Out of the jungle (room)
by Allison Fields
This is how it usually goes on an airplane, or in a taxi in some foreign country...
"Where are you from?"
"I'm from Memphis - in Tennessee."
"OHHH! Memphis! Graceland and Elvis, right?"
I inwardly sigh. "Yep, that's right."
"I've always wanted to go to Graceland!"
I have a confession to make - one I share with many other Memphians, I grew up without ever having gone to that almost mythical mansion on Elvis Presley Boulevard. It actually took some college friends coming into town for me to finally get myself there. I'm not exactly sure why, but I am certainly not alone in this pop-culture oversight. What is a virtual mecca for fans worldwide barely registers for most natives.
Don't get me wrong. Memphis owes a lot to Graceland, and the local economy thrives on the multitudes who make the pilgrimage each year. It's actually the second-most visited home in the nation behind that other white house, which amazes me. Touring the once private estate really is an absolute blast. If you've never experienced the sheer kitsch of a time capsule devoted to the '70s (and if you want to know about Elvis's odd fat-laden fried eating binges), then this internationally known destination should be one of your first stops when you come to Memphis.
But there's so much more to do in the City on the Bluff, and the constantly changing, newly revitalized downtown district is Memphis' smaller version of the city that never sleeps.
Beale Street or Bust
Watch your toes peeking out of your strappy sandals as you walk down the old bricks lining one of the most famous streets in the United States. More than 25 shops, restaurants and nightclubs are packed within three city blocks, and the sodden Southern air pulses with strains of steel guitars.
Running perpendicular to the mighty Mississippi in the heart of downtown Memphis, Beale Street is the place where the blues made its soulful debut, the birthplace of rock 'n' roll. On the traveler's hit list: B.B. King's, Silky O'Sullivan's, the Rum Boogie - all filled with daiquiris, barbecued ribs and lots of music. This is the place where you can watch a woman with a red beehive and Graceland T-shirt getting her palm read while her Elvis-impersonator boyfriend gets a "Blue Suede Shoe" tattoo. It's absolutely never boring. Many locals swear that the Blues City Cafe has the best grub on Beale; just make sure you get their famous tamales and T-bone steaks.
For the most authentic blues, jazz, rockabilly and the sweet refrains of gospel favorites, make your way around the corner to South Main and the Center for Southern Folklore - a little jewel dedicated to preserving folk art, music and Southern crafts. In addition to an exhibit and photo gallery, the on-site cafe - open daily for lunch - serves down-home fare. The magic really begins around 11:30pm with live music by legends as well as up-and-coming talents hoping to become a part of the Memphis music tradition.
The perfect knickknack hunt begins and ends on Beale. Grandma and Gramps will certainly be impressed with the booty you pick up here. Gift shops abound. A. Schwab - in business since 1876 - is the most famous and historic. Pick up your stash, even polka-dot suspenders and overalls\ at this souvenir center, a.k.a. the old corner country store, and then check out the charming museum of farm and cooking implements, old recordings and clothing on the second floor. Memphis Music carries theme items, including Elvis and blues paraphernalia, postcards, sheet music, statues of Blues artists, and the necessary evil of tourism: a smorgasbord of Memphis and music-inspired T-shirts. Buy jellies, barbecue sauces and other sundries at Memphis Gifts near the eastern end of Beale. Strange Cargo attracts those looking for something a bit more unusual, from exotic wall hangings of Gospel singers to backpacks that look like pairs of pink cowboy boots.
One block off Beale on Lt. George Lee Avenue, you'll find some real pickin' and a-playin' at the famed Gibson Guitar Showcase. Take an informative factory tour, led by actual musicians, and, if your son's (or daughter's!) life is their garage band, buy them a guitar like B.B. King's. If you can't leave a city without an antique, you better head to South Front Street Antiques Market. More than 18,000 square feet await, and you'll find every architectural treasure you've ever dreamed of owning. The giant store also carries hardware, art, furniture, fixtures and other collectibles.
Walkin' in Memphis.. and Rollin' on the River
If it's a pretty day downtown, take a ride on the monorail over to Mud Island Amphitheatre, where Tom Cruise ran and ran and, well, finally escaped from the mob in the movie version of John Grisham's The Firm. Take in some great views of the skyline, featuring the gigantic, gleaming steel pyramid inspired by the ancient Egyptian city that gave this city it's name: Memphis, Egypt. You'll also find an outdoor summer concert venue and a comprehensive museum dedicated to the history of the river. In addition, the island features one of the most fun, wet playgrounds for adults and kids alike: the Riverwalk.
The five-block-long walk replicates the crazy twists, turns and tributaries of the Muddy Mississippi. As a child, I was fascinated by this winding, ankle-deep model. I'm glad to report it has withstood the test of time, as new Tom Sawyer-reading tots still explore this wet wonderland, especially when it turns balmy. (The park is open April through October.)
The concrete reproduction even shows depth differences as the river makes its way down the middle of the country. Finally culminating in New Orleans at the Mississippi Delta, the replica empties into its own version of the Gulf of Mexico, otherwise known as a pool. Take 30 minutes and pretend you're Paul Bunyan and "straddle" the river that inspired Mark Twain and changed the course of American history. The Riverwalk is one of the few attractions that can really boast that it's both educational and amusing.
From Mud Island, you can also spy the launch where the beautifully replicated riverboats of the Memphis Queen Line take visitors on treks down the eddying currents of the "Old Man." With their gingerbread latticework decor and working waterwheels, the Victorian-style vessels feel very authentic. Let the warm wind blow through your hair as you take a short sightseeing cruise or, for the more inspired, a day trip to Helena, Arkansas. Regardless, you'll get a great view of the graceful steel Hernando-DeSoto Bridge, otherwise known to locals as the "M" bridge spanning the river between Tennessee and Arkansas.
It just tastes soooooo finger-lickin' good"
Tourist trap it may be, but oh boy, is it worth the iron bars. Rendezvous Restaurant, at the corner of South Second Street and Union Avenue, has been a Memphis landmark for more than half a century, and it lives up to its reputation with every deliciously smoky bite. To find the entrance, you have to walk down a little alley called November Sixth, enter and make a choice. Upstairs is the famous bar and even more famous bartender, Harry Sinclair, who relates wild tales to eager ears. Order a cheese plate and soak in the Memphis night scene. However, you absolutely must not miss out on what's going on in the basement of this one-of-a-kind eatery.
Descend into the cellar and get ready to salivate. As you walk in, it's an extravaganza for the eyes. The restaurant serves as a museum of sorts, with rusting antiques, grainy photos and bizarre memorabilia commemorating the Dixieland of old. However, your gaze may quickly become fixed on the surrounding food, and your eyes will get way bigger than your stomach as the aroma lazily drifts from the kitchen. This truly is the barbecue-eater's fantasyland and buried treasure wrapped up in one giant rack of ribs - the house specialty.
You'll get messy, but you won't care as your teeth slowly pull the delicately tender pork from the bones. There's even a quote about Rendezvous' signature dish: "Not since Adam has a rib been this famous." There's a reason why every movie celeb, every president, every rock star who's ever touched down in Memphis makes a beeline here.v
That said, as a native, I must mention that Rendezvous doesn't hold exclusive rights to local Memphis barbecue veneration. After all, this is a city internationally renowned for slow-roasting pork. The annual Barbecue Cooking Contest during the Memphis in May Festival attracts pig aficionados from around the globe. Other favorite joints that inspire devotion include Corky's, Neely's, Leonard's, Three Little Pigs, Tops B-B-Q and the Germantown Commissary.
If you've never experienced the sheer kitsch of a time capsule devoted to the '70's (and if you want to know about Elvis's odd fat-laden fried eating binges), then this internationally known destination should be one of your first stops when you come to Memphis.
Hey, it's the South"We like to eat, y'all!
But let's turn to the other Southern staple - fried chicken. The only place to go for this crunchy treat is Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken on Front Street. There's just something special about the way Gus cooks it. If you think you know chicken, reserve judgment until you've tasted one of their succulently juicy breasts. Down the street is the Front Street Deli, another city landmark featured in The Firm.You'll recognize it as the place with the neon pyramid on the window where Tom Cruise and Holly Hunter chatted about not getting whacked. The deli's great sandwiches and potato salad sustain many downtown businessfolk.
For a completely different feel for what the city has to offer, the brand-new, hard-to-get-into bluefin restaurant on the pedestrian mall portion of South Main Street beckons. Old-fashioned trolleys pass by outside the windows, but inside is a modern oasis with ambient blue lighting, a water wall, bedlike lounging booths, hexagonal tables and a crisply clean sushi bar. Chef Minh calls the cuisine "global eclectic," and I suppose that's as good a description as any. You can build your own pizza, sample the popular Debra's Roll with tuna tartare (which my mom loves) or select from the tapas menu, which includes such items as truffle-scented french fries, chicken-fried veal sweetbreads and littleneck clams.
As long as you can handle a background techno beat with your dinner this new eatery offers many tantalizing treats.
Civil Rights, Art and Urban Renewal
Mid-to-late-19th century industrial edifices that now house chic art galleries surround a place of despair and subsequent commemoration. The National Civil Rights Museum was born out of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination at the Lorraine Motel in 1968.
Following his death, the area fell into disrepair, and by the early 1980s the motel was closed. However, a concerned group of prominent Memphians raised enough money to buy the property and save this seminal site in the Civil Rights Movement. By 1991, it was converted into the present-day museum, which was expanded in 2001. A green mall leads down from South Main and frames the facade of the original motel, including the balcony where King met his untimely fate. The whole area feels surreal; the black iron gate leading to the museum - with a King quote worked into the metal - rouses quiet reverence. The museum features a timeline of African-American history, from the slave ships that crossed the Atlantic to the implications of the Civil Rights Movement in the 21st century. It is not only fascinating but also an important stop for understanding our country's history.
This is a city internationally-renowned for slow-roasting pork. The annual Barbecue Cooking Contest during the Memphis in May Festival attracts pig aficionados from around the globe.
In 1999 Mayor Willie Herrington declared the neighborhood the Official Arts District of Memphis. This historic area of urban renewal is now the fastest-growing residential and commercial zip code in the city. Shiny new condos tower above dozens of wide-ranging art galleries, restaurants and shops on the street level, where the Main Street Trolley frequently rumbles past. For the discerning traveler who shops for one-of-a-kind fine art finds or original photographs, South Main makes it easy.
Glasshouse 383 Gallery resembles a giant prism of vivid color. Anything you could possibly want created from glass is available here. Sconces, jewelry, dinnerware, tumblers, tables, bowls, vases, ornaments and chandeliers bedazzle, ranging in price from $7 to $10,000.
Jay Etkin Gallery is the largest in the city; the inviting, three-level loft space is also known for its appearance as the office of Hustler magazine in The People vs. Larry Flynt. The gallery focuses on regional, contemporary and ethnographic works, but also features changing exhibits, such as vintage African and Peruvian pieces - some for sale, some private pieces of the affable owner. You can find beautiful oil paintings of the river, sculptures, a melange of loud pop art featuring Memphis sites and anything in between.
Running perpendicular to South Main is Huling Avenue, which is also teeming with distinctive galleries. The small, European-style Durden Gallery showcases both emerging and established artists from the South, with many affordable paintings and Memphis photographs for purchase. Stop in and speak with Aaron Frye, the gallery's knowledgeable associate director and the art representative of the South Main Association, for unique tidbits about the district and local art offerings. Here's a bit of local lore: Wilson Pickett and Steve Cropper wrote In the Midnight Hour at the Lorraine Motel.
Joysmith Gallery is packed with African-American paintings and sculptures as well as ancestral and contemporary art from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin, Native and South America. Many of the pieces contain fascinating uses of mixed media, and the gallery complements the nearby National Civil Rights Museum.
There are some places in Memphis that simply scream history, and the South Main Street Arts District tops that list.
For something truly unique, take a peek at the Robinson Gallery and Archives. Legendary photographer Jack Robinson left his estate of 150,000 negatives of celebrity photos to his onetime employer, Dan Oppenheimer, who now runs the gallery and is a trove of information on the artist. Robinson emerged from the Southern Bohemia Movement in 1960s New Orleans, when sitting around with famous figures like Bob Dylan and the members of The Who was mundane business. Robinson graduated to Vogue, where he became the "It" portrait photographer. A massive photo of Warren Beatty greets you as you enter, and cultural icons like Jack Nicholson, Joni Mitchell and Tina Turner stare from every corner. Also check out the novel black-and-white prints of nudes, travel and fashion images.
The 14 galleries in the area are open on various days and times, and a few are by appointment only. However, the proprietors all know each other and can easily contact any owner whose gallery you wish to see.
Ducks and a Grand Dame
The only place to stay in Memphis is the Peabody Hotel. Well, I should rephrase that statement. There are hundreds of places to stay in the city, but the oldest and most charmingly quirky is Memphis' signature hotel, known as "The South's Grand Hotel." Built in 1865 with a vision of being the finest, most elegant establishment in the region, the Peabody quickly gained and maintained its excellent reputation as the place to be and be seen. Marble, Oriental rugs, chic decor and gigantic displays of exotic flowers dominate the cavernous, well-dressed lobby, and the luxury guest rooms and suites are equally well-appointed.
The hotel's fine French restaurant, Chez Philippe, is a Memphis mainstay for romantic dinners and special\ occasions, and many a prom date has blushed in the dining room booths. Boutiques line the lobby, creating an indoor arcade. One of the most notable stores claims association with "The King" himself. Lansky's became Elvis' favorite tailor, and Mr. Lansky developed a friendship with him that lasted until the rock 'n' roller's death in August 1977.
The aspect of the Peabody that most delights children, as well as many adults, involves the famous hotel's nonhuman inhabitants. For more than 76 years, a twice-daily duck parade has taken place here. At 11am and 5pm, the Peabody Ducks are led by the "Duck Master" from their own penthouse suite, down the hotel elevators and into the lobby. There, they receive the red-carpet treatment and are led into the large marble fountain in the center of the room. They subsequently splash and show off to the applause of the crowd.
It makes much more sense when you tell the story of how this celebrated custom began (well, it makes more sense to us Southerners!). Decades ago, the Peabody's general manager and a friend returned from a weekend hunting trip to neighboring Arkansas. With a few too many Jack Daniels under their belts, they decided that hilarity would ensue if they put their live duck decoys (legal at that time) into the fountain. It was a hit with the hotel guests, and so began the "March of the Ducks" - a truly eccentric tradition for a truly Southern hotel.
The perfect knickknack hunt begins and ends on Beale. A. Schwab -
in business since 1876 - is the most famous and historic place to shop.
Encompassing a whole block and accessible from the old hotel is a flashy new indoor mall called Peabody Place, which houses many chain stores. One unique offering is the designer boutique Coco Lilly, now popular with 20-something urbanites. The mall is anchored by the 22-screen Muvico movie theater and Imax and also contains several restaurants, including Isaac Hayes' Steak House.
Many stay at the Peabody for its convenience to excellent restaurants, shopping, the Beale Street scene and the sparkling new downtown entertainment venues. The enormous FedEx Forum, which opened in 2004, is the home of the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies and the University of Memphis Tigers basketball team. Big-name headliners from the music industry also perform here throughout the year. If baseball is more your speed, you'll find the AAA Memphis Redbirds roosting at one of the country's best minor league stadiums, AutoZone Park on South Third.
My dad grew up in tiny town called Cotton Plant, Arkansas, and for him, infrequent shopping trips to Memphis were a thrilling experience. It was the big city of the Mid-South, holding mystery and ceaseless possibility. I often think about his youthful enthusiasm when I venture downtown, contemplating its modest skyline or the immense span of the lazy river. Regardless of whether you're a tourist or someone who calls Memphis home, the city still offers something new whenever you stroll its streets, once teeming with cotton and old-world commerce.
As for Elvis and me? Well, I guess we've finally made our peace, and I'm looking forward to the next time a friend comes into town asking, "Hey! Can you take me to Graceland?"