Home cooking, soul food, meat-and-three, Southern cooking – whatever you call it, Memphis has got it going on! Living right here in the heart of Southern cuisine, we can sometimes take for granted that we have some of the best soul food restaurants right here in our hometown. They are indeed true treasures, serving up the classic fare of our region cooked in traditional ways by good-hearted people who want to feed us well. If it’s been a while since you’ve had down-home cooking, or if you’re just looking to expand your horizons, here are some of our favorite places that feed the belly and the soul.
SB Tip: Some of these restaurants’ menus change daily, so you might want to call ahead to see what’s on offer the day you plan to go. Also, leave yourself some time to savor and enjoy these homey places! Consider it a holiday treat.
The Best Soul Food Restaurants in Memphis
317 N. Main St., Memphis • (901) 523-0200
Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Betty Joyce (B.J.) Chester-Tamayo opened Alcenia’s 18 years ago after the death of her son, as a place of love and healing. B.J. shares the love with a hug for everyone who comes through her doors, and this bright, colorful space on North Main matches her bubbly personality. The lima beans at Alcenia’s are one of my favorite things in Memphis, so I like to plan my visits around them. But I’ve never had anything at Alcenia’s I don’t like! The fried chicken is spot on, the catfish perfectly crispy and the meatloaf is one of the best iterations of this dish you’ll ever have. The spicy corn is indeed pleasantly spicy, the yams sweet and candied. I’ve never been a fan of cabbage, but I like it at Alcenia’s. Even the little round of hot water cornbread that comes with every order is perfection. And the desserts are a real highlight, so save room for some pie … and if sweet potato cobbler is on the menu, order it. Learn more at alcenias.com.
5050 Poplar Ave., Memphis • (901) 424-3286
Hours: Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Many Memphians will be thrilled to learn that Buntyn is back! This incarnation is Buntyn Corner Cafe, a small space in the lobby of the iBank building on Poplar. The eatery offers one special main dish and a selection of sides and desserts. My recent visit featured chicken and dressing, which was the old-fashioned comfort food you look for at a place like this — shredded chicken and crumbled dressing mixed with gravy. The sweet potato casserole was particularly good, and the potato salad was delicious. Greens were properly cooked and flavorful. The food here is served in take-out containers even when you eat in, so note that the side portions are limited to the size of those little spaces. I could do with a bigger helping of those sweet potatoes!
The famous Buntyn rolls are here. Definitely choose a roll over cornbread, and you can grab a pan to take home, as well. I’m a fan of the strawberry cobbler, and the peach version is also very good — properly sweet and gooey with just enough crusty top. I’m happy this place is back! Learn more at facebook.com/buntyncornercafe.
2511 Lamar Ave., Memphis • (901) 744-0999
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.
The Dining Room on Lamar is a simple, no frills place — you’ll recognize it by the sign propped on a tree that says “Soul Food and More.” But don’t let the humble surroundings fool you. I was drawn to The Dining Room when I heard about its butter rolls, a classic soul food staple. Tender yeast roll dough is slathered with cinnamon-sugar and rolled up, then soaked in a sweet milk syrup. This version is served as a long cylinder, rather than a cinnamon-bun sized piece, giving you more bang for the buck. It’s a fitting end to a meal of delicious chicken and dressing with gravy and sides of your choice. The Dining Room’s version features whole pieces of chicken layered under a generous chunk of dressing smothered in gravy. It takes a little work to eat it, but the effort is well-rewarded with moist meat and plenty of herb-y dressing. The yams in a sweet but not at all cloying brown sugar syrup are particularly good, as are the tender greens. Servings are substantial. Just remember to leave room for that butter roll!
998 Mississippi Blvd., Memphis • (901) 507-1519
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The Four Way is a Memphis institution. It’s been serving up meals since 1946 and has fed Martin Luther King Jr., Elvis, Aretha and Ike and Tina. A few blocks from the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and LeMoyne-Owen College in the heart of Soulsville, The Four Way is a happening place. On my most recent visit, a fraternity alumni group was there ordering up plates of fried fish, dining alongside businesspeople, families and students. The Four Way has a full menu selection every day, so you don’t have to wait till Tuesday for fried chicken or Thursday for meatloaf (though there are a few specials). I really enjoyed the country-fried steak — tender round steak breaded and served with brown gravy. I went for dressing instead of the more traditional mashed potatoes, and I’m glad I did. This is one of my favorite dressings in town now, very well flavored with a great hit of pepper in the gravy. The cabbage was good with a little shake of pepper vinegar from the table, and the black-eyed peas were a perfect Southern side dish. And don’t ever forget dessert — cake or pie, you can’t go wrong! Find out more at fourwaymemphis.com.
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