After a decade of growth and reinvestment along Downtown Memphis’s Front Street, the empty lots and abandoned structures of the area once known as Warehouse Row have been rejuvenated by new apartments and condos, reimagined public spaces, thriving businesses and burgeoning entrepreneurs. Take a walk down Front Street today and you’ll find something fascinating around every corner.
Starting on the south end, a colossal $55 million renovation of the historic Central Station train depot is underway, leading to a mixed-use development that will house updated Amtrak facilities as well as a movie theater, hotel, 200+ apartments and the Memphis Farmers Market. The market has been using the station’s promenade as its home base since 2016 and is still open every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. through October for all your local food and floral needs.
As you head north out of the station past the topography of new residences that have filled in nearby acreage, stop in at The Blue Monkey. This local mainstay rose from the ashes after a 2005 fire and remains a favorite for its laid-back vibe from lunch to late-night. If you’d rather grab a bottle of wine for your market-fresh meal, The Corkscrew next door has you covered.
The street becomes more residential as you pass under the train tracks at Nettleton Avenue, but city-dwellers aren’t the only ones repurposing the once utilitarian spaces. Brickwood Hall opened its doors in 2017 to host art showings, performances and private events in what was formerly a cotton sorting warehouse.
The new venue faces South Front Antiques, a long-standing haven for designers and DIYers looking to score vintage architectural elements and other local curiosities. Nearby apartment renters can spruce up their spaces in a flash, and then reward themselves with a treat at Two Girls & A Whip, a cakery built into the old-plus-new Printer’s Alley development.
Two Girls co-owner Caroline Dean once worked around the corner as an advertising professional and has been stunned by Front Street’s transformation. “There are so many new developments, this was the perfect time to get in,” says Caroline. Specializing in delicious cupcakes and stunning cake art, the shop spent three months settling on their rotation of 35 flavors, but always keeps chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and at least one alcohol-infused “Boozy Suzy” recipe in the case.
If you prefer your spirits a little simpler, keep going down the block to the Old Dominick Distillery. With daily tours, bar hours and frequent rooftop events, the reactivated distillery has plenty of opportunities to get a taste of “pure Memphis.”
Old Dominick’s proprietary vodkas are also served next door at The Gray Canary, Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman’s latest culinary venture. The restaurant features the pair’s renowned Southern-meets-Italian fare with a strong leaning toward fresh seafood. Reservations remain a hot ticket, but the bar and lounge area are also perfect for a quick stop to cool off after a visit to Gus’s Fried Chicken across the street.
The oldest remaining location of the spicy local favorite (and now national chain) is hopping throughout the day. Famed chef and regional food expert Alton Brown called Gus’s the best fried chicken in the country, and with all due respect to our friends throughout the South, we have to agree.
Continuing up Front Street across Beale, you’ll soon realize you’re in the zone — AutoZone. The Memphis company houses its headquarters on Front and is expanding in the area, continuing a trend of major local corporations building their presence downtown. Restaurant owner Lisa Clay Getske of Lisa’s Lunchbox has been especially appreciative of the new traffic in the neighborhood. She even recognizes some regulars from her two East Memphis locations.
“I have fallen in love with Front Street,” says Lisa. “From all my newfound friends who work at AutoZone to the barber across the street and all his customers and now all my longtime friends from ServiceMaster moving in … we love feeding our neighbors!”
Traveling further north takes you into the center of Memphis’s agricultural history, marked by the Cotton Exchange building, which now houses the Cotton Museum. The Mississippi River peeks through each side street as the bluffs undulate beside Riverside Drive just one block away. If it’s a pleasant day, the garage doors will be open at the headquarters of the Memphis Fire Department, and you can see the vintage fire engine parked beside their modern equipment.
Passing the grand former post office and customs house now serving as the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, you’ll see that Downtown’s branch of the Memphis Public Libraries has geography as disparate as its architecture. The mid-century building housing the Cossitt branch’s collection is accessed by taking a stairway down from street level. As the bluff rises behind it, however, you see a portion of the 1920s addition to the 19th Century Romanesque original. The library hosts frequent activities from concerts to cookouts on both sides of the building, drawing from each one’s unique character.
Activating the library’s community engagement and gorgeous riverfront is part of Reimagining the Civic Commons, a public-private collaboration to improve connection within the city. The Cossitt Library’s neighbor, The Fourth Bluff, is also part of this effort. The historic park offers views of the river shared by Memphis citizens as they watched the naval Battle of Memphis unfold in 1862 and is central to the riverfront’s future.
The remaining portion of Front Street in Downtown’s core is anchored by the entry points to Mud Island River Park and the Bass Pro Shop established in the Pyramid’s former arena space. These two attractions — featuring a scale model of the southern Mississippi River and aquariums highlighting its residents, respectively — are a great introduction to the area’s natural features and provide plenty of hands-on learning for guests of all ages. A concert at Mud Island Amphitheater or a ride on the world’s tallest freestanding elevator to the Pyramid’s observation deck is a perfect way to end a day exploring this historic and revitalized corridor of Memphis.
Now, pencil in a day spent along Downtown Memphis’ Front Street!