So Prince William and brother Harry got their first taste of Memphis barbecue at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous.
After landing in the mid-South for a society wedding, the Royal party did what any self-respecting visitor would do – and went in search of a whole hill of smoky ribs.
I know the feeling well. The same thing happened to me when I arrived in Soulsville USA a few weeks ago. Feeling jaded after the flight from the UK, I dumped my bags at my hotel in Union Avenue and took a two-minute stroll, peeling off the main drag down a dingy alley behind South Second to find this Memphis institution.
Rendezvous has been knocking out pork ribs and shredded shoulder, brisket and lamb riblets since 1948. Memphian Justin Timberlake pops in when he’s home.
I had the charcoal-broiled pork ribs and shoulder combination ($19.50) which comes with beans and slaw. It’s what you might call hearty – the meat has a dry rub and the short ribs require plenty of nibbling. A few glasses of Ghost River golden ale are required.
The Rendezvous mantra is: “Hard as it is to believe, some folks don’t eat pork ribs every chance they get.” Rest assured, there are plenty of opportunities. In fact, there are reputedly more than 100 BBQ restaurants in Memphis and the city hosts the mother-of-all cook offs this month when the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (May 15-17) comes to town. Two hundred and fifty competition teams battle it out for $100,000 prize money and the title of World Champion.
For me, Central BBQ, has the edge.
The restaurant – one of three in the Central BBQ family in Memphis – is situated behind the Lorraine Motel, the scene of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. The historic area, known as South Main, is today home to boutique shops and small cafes. The National Civil Rights Museum, built on the site of the Lorraine Motel, reopened last month after a $28 million refurbishment and offers a stunning insight into the civil rights story.
At Central BBQ, the dry ribs and the pulled pork are marinated for 24 hours and smoked for 16.
All the ribs, pork, chicken, turkey, beef brisket, sausage and bologna are smoked in-house over a combination of hickory and pecan woods. Just make sure you leave a space for the chocolate brownies.
The diner-style Blues City Café bursts with atmosphere, helped by its location in the heart of famous Beale Street, home of the blues. The ribs here were probably the juiciest I tasted in Memphis. You know that “so succulent it falls off the bone” thing? That happens here. The ribs are smoked over hickory and basted with a maple BBQ sauce.
A typical dish is rounded off with baked beans, steak fries, coleslaw and sweet Texas toast. Toast with barbecued meat and chips sounds too much, a carb too far, but hell this is Memphis.
After dinner, I walked through to the café’s nightclub and watched legendary blues and jazz player Dr Herman Green blast away on his tenor sax. Green, third cousin to soul star turned Memphis preacher Al Green, played with Lionel Hampton, B B King and Stax recording stars.
He is 83 years young and going strong with the band Freeworld.
For a taste of quintessential Southern soul food there is only one place to head – and that’s the heart of Soulsville.
Here, in the district made famous by the legendary Stax recording studios, you will find the Four Way Grill on the corner of Mississippi Boulevard and Walker Avenue.
In segregated Memphis, the Four Way was one of the few places where black and white customers could eat undisturbed side by side, working their way through fried catfish, turkey and dressing, neck bones, fried chicken, okra, yams and homemade lemon icebox pie.
Dr King was a regular at the Four Way and visited the restaurant just days before he was murdered. His favourite dish was lemon meringue pie, which is still on the menu today. It’s got a sweet biscuity base and sings with zing.
Restaurant owner, or “custodian” as he puts it, is 73-year-old Willie Earl Bates, who first ate at the Four Way in 1950. Bates took over the ailing business and relaunched it in 2002, expanding and renovating the property. One thing didn’t change, however – the quality of the food and authenticity of the cooking, which are prepped using the original recipes.
I was bamboozled by what to try but took a tip from Tim Sampson, communications director for the Soulsville Foundation, and had the turkey and dressing – juicy turkey fillet sitting atop corn bread “dressing”, sweet yams, turnip greens and smothered cabbage, on which Tim recommended splashing some hot pepper sauce.
To drink, there was a large glass of Half & Half – iced tea and lemonade.
I asked Bates about the soul stars who have eaten at The Four Way over the years: “Isaac Hayes. Otis Redding… Name one that has not eaten here,” he says. R&B star Drake recently popped in.
“Dr King came here the day prior to the great ‘Mountaintop’ speech,” said Bates. “It was not unusual for anybody of notoriety, anybody looking for a special place to dine, to come to the Four Way. First of all, you had good food. You knew you were welcome. There was great camaraderie. You put all that together and individuals would come to the place. You had a drug store and a grocery store and a candy store across the street. This was the centre for social gathering.
“The Four Way is the only restaurant that I know that was never segregated. This neighbourhood prior to the (civil rights) movement and the purchasing power of African Americans was very diverse.”
There’s a homespun style, too, back in Downtown at the Flying Fish on South Second Street. The informal restaurant is inspired by East Texan fish joints so there are “gobs” of catfish, shrimp, oysters, crab legs and mudbugs (crawfish/crayfish).
The Flying Fish, just around the corner from the famous Peabody Hotel, has the “world’s first Billy Bass adoption wall.” Simply donate your singing toy fish and you are rewarded with a free basket of catfish. There are hundreds of Billys on the walls.
Crayfish had just come in to season when I visited in April so I had a modest pound (in weight) of the shellfish, which are coated in a spicy “old bay” seasoning.
Lunch was accompanied by some side orders – because every meal in Memphis has mountainous side orders – of crunchy-coated hush puppies, made from cornmeal, and fried pickles. It’s addictive stuff.
In addition to the BBQ cooking, the soul food and the comfort food, there is also Memphis’s new wave of upscale restaurants where New Orleans/Cajun/French and backyard Tennessee influences meet modern interpretations.
At Flight restaurant, the dishes are served in exactly that – flights. Diner might comprise a (not-so-small) trio of appetisers and mains, each accompanied by a flight of wines.
Flight, in Downtown, offers the ultimate in mix-and-match dining, tapas-style in conception, but with a decidedly mid-Southern spin. So the food is big on flavour and rich. That’s just how they like it round these parts and it makes for an epic dinner.
To start, I had the Ocean Flight ($19): cilantro and lime calamari, Chesapeake-style lobster and crab cake and BBQ white Gulf shrimp. Any one of the dishes would classify, size-wise, as an appetiser in the UK, so take a long walk before dinner along the banks of the Mississippi.
One of the three mains gives an indication of the full-on style: well-cooked elk chop comes with truffle macaroni, mushrooms, white cheddar cheese and a Kahlua glaze.
Nearby is Felicia Suzanne’s which is set in a stunning art-deco building, beautifully refurbished. Head chef Felicia Suzanne Willett says she started cooking when she was three and kicked off her career as a 12-year-old making and selling cheesecake to family and friends in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
She says her dishes are “puritan representations of the region’s culture and signature foods.” She is inspired by places she has lived and worked: Charleston’s seafood, the Gulf Coast at New Orleans, Alabama back roads and Memphis-style barbecue.
So there is mushroom and dumpling, fried oyster salad with bacon, collard greens and sweet potato casserole. It’s kinda soul food, but kinda spruced up. It’s terrific.
“I have white tablecloths because my grandmother did on Sundays,” said Felicia. “I like nice crystal and china. If you were at my home you’d eat the same way.”
She knows a lot about grits. Suzanne kindly took me on a tour of the kitchen and showed me the different grades of cornmeal that are used for the different dishes, including creamy grits and corn bread.
Suzanne said: “I love corn. Corn is a staple in a Southern kitchen. I cook the corn in milk, a little butter and salt and white pepper.”
Don’t miss the buttermilk fried chicken livers with hot sauce. Stunning. As is the pure white sweetish Alaskan halibut with crawfish and lemon risotto. And melty, slightly tart fried green tomatoes.
Kelly English is probably the city’s best-known chef and Restaurant Iris in Mid-Town is the go-to place for special occasions. Located on Monroe Avenue in the resurgent Overton Square district, Iris delivers French-Creole cooking in a beautiful space with small romantic rooms, each with their own feel.
I looked enviously at a companion’s starter of lobster “knuckle sandwich” with tarragon and tomatoes. It’s what he always orders. I can see why. Ditto the monster “surf and turf” of New York strip stuffed with fried oysters and blue cheese ($37). I’m not exaggerating when I say it could feed three. You won’t leave Memphis feeling hungry.
And you will hate yourself if you leave town without popping into the city’s oldest restaurant, the Arcade, for breakfast. The young Elvis had a favourite booth at this diner in South Main and the restaurant is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The food is simple, packed with flavour and by golly it sets you up for the day.
There’s country ham, French toast, sweet potato pancakes but you may as well go for it and have Eggs Redneck, an eye-watering plate of eggs and hash brown, biscuits and sausage and thick country gravy.
Now, if that sounds like a lot of food that’s because it is. But what a city. Soul, food and Elvis.
And Al Green still preaches just down the road at the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, 10 minutes from Graceland at 787 Hale Road. He still sings so sweet. Hallelujah. Praise Memphis.