We lived in East Tennessee for 16 years, so a return trip that included eating southern food again was exciting. Memphis lies along the Mississippi River in southwestern Tennessee, bordering Mississippi and Arkansas. The region’s cuisine is slightly different from the east side of the state, notably rectangular cake-like biscuits and more barbecue ribs than pulled pork. However, Memphis was a surprise because it’s much more than barbecue. Whether you’re a foodie or not, you’ll love dining at downtown Memphis restaurants. Here are some of our favorites.
Information on this trip was obtained during a press trip sponsored by Memphis Travel. All opinions are our own.
1. Catherine & Mary’s
Catherine and Mary’s, an upscale casual restaurant, combines southern ingredients and grandmother-style cooking with an Italian dining philosophy. Chefs Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman attended the Italian Culinary Institute in Cambria, Italy, and have been named multi-year semi-finalists and finalists for Best Chef: Southeast by the James Beard Foundation.
For cocktails, “Tokyo Wasn’t Built In A Day” is an excellent starting point to pair with antipasti. For plates, order a C&M Caesar and meatballs. The meatballs and sauce served on top of garlic bread were exceptional. Pasta, of course, is a specialty at Catherine and Mary’s. The mafalde and rigatoni were delicious, but the bucatini was our favorite. For an entrée, the perfectly seasoned chicken breast cooked with fresh lemon, and combined with strawberry cake, is a meal that’s worth a trip to downtown Memphis by itself. However, if you enjoy seafood, halibut was the most popular entrée from the kitchen and it looked delicious.
Pro Tip: Ride the restored streetcars on Main Street to the restaurant and nearby Beale Street. An all-day pass costs just $2.
2. Global Café
Eat food from around the world at Global Café, an international food hall inside the Crosstown Concourse. Immigrant and refugee food entrepreneurs cook and sell cuisines from their home countries as they learn how to operate restaurants and food trucks. Whether dining on the shady patio or inside the restaurant, it’s easy to grab lunch and a cocktail from one of the best international menus in town.
We noticed guests eating a shrimp burrito and Mexican street corn next to us, and it looked fantastic. Still, we began lunch with an order of chips and delicious guacamole, hummus with pita, and falafel. Next, I ordered the pabellón for an entrée — seasoned pulled beef that tasted wonderful with rice, black beans, and plantains.
Pro Tip: After lunch, walk through Crosstown Concourse, an old renovated Sears distribution building turned into a center for the arts with shops, businesses, and a school.
3. Sunrise Memphis
Located in the former Neely’s Bar-B-Cue restaurant, Sunrise Memphis serves up southern-style comfort foods. A bright, eclectic atmosphere creates a happy mood to start your morning.
I faced a difficult choice between the two most popular “Biscuit Sammies” — the Rooster, a fried chicken breast with Tabasco honey and a homemade pickle; and the Dirty South, made with pimento cheese and a fried green tomato. However, I was swayed with a Rocky Mountain omelet filled with diced country ham, cheddar cheese, onions, mushrooms, and green peppers. So often, country ham is too salty for my tastes, but I wanted a southern-style breakfast and a biscuit. With a good mix of vegetables and cheese, the country ham did not overpower the omelet, and I enjoyed this flavor combination.
4. B.B. King’s Blues Club
Experiencing downtown Memphis wouldn’t be complete without visiting B.B. King’s Blues Club on Beale Street. You’ll likely see live music with musicians that have played with the biggest names in all music genres. On the night we visited, we watched a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame bass guitarist and a saxophonist who has played with easily recognizable names.
But B.B. King’s is more than just music. Southern dishes like “Born On The Bayou Shrimp And Grits,” po boys, and yazoo Creole catfish combine nicely while listening to the blues. Unsure what to choose? Order “BB’s Famous Lip Smacking Ribs” — what they are known for.
Local Fireman Favorite: Blackened chicken carbonara
5. Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken
I was eager to eat at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, a Memphis icon since 1953. Even though its appearance isn’t fancy, don’t overlook eating here for southern comfort food. Inside the historic downtown Memphis eatery, checkered tablecloths, white-tiled walls, and vintage signs create a laid-back atmosphere.
Obviously, most people order fried chicken; nevertheless, choosing sides is difficult. All sides are made in house and have a slightly sweet flavor to pair with the chicken’s spicy southern taste. I ordered a three-piece dark plate with baked beans and macaroni and cheese. I also ordered fried okra as an extra side and I couldn’t resist a slice of pecan pie for dessert. The crunchy hand-breaded fried chicken had an excellent seasoning with mild spicy heat. I prefer sweeter baked beans and these were perfect for me. A dash of paprika topped creamy macaroni and cheese and an extra thick, crunchy batter coated the fried okra. Although the entire meal was excellent, the slice of pecan pie is what I’ll remember the most. Pecan pie is one of my favorites and this might be the best I’ve ever had.
Pro Tip: Tour Old Dominick Distillery across the street from Gus’s.
6. Central BBQ
Although Memphis is known for barbecue, Central BBQ tops the list for most locals. Look for the downtown Memphis restaurant behind the National Civil Rights Museum. You’ll feel comfortable sitting with guests dressed in t-shirts or business attire in the industrial-style dining room. Like many barbecue restaurants, a casual southern-style dining experience awaits with a roll of paper towels on each table, since barbecue can be messy. However, Central BBQ is known for its soul-food side dishes too. Order greens, macaroni and cheese, home-cooked pork rinds, or traditional sides like potato salad and baked beans. For lunch, order a sandwich made with pulled pork or beef brisket, potato salad, and banana pudding for dessert.
Local Fireman Favorites: Wings, pulled pork barbecue nachos, and brownies
Pro Tip: In Memphis, slaw is often served on sandwiches, not as a side.
7. By The Brewery
Across from the newly renovated Tom Lee Park, By The Brewery is another downtown Memphis restaurant with a great breakfast. Floor-to-ceiling windows brighten the corner cafe’s dining room and vintage-style decor.
For a taste of the South, try anything with a biscuit, smoked gouda grits, or the “Chick On The Corner,” which includes a southern staple — apple butter. From the first time I saw the menu, I knew I would order the popular “Tennessee Street Biscuit” — a southern-style, crispy hand-breaded fried chicken breast in an oversized biscuit with Sriracha honey and a homemade pickle. The biscuit was delicious and lived up to my expectations. You can also make it a bowl by adding an egg and cheddar cheese.
Pro Tip: Order a yogurt bowl with granola, fresh berries, and honey for a healthier appetite. The yogurt bowl looked unbelievable — like it came from a magazine.
8. SOB Downtown
Inside the upscale casual SOB (South of Beale), a long bar decorated with metallic tiles stretches down one side of the popular downtown Memphis restaurant. Tiles and exposed stucco pay tribute to the building’s history and a retro yellow sofa sits in the front below a yellow neon sign.
Duck-fried rice always came as the first recommendation from locals. Additionally, the restaurant’s General Tso’s cauliflower and “Jack’ N Coke Bread Pudding” have a cult following around Memphis. So naturally, we ordered duck-fried rice, General Tso’s cauliflower, and added Philly cheesesteak egg rolls. As expected, the fried rice and cauliflower were terrific, but the cheesesteak egg rolls were phenomenal. Finally, if you like Mexican carnitas, order the carnitas bowl. Seasoned pork sits on rice and shredded lettuce and is topped with cheddar cheese and sour cream.
Pro Tip: Try SOB’s popcorn made with real butter and a house blend of cinnamon spice.