In January, Vogue magazine set the bar high. The Gray Canary was listed as one of the “Most Anticipated American Restaurant Openings in 2018,” and, not surprisingly, their prediction hit the mark. Newly opened and located in the Old Dominick Distillery in the South Main Arts District of downtown Memphis, The Gray Canary offers a dining experience you don’t want to miss.
The Gray Canary is the latest endeavor of Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman. This is the duo’s sixth restaurant together and fifth restaurant here in Memphis. Together, they own and operate Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen; Hog & Hominy; Porcellino’s Craft Butcher on Brookhaven Circle; Catherine & Mary’s at The Chisca on Main; Josephine Estelle in the Ace Hotel in New Orleans; and finally, their newest addition, The Gray Canary.
Friends since they were kids, these two chefs were once again nominated as finalists for the James Beard Awards’ “Best Chef: Southeast” category just last month. The latest installment in their restaurant group clearly demonstrates why this talented and creative team has received this and so many other accolades.
“The Gray Canary marks where Andy and I are as both cooks and with our diners,” explains Michael. “Our obsession with techniques and the influence various ways of cooking has on flavor — especially with live fire, coals and in the hearth — drives the menu. The raw bar demonstrates our love of fresh Gulf, East Coast and West Coast oysters and how simply allowing the ingredients to define themselves, with little to no messing around, influences the flavor. The custom-built, wood-fired grill allows us to experiment with the different flavors that fire can coax from produce and proteins, from the influence of ash and embers to smoking to grilling over direct and indirect heat. The dishes from the fire are inspired by myriad influences from Tuscan outdoor grills to Memphis backyard barbecues.”
Andy agrees, adding, “The philosophy for all of our restaurants is always the same: great food, hospitable service, fun cocktails and a strong wine list. This restaurant is the least grounded in Italian cooking and more focused on technique and cooking out of the hearth.”
The restaurant space is impressive. The cavernous warehouse gives this restaurant a modern, big-city vibe. “The decor is a mix of elegant and industrial with lots of color,” explains Director of Operations Nick Talarico. Local firm Looney Ricks Kiss helped the team bring all the design elements together.
A cocktail lounge that features a full bar as well as a raw bar greets guests as they walk in the door. Heading into the main dining room, you pass the open kitchen where you can see the chefs in action. There is even a window where you can get an up-close glance at the custom wood-fired grill. And if you really want a front-row view, ask for a seat at the chef’s counter.
One of our favorite seating areas is the row of booths along the 100-year-old warehouse windows. These are the perfect spots to enjoy sweeping views of downtown and the Mississippi River, which is the element that reminds you that you are in Memphis.
“Location means a lot. We love the South Main neighborhood, and we’re so excited to be a part of it,” says Michael of why they chose this unique location. “When the Canales showed us the space, we fell in love immediately. There are three different cityscapes out of each window, and we’re able to keep the bar and dining room separate, which is unlike any of our restaurants.”
“We are a Memphis-based company, and we wanted someone with that same mentality and value,” says Alex Canale, fifth generation owner of D. Canale and Old Dominick Distillery. “Also, Old Dominick was created to be a premier experience in Memphis, and we wanted to extend that to the restaurant. No other two people embodied all that like Andy and Michael.”
The interior may be stunning, but it’s the food that takes center stage at The Gray Canary.
“The menu reflects how we like to eat right now,” Andy explains. “We love oysters and sparkling wine. We love to share and to order a bunch of different things to taste for dinner. So that inspired the format. And ever since we built the pizza oven at Hog & Hominy, we’ve wanted to build a restaurant around a hearth, but none of the spaces ever worked for it. This space gave us that opportunity, so we designed the full menu around that.” Michael adds, “The menu connects guests to their own experiences, while always offering a new perspective. It’s about sharing and passing.”
And speaking of sharing and passing, that is what you are going to do when you dine at The Gray Canary. The menu may be small, but each dish is one you’ll want to try. Each item is listed by the centerpiece of the dish, with the accoutrements and garnishes explained beside it. We recommend approaching the menu as you would a tapas menu, ordering two or three dishes to share per course. And don’t be afraid to ask for guidance. The attentive staff is knowledgeable about each and every creation on the menu.
When asked about their signature items, Michael offers the following advice on must-orders: “Oysters shucked to order are a signature, as are any of the veggies or proteins cooked in the hearth, including mortadella with beets, cabbage, pistachios and brown butter; sweet potato with chorizo, Meyer lemon, mint, crème fraiche and pecans; T-bone steak with parsley, lemon, garlic and butter; and our Spinalis with leeks, rosemary, beef and olive oil vinaigrette and black pepper confit.”
Andy smiles, jokingly likening pinning down a favorite to Sophie’s Choice. “Choosing your favorite dish is like choosing your favorite child! We like them all. But you can’t go wrong with oysters and some bubbles.”
Which brings us to the libations.
“The drink menu takes its lead from the kitchen and is really focused on techniques and combining different base spirits to create balance. The list starts with sparkling cocktails, including the Revelry, which features Old Dominick Honeybell vodka,” explains Director of Operations Nick Talarico.
In addition to handcrafted cocktails, The Gray Canary also has a beautifully curated wine selection, including numerous wines by the glass, that was put together by Wine Director Ryan Radish.
We couldn’t help but ask about the name The Gray Canary, which is refreshingly literary in origin.
“We wanted the name to reflect the atmosphere, and we saw a lot of inspiration coming from stories from our childhood: Where the Wild Things Are, The Walrus and the Carpenter, Dr. Seuss … So we wanted the name to have the ring of good story, and we started talking about canaries and their relation to coal,” says Michael. “Canaries would go in, and if they didn’t die, miners knew the air was good. We just fixated on the idea that a canary that went into the new mine would come out gray if everything was safe. That became our guy: something new, but it’s going to work out.”
We have no doubt that this “something new” is definitely going to work out!
The Gray Canary is located at 301 S. Front St., Memphis, TN 38103. Currently open Tuesday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Weekend brunch will be coming soon. For more information, visit thegraycanary.com or call (901) 249-2932.
And thank you to The Gray Canary for providing these beautiful images of their restaurant!
Find more scoop on local foodies, chefs and restaurants here.