Sampling the best of the new Memphis cuisine
Ask a local in Memphis where to get a good meal in town and watch his or her eyes light up with excitement. Then get ready for a long list of recommendations. The Tennessee city is going through a culinary transformation right now, and great restaurants abound. Barbeque and Southern cooking is, of course, still big, but the way dishes are being prepared is evolving, and a large farm-to-table movement has emerged. While the food may not be getting much less caloric, it is getting more sophisticated. Which is good news for travelers who like to eat.
Always on the lookout for local finds and favorites, on my most recent trip to Memphis in November 2014 I asked various locals where to experience the best food the city has to offer. Let me tell you, the lists I received were extensive. After combing (er, eating) through my options, here are the top recommended restaurants for each meal of the day. You’ll note, there’s not a BBQ joint on the list!
Brother Juniper’s Restaurant
Breakfast is the best meal at this popular, local diner. Inside is a bar with stool seating and two rooms full of tables that are often fully occupied. And that’s for good reason. Brother Juniper’s Restaurant claims to fame, beyond serving up traditional hearty breakfasts and freshly baked breads are their legendary open-faced omelets.
To make one of these edible wonders, chefs cook a layer of egg to take the shape of a round, fluffy tortilla and place it on a plate. Then chefs stack on top ingredients, each of which is cooked separately. I ordered an open-faced omelet called the Fireman, which comprised ground chorizo, sautéed jalapenos, black beans, avocado spread, onions, and cheese.
When the dish was placed in front of me, I instantly felt guilty assuming I would not be able to make a dent in this massive portion. But it turned out to be so delicious I cleared my plate!
Brother Juniper’s opens at 7am on Saturdays and 8am on Sundays. To avoid waiting in a long line, try to arrive right as they open.
Viewfinder Tip: Because Memphis is a sprawling city best navigated by car, be sure to use GPS on your smartphone or rent a vehicle with GPS to avoid getting lost.
You’ll find in Memphis that many of the restaurants in town are old homes converted into commercial spaces. At The Farmer, the back part of the house comprises a dining room with a comfortable, country-home feel, while the front part is an impressive silver shop filled with all manner of shiny platters and utensils.
The food at The Farmer (formerly known as The Elegant Farmer) is a collision of old traditions and newer, healthier preparations. The restaurant’s website describes its style as “elevated” comfort food. On the menu, you’ll find Southern favorites such as collard greens, black-eyed peas, macaroni and cheese, fried steak, and shrimp and grits. And all the produce is bought from local, sustainable farms.
I visited for lunch, and was glad I did, especially after I ordered the fried catfish. The dish came with a side of stewed cabbage, mac and cheese, and a biscuit. Admittedly, I couldn’t finish this dish because of the portion size. But I really enjoyed the combination of flavors on my plate, each complementing the other perfectly. Dining at The Farmer is a great way for a non-southerner to be introduced to the local cuisine.
I was too full for dessert at the end of my meal, but the coconut cake and apple pie with pecans and caramel both sounded fantastic.
My lunch at The Farmer
The Second Line
Overton Square is a walkable area full of restaurants and bars of all persuasions. It is the new “it” neighborhood in Memphis for evenings out. And here you’ll find restaurants specializing in various cuisines including Mexican, Italian, Indian, German, Japanese, and more.
For dinner in this hip and happening spot, I chose The Second Line, a restaurant by James Beard Award-winning chef, Kelly English. This is the sister restaurant to English’s fancier establishment next door, Restaurant Iris, where reservations must be booked months in advance. With a cozy upscale bar and table seating, the Second Line has a more casual vibe.
The menu at this hotspot is New-Orleans-inspired comfort food done with the precision of a master chef. Signature dishes here are poboy sandwiches, most of which come with fried oysters, catfish, or barbecue shrimp. I chose the roast beef option that came with mayo, tomatoes, lettuce, and onions with a side of Asian-inspired cabbage slaw. Chef English does something magical to these seemingly simple sandwiches; they almost melt in your mouth. It didn’t faze me at all that I ate a sandwich for dinner; the food was delicious, and that’s all that mattered.
Overall I was incredibly impressed with the hearty and sophisticated food in Memphis. Taken as a whole, my experiences in these three eateries are evidence that Memphis fits squarely on the map as a foodie destination.
What kinds of food experiences do you seek out when you travel?
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