Madison Avenue, it’s a really good one. A lot of people will come in and say “Corky’s” and Corky’s is one of the old spots in town. It’s really good. If we want to have barbecue at home and just go to the restaurant, pick it up and bring it home we’ll go to Corky’s. If you want to have a big party – because they do such a great job catering – we’ll go to Corky’s. But I don’t make a habit of going to the restaurant.
The other one that I think everyone likes to come to is the Rendezvous. It’s located in the alley across from the Peabody Hotel. It’s been around since the 40s. It’s a great old family restaurant. It’s huge. It also gets packed. I’ve gone on a Saturday evening and probably had a three-hour wait. So you definitely either want to be willing to wait, or get there a little earlier or a little later. They do have a very large room up top. It’s a party room but it opens up for the spillover if people want to just snack on a cheese and sausage plate and have some beer while waiting on their table. The Rendezvous is not my favorite barbecue, but I do think that it’s an interesting experience. The decor of the room is really cool. It’s a dark basement of an old downtown building. The servers have worked there for 20, 30, 40 years. They have great character. They come up and they’re so nice to you but just kind of in an odd way. If they see a table of six college guys, they’re going to come up and just kind of, “Hey now, what do you want? How many pitchers you want?” They’re not going to ask you, “What do you want to drink?”, they’re going to automatically bring three pitchers of beer for you and they’re just great guys. It’s a great atmosphere but it’s not my favorite barbecue.
Chris: And besides the barbecue, what else should we try in Memphis? Any other particularly Memphis cuisine?
Lance: We have a great fried chicken restaurant, if fried chicken is your thing. Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. It is in downtown on Front Street. The original is actually out in Mason, Tennessee. It’s about an hour out of Memphis. They opened one in downtown. It’s fantastic.
Chris: I just heard a mention to that on Rick Steve’s show. He had on the authors of Road Food that write about all of the regional cuisine, and they singled in on Memphis when it came to fried chicken.
Lance: Gus’s is very good. Very good.
Chris: Now, that was the place, though, I wanna say if I’m remembering correctly that when they ask you if you want medium or hot unless, unless you have had it before, don’t get the hot.
Lance: Yeah, correct. It’s a pretty hot chicken. I get it hot, I love things hot but yes it is very spicy. I’m glad you pointed it out, I never think about that. The medium – it’s still pretty warm. My wife does not like hot foods and the medium is about all she can handle. Yeah, downtown’s a great spot. We have the typical ‘meat and three’ type lunch counters.
Chris: “Meat and three”…
Lance: So you go in and you see that their special is meat loaf and here’s eight vegetables to choose from. Your meat is the meatloaf and then you order three vegetables off that list of seven, eight vegetables – whatever the specials are that day – or if you just want to make it a veggie plate. That’s just a typical southern thing I think. Some people might call it “country food” or “soul food”. I just typically call it a “meat and three” type place.
Lance: But you go in at lunch time. I have two favorites in downtown. The Arcade is the oldest restaurant in Memphis. I think it’s been around since 1912. It’s been featured in a lot of movies that have been filmed in Memphis. Supposedly, Elvis loved to go in there. It’s down at the corner of Main and G.E. Patterson – the Arcade. It’s only open at lunch as is the Little Tea Shop which… I think that’s on Madison Avenue in the core of downtown. It’s also only open at lunch. It’s just a wonderful place. Great food. You go in and you’ll see that there’s two or three specials, and that’s what you should order. Now obviously you can get a sandwich or something like that but go in and get their… it might be a fish one day or it could be meat loaf, chicken and dumplings. And then your sides: greens, okra, just all the good southern vegetables. A lot of the times it’s going to be fried, and when you come to Memphis and you eat those type places: you go to Gus’ you go to barbecue, you’re going to gain 5-10 pounds, you really will, unless you do a lot of walking. But we do have some good, good restaurants.
We have a lot of chefs doing some good things in town so it doesn’t have to be all the fatty, fried foods and barbecue. Restaurant Iris is probably the best restaurant in the city. It can take three or four weeks to get a reservation. It’s a really small restaurant in the Overden Square area in midtown. It’s kind of a more New Orleans style cooking that the chef grew up in that area. Felicia Suzanne’s is on Main Street and downtown. She’s from Arkansas but she does a bit of a New Orleans style as well. She has a lot of good oyster dishes. Flight Restaurant on Main Street. The unique thing about Flight is exactly what the name says: you order in flights.
Lance: You might order a flight of three seafood items or three chicken items. You order your wines by the flight and that’s just a really fun place. Good food.
Chris: Excellent. We have been dancing around the E-word here. You managed to mention Elvis again when we were talking “meat and three Graceland”.
Lance: If it wasn’t for Graceland, I don’t think Memphis would be on the tourism scene. Elvis bought that house in the late 50s. He died in that house in 1977. The house has remained in the family since. I think it was around ’82 or ’83, they decided to open it to visitors and it’s been going strong ever since. I don’t know if it’s still the case, but at one point not too long ago, it was the second-most visited house in the United States behind the White House. I will say I actually worked there. I attended college in the city of Memphis, and during college, I worked as a tour guide there. So I might know a little more than others about Graceland but yes I worked there during an Elvis week which was…
Chris: An experience?
Lance: … unbelievable. Yes. People come in… speaking of Elvis week, it’s the week of Elvis’ death which was August 16th, 1977. That whole week leading up to August 16th, which is called “dead day”. There’s just all sorts of fun events. There’s Elvis impersonator contests, there’s concerts, there’s fan club gatherings, then the night of April 15th there’s the candlelight vigil where everyone lines up outside the gates and just walks up single file up the driveway with a candle and walk by Elvis’ grave which is on the property of Graceland.
Chris: And that’s to see if he will come back? (laughs)
Lance: I don’t know. I don’t know. I will say when I worked there I got into an argument with someone that swore to me that he was still alive. It was during a very hot Elvis week. I worked about 70 hours that week, and I just wasn’t in the mood to be nice to her so we just had a nice little argument. I said that he’s in the dirt, six feet under up on that hill looking across at Graceland and she refused to believe that. There are definitely some very serious fans.
Chris: And I am just now coming to the realization that that is the week this year that I will be in Memphis.
Lance: Are you serious?
Chris: I am kidding you not.
Lance: That’s fantastic.
Chris: We will probably be in Memphis sometime around the 12th or 13th of August, so…
Lance: Well, there will be a lot of people here. A lot of people walking Beale Street and hanging out downtown. You should definitely go over to Graceland and tour the mansion. I will say about the tour: a lot of people come in thinking that Elvis… his house must be this massive face because he lives… you would think in such excess and extravagance. Yes and no. By rock star standards his house is probably very modest. The tour is really well done. You can only see the downstairs. Everyone always asks, “Why can you not go upstairs?”
Chris: Well he’s hiding there, I believe is the… (laughs)
Lance: That’s what a lot of people think. The official reason given… two things. One – he died upstairs and they just don’t want people going up there and two – the family still owns the house and they actually do stay in the house when they come and visit. Lisa Marie Presley has stayed in the house. Priscilla Presley has stayed in the house. They only come maybe once or twice a year, but they still own the property so it’s still a private residence. That’s the reason they give at least. The tour is really nice. The front living room is all white. It’s called the “music room”. It’s basically his 50s style. You go back, the jungle room. A lot of people have heard about the jungle room. You have shag carpet, you have this crazy fabric from the ceiling and there’s a waterfall on the wall. The story about the jungle room is he was driving down the street in the early 70s in Memphis. He passed a furniture store and saw all of these pieces in a window. He stopped, bought them all, and created the jungle room.
Downstairs, in the basement, you have his TV room which – back in the 60s and 70s – the fact that someone had three TV’s and stereo and all that in this room. That was just really unheard of. Who has three TV’s in a room? Well now, who needs three TVs when you can have six TVs pop-up on one. It’s a really great room. His pool room. The trophy room is amazing. That is his old racquetball court and they have put all of his gold records, his 70s jumpsuits. It is a massive room and when go through that hall of records and you realize how many gold records and how many platinum records that man had… it is just unbelievable. It’s a great museum – great house. You could spend a couple hours there, but I think typically the tour would be about 45 minutes to an hour. They give you an audio tour guide so you’re walking through at your own pace. When you finish across the street, across Elvis Presley Boulevard from the mansion, there’s this car museum, there’s airplanes. There’s a lot of things going on. You could spend a whole day there but, I’d say, three of four hours.
Chris: Excellent. We are going to start to wrap this up. Before we get to our last four questions, what else should we know before we go to Memphis?
Lance: The people are very nice. I’ve traveled to a lot of places and a lot of places have wonderfully nice people but in Memphis everyone genuinely is nice. If you’re walking around the street and you possibly look lost they’re going to stop you and ask to be of assistance. Sometimes I have read on travel forums and different things where people think that Memphis is a very unsafe city and if you believe stats, yes, we have high crime. But there are little pockets, unfortunately, of where that happens. The places that a visitor to Memphis, even residents of Memphis… I’ve never encountered issues. I’ve never felt unsafe in downtown. It’s a very safe city. The downtown zip code – a couple years ago – was the safest zip code according to crime stats in all of the county. That’s one of those things that really bothers me that you hear about certain cities. That, “Oh, it’s so dangerous. Why would you go there?” That’s not a dangerous city, that’s a reputation that is very unfortunate. The food is great, the people are great, we are a basketball mad city. If you come during basketball season – basically October through May – you’re going to see people going crazy about the Memphis Grizzlies or the University of Memphis Tigers.
Chris: One thing that’s going to surprise me when I come to the city.
Lance: Well, we’ve talked so much about Elvis. If you didn’t know much about the city and you just came knowing what you know, you might think that you’re supposed to see Elvis fans everywhere or jumpsuits. You won’t even see that during Elvis week unless you’re at Graceland. It’s very comical that people come in expecting this hokey Elvis experience and it’s at Graceland and that’s about it. I mean, there are some very respectful places that you can go see during Elvis week. You can go see the school where he went to high school. You can go to the housing project on the north side of downtown where he lived that has now been turned in to a really nice apartment complex. But, yeah, it’s not all about Elvis. We have so many different little festivals. So many little neighborhoods. I’ve talked so much about downtown but midtown with the Broad Avenue district and Overden Square and Cooper Young, there’s just so much activity there. We are a driving city, a car city, but a lot of people are using bikes now. We are growing as a bicycle city. We’re building more cycling lanes. If you would have come five years ago and wanted to ride a bike that wouldn’t have happened. You come now, there’s a lot of opportunities to go out on trails. There’s a great rails-to-trail line that’s been created. The Shelby Farms green line. There’s a lot of parks. Good places to get outside as long as it’s not August and burning up.
Chris: (laughs) Favorite park?
Lance: Probably Shelby Farms. That’s out in the eastern part of Memphis. It is a massive park. There’s a lot of running trails, cycling trails, trails that go along the Wolf River, there’s paved trails, there’s a lake where you can fish or ride paddle boats. Also, got to mention Overden Park in midtown. It’s where the zoo is, great zoo. The Levitt Shell – there’s a concert series that runs basically from May until October. Free concert series every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. The Shell is where Elvis had his first ever concert so it is a historic venue but that park in general is great. Great old growth forest, it’s right in the center of town.
Chris: Excellent. I’m standing in the most beautiful spot in Memphis. Where am I standing and what am I looking at?
Lance: I’m probably going to say on the riverwalk on top of the bluff looking down at the Mississippi River. You’re just right up above the river and looking out and it’s so beautiful.
Chris: Excellent. Last three questions. One thing that makes you laugh and say, “only in Memphis”.
Lance: I don’t know if it’s still around but at one point there was a hashtag of “only in Memphis” and it would just be silly things – someone driving down the street with a stack of books on their car. Just all kinds of weird things. Only in Memphis would I go to a bar with a child. I’ll just say that because I have done that.
Chris: Okay. You really know you’re in Memphis when… what?
Lance: You really know you’re in Memphis when you’re walking down the street of downtown – any street downtown. It is a Wednesday at 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. and you smell barbecue. That happens to me constantly in downtown. The restaurants with their smoke stacks just… that’s such a beautiful smell.
Chris: And if you had to summarize Memphis in just three words, what three words would you use?
Lance: Food, music, and soul. I like to tell people that “Memphis has a dirty soul” and that wasn’t exactly three words but the people here are real. They’re such a soul to the city and I say “dirty soul” because there’s a lot of rough edges to Memphis and to Memphians but we take pride in that.
Chris: Excellent. Lance, where can people read more about your city or more about your travels?
Lance: You can find me at tripsbylance.com and, obviously, at memphis.about.com. There are a couple of wonderful websites about the city: ilovememphis.com – it’s a great blog and choose901.com. 901 is the area code here and those are two great blogs about the city of Memphis with so much information about what’s going on.
Chris: Excellent. Well thanks so much for coming on the Amateur Traveler and telling us about your great love for Memphis.
Lance: Yeah. Thank you, Chris.
Chris: In the news this week: we just did it this week in travel about the carry-on shame with Spud Hilton. One of the things that you should either listen to that episode or just so that you should know is that we’re finding that many major airlines are actually starting to implement their written policies for carry-on bags. Now, what that means is my carry-on bag, for instance, which I have been using for years which is thicker than 9 inches thick… I have been stopped and turned around at security and told I cannot bring that bag on the plane and they’re right that it does violate the policy although it does fit in the overhead bin. But, just something that you should know if you’re flying in the U.S., all of the major carriers seem to be cracking down on carry-on bags.
With that, we’re going to end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. If you have any questions feel free to send an email to host at amateurtraveler.com or comment in the Facebook community. You can also leave a comment on this episode at amateurtraveler.com. Don’t forget to come with us to Morocco. Again, I’ll put a link under Book Travel on the Amateur Traveler site. You can also follow me on twitter @chris2x and as always thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.
+Chris Christensen | @chris2x | facebook
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