All of the factors that go into opening a successful restaurant — discovering the best locale, creating a delicious menu, finding the perfect decor, hiring attentive and professional staff, and so much more — are challenges during the best of times. Add in a pandemic? It takes an extra-special dose of creativity, flair and determination. Join us as we talk to four restaurateurs who are bringing their passion for amazing food to Memphis despite the persistence of COVID-19.
4 New Memphis Restaurants You Need to Try
1350 Concourse Avenue #181 (at Crosstown Concourse), Memphis, TN 38104 • (901) 308-1113
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, noon to 8 p.m.; Friday, noon to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday
Available for pickup and free delivery within a four-mile radius.
Born and raised in Switzerland, owner Sabine Langer spent many happy vacations and long weekends in Italy, where she fell in love with the people, the culture, the food and the language. The owner of Global Café in Crosstown Concourse, she was asked if she was interested in opening another space next door — one already equipped with wood ovens for pizzas.
“I hesitated for half a second before agreeing,” says Sabine. “We were hoping to open Pizzeria Trasimeno in April. We got delayed a bit because of COVID-19, and although it ended up a little different than it would have in normal times, I just did not see us sitting on our hands for an extended period of time.”
Inspired by the restaurants in her Italian “hometown” of Castiglione del Lago on Lake Trasimene, Sabine created a warm and welcoming space with the fresh, flavorful cuisine of the Umbrian region. With the goal of bringing a piece of Italy to Memphis, Sabine insisted on authenticity in both the decor and menu.
“I think I drove many people crazy in the initial phase with my, ‘Nope, that is not authentic!’ comments — whether it was my friend Tara Engleberg from Tara Felice Interiors who designed the space, or my general manager Brian Bazar when we were testing recipes,” Sabine says. “But I feel it paid off!”
Though the restaurant has not yet opened for on-site dining, the dishes certainly reflect Sabine’s passion for a true Italian experience, though she does allow some twists based on her team members’ favorites. The Chef Sunstedt Special with roasted garlic, provolone, mozzarella, herb mix, and thick-cut bacon is the creation of Chef Zach Sunstedt. The Nonna, loaded with mozzarella, prosciutto, roasted chicken, roasted asparagus, thyme, and truffle oil, is Brian’s inspiration.
Sabine’s favorites are the simple, yet classic Pizza Margherita and the Insalata di Rucola — a delightful blend of baby arugula with lemon juice, olive oil, sea salt, fresh pepper and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. Pizzeria Trasimeno also offers a limited drinks menu, with Italian classics like Aperol Spritz and Negroni.
When asked about the challenge of opening a new restaurant during such uncertain times, Sabine is optimistic: “Opening during a pandemic is like a really long soft opening. A big part of our business model is to have an inviting space for people to hang out, watch Italian soccer games and Formula 1 races, and so on. Obviously, that is not happening. We are having to work harder to get the word out, but we already have several regular customers, including some that drive 20 minutes for our pizza.”
Magnolia & May
718 Mt. Moriah, Memphis, TN 38117 • (901) 676-8100
Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Monday
Open for patio and indoor dining, and curbside pickup.
Great restaurants run in this family! Magnolia & May owners Chip and Amanda Dunham previously ran The Grove Grill with Chip’s father, Jeff. The duo began the work on their newest endeavor well before March 2020 and decided to “roll with it” when the coronavirus changed everything.
“The biggest challenge to me is making each and every guest feel comfortable and safe, whether eating in our restaurant or taking food home,” says Chip. “I always tell people that we would love for them to dine in our dining room or on our patio, but our food is just as good at home, especially with a to-go cocktail or bottle of wine!”
The inspiration behind Magnolia & May is to show guests that chef-driven dishes and creative cocktails are approachable for everyone. In addition to the fun, refreshing cocktail menu, Amanda has carefully curated an enticing wine and beer list to pair perfectly with the food. A glance down the menu shows that Chef Chip uses fresh, local ingredients to create flavorful and unique dishes.
To kick off the meal, many patrons opt for the Buffalo Broccoli — breaded and deep-fried florets tossed with buffalo sauce and served with buttermilk or blue cheese dressing. “Our Tacos con Mempho is another popular starter,” says Chip. “We melt American cheese between two tortillas and top them with pulled pork, tobacco onions, and avocado salsa.”
The Tortilla Crusted Pork Chop is a fun entrée with Southwestern flair. The chop is breaded with corn tortillas, deep-fried, and served with Mexican rice and an ancho pepper sauce. For a twist on a classic, the cheeseburger combines two patties with a cheese skirt — melted cheese on the burger allowed to get crispy on the top. Served with Chef Chip’s “special sauce,” lettuce, tomato, diced onion, and house-made bread and butter pickles, it flies off the menu!
Located in East Memphis, Magnolia & May offers a warm, inviting atmosphere with rustic accents of wood and brick adding to the charm. The walls are decorated with barrel staves and barrel heads, and the bar top is made of old bowling lanes from Imperial Lanes on Summer Avenue. The shelves behind the bar are also made from wood original to the building.
Looking back on choosing to open in the height of a pandemic, Chip feels sure they made the right call: “We decided to go ahead and open because we knew we were ready and had no reason to wait. I choose to look at the positives. Operating at only 50% capacity allows us to really focus on each guest and make sure they have a truly positive experience with us.”
Cocozza American Italian
145 South Main Street, Memphis, TN 38103 • (901) 523-0523
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday
Open for to-go, curbside pickup, and patio dining.
The Majestic Grille is normally one of Memphis’ premier spots for downtown dining before a big event — concerts, sporting events, theater. And they usually do a brisk business at lunch, as well as corporate events, thanks to the many offices and businesses in the area. As “normally” and “usually” fell by the wayside in the wake of COVID-19, owners Deni and Patrick Reilly found themselves with a closed restaurant. Their solution: Cocozza — a “red sauce joint” offering hearty portions of delectable American Italian comfort food accompanied by inexpensive yet perfect wines or a classic cocktail.
“The concept of Cocozza was one we’d worked on over the years,” explains Patrick. “We’d thought about opening up a separate brick and mortar, but the timing was never right. But we did have the basic idea of what we wanted to do.”
At first, they planned to operate Cocozza as a “ghost” or virtual kitchen, using the existing Majestic facilities to offer a to-go only menu. “Then we thought, we do have an outdoor eating area, and wouldn’t it be fun to create an Italian patio?” says Deni. “Our main business is curbside pickup and to-go orders, but we are excited to offer a dining experience, too.”
The inspiration behind the menu is Patrick’s passion for the history of American Italian food and Deni’s fond nostalgia for the cuisine. “I grew up in New Jersey with wonderful American Italian restaurants nearby,” Deni says. “My family has Italian roots as well. My maternal great-grandfather immigrated here; he lived with cousins named Ferguson and adopted their name, but his original last name was Cocozza.”
When asked about his favorite dishes, Patrick laughs. “You can’t have a favorite child,” he says. But he does point out the Bucatini alla Enzo, named for a dear friend from Rome, Italy, who passed away in 2006. Chef Enzo Perlini and Patrick were friends for years, and Patrick credits his friend with teaching him a great deal about the art of creating mouthwatering, filling dishes that sit lightly on the stomach in true Italian style.
The Spinach Manicotti and Chicken Piccata are great favorites among their guests, and Deni says she loves the Eggplant Parmesan and Baked Lasagna. “For the eggplant dish, Patrick slices the eggplant horizontally and very thinly instead of thicker round circles. He stacks and layers it with his fresh marinara sauce and cheeses — it is so good!” she says.
Deni and Patrick say they are happy they moved forward with Cocozza. “There was no way for us to replicate the success of The Majestic Grille, but Cocozza allows us to continue to retain our full-time management staff and pay our furloughed employees’ health benefits,” says Deni. “And, of course, keep us busy!”
“Our customers have been really great and appreciative,” adds Patrick. “A friend came in for dinner recently — it was the first time he’d eaten out since March. He told me when he was sitting on our patio that for the first time, he felt like everything was going to be okay.”
1788 Madison Avenue, Memphis, TN 38104 • (901) 474-7214
Open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; closed Sunday
Available for curbside pickup and to-go orders.
The bright red Stickem food truck has been popular in Memphis since it opened in 2012. The concept was simple, delicious and easy to eat: high-quality meat cooked and served on a stick. Four years later, owner Ermyias Shiberou opened Blue Nile — a brick-and-mortar restaurant that celebrated the cuisine of his home country, Ethiopia.
Ermyias says his decision earlier this year to rebrand Blue Nile into Stickem as a restaurant centered around growth. “Moving forward, I realized the workload of running both Stickem and Blue Nile was unsustainable, so I had to let one go. Stickem was more popular and had more potential for growth,” he says. Using the Blue Nile space in Midtown Memphis, he established a dining experience centered on warm hospitality and great food. Although the delightful and inviting dining room remains closed, the restaurant is doing well with curbside and to-go orders.
The menu Ermyias developed for Stickem retains the simple concept of the food truck with some additions. The dishes he creates are impacted by the experiences he’s had sampling cuisine from around the world. You’ll find African, Asian, American, and Mexican influences on the menu. Despite that, the selection remains simple, says Ermyias. “To me, good food needs to be fresh, healthy, and seasoned well.”
The menu centers mostly on kebobs — chicken, steak, shrimp, and tofu. A platter includes three skewers and a side, and you can mix kebobs for a combo. There’s also a succulent lamb shank that is braised with fresh herbs and spices and a red snapper that is served fried with a drizzle of lemon sauce. Popular sides include the fresh mixed veggies and crispy seasoned fries.
Ermyias’ biggest challenge with the COVID-19 pandemic? “Social distancing,” he replies. “Due to the small size of the restaurant, I’ve had to transition from a setting with mostly dine-in business to one of mostly takeout. Working with a smaller staff has also been a challenge, but we are diligent about providing a hospitable experience for our guests.”
We hope this list inspires you to try some of these new Memphis dining destinations. Enjoy!
Stay in the know of all things Memphis! Follow us on Instagram.