Before arriving in Memphis, I knew little about the city other than BBQ and Elvis. And a song which had been playing in my head the entire flight.
When I arrived, it was not pouring rain. It was just after midnight, and I was tired and cranky. I got my car (Note: despite the title of the song and this article, Memphis is not a great walking city, outside of the area immediately around Beale Street. Plan accordingly.) and headed downtown to my hotel.
I stayed at the Holiday Inn on Union and 2nd. The location was amazing. Everything else about the hotel was not. It was loud, the staff was unfriendly, the room was either too hot or too cold. Avoid staying there.
The weather during my trip was hot and humid. A walk of more than a block left me dripping in sweat, and lines at some of the attractions were outside, leaving me feeling like a walking puddle.
The remainder of my time in Memphis can best be summarized in sections. Here we go.
This was an area I researched heavily before arriving. I knew there were two places I wanted to try: Rendezvous and Central. The two places can’t be more opposite in reputation, Rendezvous the historic birthplace of Memphis ribs and a tourist hotspot, Central the newcomer sweeping away the field in the best BBQ competitions.
For me, it wasn’t even close. When you walk into Central BBQ, admitted by a doorman zealously guarding against overcrowding, you enter a building that can be described as “warehouse chic.” An open floorplan, exposed pipes, all of the things that in 2017 we associate with a hip location. The line slowly weaves to a counter where you order, get your number, hope to find a seat, and await your food. The food is great (and some of the best mac and cheese I’ve ever had), but then you feel eyes on you, remember the people waiting in the sun outside trying to get in, and get up to leave. It is very much a model of efficiency, with limited interaction with anyone you didn’t arrive with.
Rendezvous is the opposite. You enter off an alley (named after the restaurant so it’s not so scary to find), and step back in time.
Memorabilia line the walls and the smell of smoked meat dances through your nostrils. The place is dim, but the smiles on the faces of employee and patron alike brighten it more than any lightbulb ever could. As staff passed my seat at the bar, they introduced themselves to me. To my surprise, most had worked here upwards of a decade. They knew their business, and knew it was just as much about taking care of people as it was about the food. And boy was I taken care of!
The ribs are the thing here, and they are wonderful. Not oversauced, not overcooked, the meat is tender but toothsome, and perfect. I also tried the pork shoulder sandwich, beans and slaw. But the highlight was the sausage and cheese appetizer. Don’t miss this!
Verdict: while the food is great at both, Rendezvous will treat you like a person and not a number. Plus it’s the original. Make sure to visit!
The National Museum of Civil Rights
Come early. I got in line at around noon, and waited almost an hour to get in. Sure, it was a holiday weekend, but I heard the line can back up at any time on any day.
The museum itself is built into the facade of the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. There is a wreath that marks the spot he fell and his room, the last stop on the tour, is left untouched (behind glass) from when he was there.
The exhibits are very detailed, with personal accounts, multimedia displays, and an awful lot of text. I read quickly, but had to skim most just to finish the museum in a couple of hours. They trace the journey of black Americans from slavery to the assassination of Dr. King, and then beyond to the legacy of the movement.
What I was not prepared for was the emotion the museum stirred in me. At nearly every photo or story, I found myself shaking my head in disbelief. How can this happen in this country? The exhibits are poignant and do not dumb down the issues. I left in a melancholy that BBQ would later help.
As sad as the Civil Rights Museum is, Sun Studio, the birthplace of rock n roll, is equally happy! It is a little ways off the beaten path, and is easier to drive to than walk (though the walk from downtown isn’t bad depending on weather). It is small, really just three rooms: a cafe where you gather to await the start of your tour (with an attached record store), a memorabilia room, and the recording studio itself.
My guide was absolutely incredible! Sharing funny stories with us interspersed with musical selections (which he softly sang along to, air guitaring all the while), he brought the history of the studio to life. This being Memphis, it of course focused on the discovery of a young guy named Elvis Presley, but Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and the rest were not left out.
Even now, the studio is still used, and almost nightly! I was amazed to hear that U2 recorded part of their Rattle and Hum album there, leaving a drum set behind as a token of their gratitude for visiting musicians to use. If you love music, don’t miss coming here!
Other Things, Good and Bad
Beale Street: it is kind of like Bourbon Street in New Orleans, loud and full of intoxicated individuals and music. Cover charges are steep, waits are long. But it is famous, and it is a good place to hear some soul music, if you can deal with the rest.
The Peabody Ducks: the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis is famous for its twice daily parade of ducks in and out of its lobby fountain (at 11am and 5pm). It is short, but cute, and the lobby is beautiful. If you want a prime spot, arrive very early (I got there at 10:15 and grabbed the last seat at the bar) because only those with chairs or sofas can remain in the lobby; the rest have to stand well back. If you have small kids, you can sit with them right along the red carpet.
The Pyramid: the most famous part of the Memphis skyline, the Pyramid was a convention center and arena. Now it is a Bass Pro Shop, although a huge one (complete with live trout fishing indoors). Skip it.
Memphis is a vibrant city, with good food, great culture, and warm people. I could easily have spent a few more days here, seeing more that the city has to offer. I will be back!