An explosion of exciting new restaurants in recent years has made Memphis a hot culinary destination, receiving coverage in magazines, with chefs and restaurants winning national awards. The international scope of our dining options has expanded exponentially, but let us not forget the places that have been feeding us and creating memories for many years. There will always be a debate about the age and authenticity of some restaurants — have they been in business at the same location for many years? Have they moved locations, but continually been in business? Have they shut down and reopened? Are the original owners still involved?
But memory and experience are such a part of enjoying food. These are the places that many Memphians have fond memories of and return to time and again. This is by no means the definitive list, but it’s a great place to start, whether you are reliving old memories or creating new ones.
5456 Fox Plaza Drive, Memphis • (901) 360-1963
Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Leonard Heuberger opened Leonard’s Pit Barbecue at the corner of Bellevue and McLemore in 1922. Today, it’s owned by Dan Brown, who started working there in 1962. The restaurant is now located in Hickory Ridge, and there is still a steady stream of customers searching for the same barbecue sandwiches and fried chicken Elvis used to eat when Leonard’s was the town’s largest drive-in. The sandwiches are meaty, the sauce is rich and tangy, and the slaw is mustardy. Great big seasoned potato wedges stand in for fries, and I highly recommend you give them a try. There is also brisket and barbecue bologna on the menu. The daily lunch buffet is popular, serving up Southern favorites like catfish and country-fried steak, in addition to ribs and sandwiches.
645 N. McLean, Memphis • (901) 278-9127
Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Dino’s Grill opened in 1972, but it is part of the Grisanti restaurant family tradition, so many of the recipes have been around longer than that. And Dino’s provides many of the same food memories Memphians hold so dear from other Grisanti establishments. Dino’s is old-school Italian-American … huge helpings of favorites like spaghetti and meatballs, veal Parmesan and homemade ravioli. The space is packed with Memphis and family memorabilia and somehow, even on your first visit, it feels like the neighborhood joint you’ve always loved. The toasted ravioli appetizer and the Italian spinach side are popular, and I have a friend who swears by the muffuletta since her Rhodes College days. The eggplant polenta torta features fried eggplant over spinach and polenta on a healthy serving of marinara sauce, a unique and delicious dish.
540 S. Main, Memphis • (901) 526-5757
Hours: Sunday through Wednesday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
The Arcade claims to be the oldest restaurant in Memphis, and it is still operating at the same location and is still owned by the Zepatos family that opened it in 1919. It has appeared in movies and TV shows, and yes, Elvis ate here. The Arcade is known for its breakfasts and pizzas, though there other choices on the menu. Breakfast is classic — eggs any style, pancakes, grits, ham or sausage, a short stack. But you can veer off the tradition with the fluffy and rich sweet potato pancakes or a good country-fried steak with gravy and biscuits. Try the pizzas with the family’s Greek flair, like Miss Polly’s Greek Lover with walnuts, pesto, feta and sun-dried tomatoes, or the Central Station, featuring eggplant, feta and tomatoes.
52 S. Second St., Memphis • (901) 523-2746
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 4:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous has been serving up charcoal-smoked barbecue since 1948, when Charlie Vergos himself discovered an old coal chute in the basement of his grocery store and decided to put it to good use. Many people have written about the charms of the Rendezvous, and visitors from presidents to royalty, so I won’t dig into the charcoal vs. hickory, or wet vs. dry debate here. The Rendezvous is a right of passage in Memphis. You have to eat there to consider yourself a true Memphian, and it is the primary destination when showing out-of-town visitors around, because the Rendezvous is as much about the experience as the food. If you’ve been for the sausage plate, the ribs and the sandwiches, push the boat out on your next visit and try the Vergos family’s Greek-inspired, charcoal-broiled lamb riblets or the charcoal-broiled half chicken. Call ahead for the amazing barbecue shrimp skillet. Add a Greek salad to your order, too. And then get the sausage and cheese plate.
150 Monroe, Memphis • (901) 525-0883
Hours: Everyday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The Bon Ton Cafe originally opened in 1890, and it has been at 150 Monroe since 1904. It closed for several years, then reopened in 2012, still sporting the fabulous neon sign. The Bon Ton serves breakfast and lunch daily, and brunch on the weekends. The breakfast menu is a good blend of old school, from biscuits and gravy, grits and pancakes, to new school burritos and chicken and waffles. The Big Sammy biscuit, with fried chicken doused in cream gravy, is a favorite, the gravy with lots of flavor and a little spice. The only secret ingredient the chef will reveal is “a whole lotta love.” You can also get your hash browns smothered and covered. The selection is large, so go prepared to eat. The lunch menu offers a wide selection of sandwiches and burgers, plus entrees like fried chicken and blackened catfish. Daily lunch specials are worth a look, as well.
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