Thursday, January 03, 2008

All the Way from Memphis- a semi-tourist's guide

OK, as promised, here's my amateur guide to Memphis after a year-end trip there. Hope it helps you in your own trip there (which you need to take if you haven't been there).
  • Backyard Burgers- I ain't too snobby to eat at a fast food place now and then but there's few that I'd actually write about. This chain has very good burgers, MUCH better than you'll ever find at Burger King or McDonald's.
  • BB King's- OK, OK, despite the moniker of a famed/loved blues icon, this place is basically a venue chain now but you'll still find good music here. Preston Shannon aka "Mr. Beale Street" holds court here well, doing everything from KC and the Sunshine Band to Prince.
  • Bigfoot Lodge- includes many mounted animal heads on the wall (sorry PETA) plus a fireplace, great French fries and do-it-yourself smores for dessert.
  • Blues City Cafe- though I didn't get a chance to see the back area with music, the front section features some of the best BBQ you'll get downtown.
  • Blues Hall- This small Beale Street bar is known for its raw, downhome blues performers and that's just what you'll get here. Plus, unless it's a weekend or holiday, you probably won't have to pay a cover charge. A recurring favorite there is The Dr. "Feel Good" Potts Band.
  • Bon Ton Cafe- 150 Monroe Ave, phone- (901) 525-0883- a good downtown place for breakfast. If you don't mind spending a little more, the Peabody hotel has a good breakfast buffet at their Capriccio Grill.
  • Center for Southern Folklore- Sad to say, I didn't get a chance to check out their gallery but they do have evening shows plus some nice pieces of folk art for sale in the front room. Plus, the peach cobbler there is to die for.
  • Full Tabernacle Church- an amazing experience, especially if Al Green himself (who is a Bishop there) happens to be leading the service, which he usually is if he isn't touring. I have a separate write-up of it here.
  • Gibson Guitar Factory- "Our rejects get sent to Fender," joked the tour guide. This huge building does indeed assemble the guitars, going from slabs of wood in a controlled, moisturized environment all the way to the end of the line where the engineers have to test and play the axs to make sure they work.
  • Goner Records- a great record shop and label in the midtown area with a specialty of vinyl records. Thanks to Bob Mehr of the Commercial Appeal for pointing this out to me.
  • Graceland- Even Chuck D's given Elvis a break so why avoid his crib? You don't get to see the upstairs (including the bathroom where he died) but you do get the run of the rest of the house on a self-guided audio tour, including his lavish rec rooms, horse ranch, triple-TV media room, office with a desk outfitted with a stereo plus his final resting place alongside his parents. And of course, plenty of memorabilia to buy up at the shops there.
  • Memphis Music- The best blues music shop downtown with a very knowledgeable and helpful staff, who'll also be glad to talk your head off about your favorite artists.
  • National Civil Rights Museum- a well put-together moving testament to a long struggle. The documentation is very thorough and you're bound to learn a lot there (I definitely did). I might be giving away the biggest surprise and shock but the tour appropriately ends at the spot where Martin Luther King was assassinated, including a detailed recreation of the hotel where he was staying then in Memphis.
  • Peabody Ducks- a wonderfully strange custom at this fancy hotel, every morning at 11AM. A group of ducks leave their penthouse suite to come down to the lobby and swim in the fountain there. The hotel also has some nice shops on the ground level that are worth checking out.
  • Pink Palace- a little out of the way but definitely worth the drive to see this beautiful old mansion which houses not only a recreation of the first Piggly Wiggly market (America's first grocery store), planetarium, IMAX theatre, Civil War details and other history going back to prehistoric times, including dinosaur remains that were found in the area.
  • Rock and Soul Museum- If you go to Sun, Stax and the Civil Rights museum, you already have about 1/3 of this place covered but it's worth it just for the first section where they recreate the live of Depression era Southern families working the fields and listening to their radios, just to give you a good context for a pre-rock world.
  • Rum Boogie Cafe- Along with the great name, this Beale Street club features good (live) soul music and great food.
  • Schwab's- this long-time Beale Street staple is a department store with mostly old-time merchandise and novelty gifts and as such, definitely worth a visit. Also, an excellent selection of mojo items up front, including potions for love, money and other important things.
  • Shangri-La Records- another fine midtown record shop that caters to everything from indie music to soul to novelties (thanks again to Mr. Mehr).
  • Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum- another off-the-beat path gem worth visiting, this is housed in a place used as part of the Railroad back in the day, including underground quarters you can inspect plus a very knowledgeable staff which can tell you about the routes that slaves used to flee and the huge bounty that Harriet Tubman had on her head.
  • Soul Fish Cafe- 862 S Cooper St, phone (901) 725-0722; great catfish and BBQ food (thanks again to Mr. Mehr).
  • Stax Museum- Easily one of the highlights of a visit here. For a while, I wondered why the Rock and Roll Museum or EMP bothered me and it wasn't just that it was reducing living history into scattered artifacts but how these were arranged. Everything is random and squashed together, without enough regard for the individual artists, movements, labels, etc.. Stax does this right by not only existing where the famous label once did (like Sun does too) but by also giving extensive space to the subject matter. And like Sun too, you get to walk through the studio where the magic happened.
  • Sun Studios- As if any music fan could avoid this... The studio itself is still there and intact and is actually used in the evenings for recording sessions. You can stand where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Howlin' Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and many others started out and dig the extensive memorabilia they have there too. Plus, how could you leave town without getting a Sun t-shirt?
  • Tater Reds- A nice Beale Street shop with a good selection of T-shirts (which you have to get as a tourist) plus an impressive selection of mojo items that rivals Schwab's.
  • Two Weeks Notice- as you wander down Beale Street, you notice not just the loud music blaring from the clubs but also side-streets with make-shift stages. This (local?) band was set up for a few evenings in an alley, near a bar and though they were mostly doing Southern rock covers, they did 'em well enough to make me stick around to hear them for a while.
  • Wet Willies- yet another stop on Beale Street, featuring a good variety of frozen drinks and good live music.

And a few things I missed which you might want to see too
  • Bosco's Brew Pub for Sunday jazz brunch (thanks to George Light for the tip).
  • Hi-Tone- It's got a good reputation as a small club that caters to good indie music.
  • Paulette's for the popovers alone (another GL recommendation).
  • Rendezvous Ribs- I'm told that it's well worth dining here.


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