Back in the day, South Main was a flourishing hub of Memphis. Construction on Central Station ended in 1914, and thereafter the area was bustling due to railroad traffic, which produced the need for hotels, restaurants, warehouses and more. However, railroad transportation began to decline in the 1950s and ’60s, and after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, the neighborhood fell into decay. A South Main rebirth began in the 1990s, soon after the opening of the National Civil Rights Museum at the former Lorraine Motel, and now the neighborhood is bustling once more, full of good food and interesting experiences.
When discussing food on South Main, it may be best to begin at the beginning — that is, the oldest restaurant in Memphis, The Arcade. Sitting at the corner of Main Street and G.E. Patterson, The Arcade has been serving filling breakfasts and other deliciousness since 1919. If you are craving bacon, eggs, pancakes, hash browns and the like, this is the place to go. For lunch, there is South of Beale, a gastropub that serves complimentary popcorn to every patron, amazing sandwiches and sumptuous bread pudding. McEwen’s offers sophisticated Southern cuisine with a creative European influence in a laid-back atmosphere. SB TIP: Try the popular saffron lobster risotto, buttermilk fried oysters or the BBQ duck confit enchiladas!
A new kid on the block is South Main Market, a food hall in 409 South Main that is home to City Block Salumeria, a full-service butcher shop, deli counter and sandwich shop. South Main Market is also home to Tamboli Pasta Bar, which serves up soulful Italian dishes made from locally sourced ingredients. It’s operated by Miles Tamboli, who owns and operates Tamboli Produce and whose family history is intertwined with 409 South Main. Before the building was a food hall, it was the Jay Etkin Gallery, which hosted a lot of his father Roy Tamboli’s artwork.
“I spent a lot of time playing in that building as a kid, had my 14th birthday party there, and even sold a piece of art there when I was a teenager,” says Miles.
Tamboli Pasta Bar opened in late November and has been enjoying steady business. “There’s a strong community of highly food-literate people working in 409 South Main, and I learn a lot working alongside the other folks who are there,” says Miles.
South Main also offers options for thirsty folks. There is Bluff City Coffee, which serves espresso-based drinks, and Low Fi Coffee (which is closed for renovations until February), owned and operated by Bailey Biggers and Dave Pender, a married couple who moved to Memphis from Fort Worth, Texas.
“We have a lot of patrons from the neighborhood who work and live here,” says Dave. “Our regulars love coming in daily for their favorite drink — the neighborhood chefs favor our Nitro Cold Brew.”
In turn, Bailey and Dave have embraced the neighborhood. “We love South Main obsessively,” says Dave. “We love the downtown industrial feel, we love feeling the spirit of the birth of rock-and-roll right out our front door, and we love being near a place where we are reminded daily of what sacrifice and struggle truly mean and how blessed we are because of the countless numbers of freedom fighters like Martin Luther King.”
South Main also has an array of places to enjoy adult beverages. Housed in South Main Market, Civil Pour offers unique cocktails, as well as beer and wine, while Java Cabana serves fair-trade coffee, cappuccinos, lattes, homemade cocoa, specialty drinks, hot teas and even vegan drinks. At The Green Beetle, folks can have a beer and watch sports. South Main’s legendary juke joint, Earnestine and Hazel’s is a great place to have a beer and listen to music (and grab a “Soul Burger”). You can also grab a drink at The Vault Gastropub, which features a “frost rail” — an area on the bartop that has dry frost designed to keep your drinks chilled.
There is an eclectic mix of shops on South Main, one of which is South Main Book Juggler, owned by Jean Williams Andrus. The store is across the street from Central Station, which still gets railroad passengers but is currently undergoing construction — a hotel will open there later this year.
“We specialize in regional books and have a lot of regional authors. We also feature current bestsellers,” says Jean.
For the art aficionado, Sue Layman Designs is home to one-of-a-kind paintings by local artist Sue Layman Lightman. The gallery features paintings in all sizes of her signature style, vibrant colors and bold shapes that create undeniably striking contemporary abstracts.
There is also Chapman Furniture and Downtown Candle Company, an eco-friendly company that features soybean wax candles and cedar sticks. Stock & Belle, a lifestyle retail boutique, sells men’s and women’s clothing, shoes, accessories, furniture and an array of fun and unusual curios.
For bikers, there is Peddler Electric Bike Shop, which offers bike rentals (perfect for exploring the neighborhood). There is a strong sense of community among the South Main shopkeepers. “We’re all really involved in the neighborhood,” says Jean of the other merchants on the block.
Perhaps the most prominent historical site in South Main is the one that changed the neighborhood, the city, the country and even the world: The National Civil Rights Museum, located at the site of the former Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968. The museum opened in 1991, was remodeled in 2015 and features extensive history about African American life from slavery to the present day.
Just across the street is the Blues Hall of Fame Museum, part of the Blues Foundation, which opened in 2015. This quaint museum features in-depth history of the music, interactive exhibits and blues memorabilia, and it even has a neat little reading nook.
“We wanted to be in a vibrant and growing downtown neighborhood where there would be both tourist traffic and local traffic,” said Blues Foundation President and CEO Barbara Newman. “Having the Blues Hall of Fame directly across from the National Civil Rights Museum (NCRM) was a natural fit, as visitors could tour the NCRM and learn about the struggles for freedom, and then come directly across the street to hear about the music that was created in the midst of so many economic and social challenges.”
The last Friday of each month, South Main hosts Trolley Night, during which shops are open late and many restaurants offer specials. Trolley Night is the perfect time to hop on the trolley, South Main’s best mode of transit (and Trolley Night’s namesake) and cruise around the area.
South Main blends history with modern food and drinks and one-of-a-kind experiences. There is something, indeed many things, to enjoy for locals and tourists alike.
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