So I went to Memphis over the weekend. We chose Memphis for an odd reason: it was our fallback after we decided we didn’t want to go to Nashville, as flights to Nashville for this particular weekend were too expensive, and we both read an article that soured us on that city. So we looked up flights to Memphis and they were less expensive! But, in all seriousness, this is place that I wanted to go. It just so happened it wasn’t our actual intentions.
Thursday May 31, 2018
We go to Pearson, to a part of Terminal 3 I don’t think I’ve been inside in quite some time, the Air Canada US departures area. Going through customs, we had one of the most cheerful CBP officers I’ve ever had to deal with in my life, which was a nice change.
We ate at Wahlburgers for dinner. I got a shiny burger and though I was initially impressed by the quality of the toppings and the taste of the beef patty itself, it was one of the greasiest things I have eaten in some time. They seem to have oiled or buttered the outside of the bun. It is a testament to the greasiness of the Pearson Walhburgers that it would be the greasiest thing I ate all weekend, a weekend I spent in The South.
We had to go to the furthest reaches of these gates and found ourselves in a part of Terminal 3 that was being renovated. For the first time that I can remember, we had to board the plane on the tarmac. It was raining of course. (We didn’t bring rain gear because the forecast for Memphis as Hot.) We had to wander through a maze of fences and were pointed to the correct plane. I understand the airport needs to keep functioning during renovations, but the gates at the end of F are in rough shape right now, avoid if you can.
The flight was relatively fine, though there was a crying baby and we sat next to the toilet. It was a short flight so no big deal.
We got out of the Memphis airport pretty quickly and were downtown in 15 minutes or so. We chose a relatively expensive downtown hotel because it had AC and because it was central to everything. A few days later we were pretty glad we chose it.
We checked in relatively quickly and were reminded that the Cavs/Warriors game was still on. (We had no audio-visual on our “Express” plane.) Somehow, the game was in overtime! (How did it get to overtime?!?) This gave us an excuse to go to bed early instead of going out to see Beale Street. (Yes, we travel like old people.)
So our first experience of the famed Memphis night life was watching the Warriors stomp on the Cavs in overtime and getting really confused about that flagrant foul. Foreshadowing. (The night life thing, I mean, not the basketball game.)
Friday June 1, 2018
Because of the time change and going to bed at a reasonable time, we got up pretty damn early. So we went out for breakfast.
Within a few minutes of walking down the street, in the pretty deserted downtown, a “security” cum “tour guide” person biked over to us to help us not get lost. (Downtown Memphis is one of the most easily navigable cities of its size I’ve ever been to; just find the river.) He gave us a breakfast recommendation which we ignored because we knew where we want to eat and Memphis is easy to get around. It was a weird introduction to the city, as it sort of felt like he was biking around looking for tourists making sure they were staying in the “right” areas. Whether or not this was his intention, that’s what it felt like.
We walked down Memphis’ Main Street and saw virtually nobody. (It was around 9AM on a weekday.) The few people we did see said hello, though, as this is The South.
We ate at Arcade, supposedly Memphis’ oldest restaurant. We walked inside and picked one of few available booths. By accident, we picked the booth where Elvis used to eat (so they say):
This is an institution and it is apparently an institution at which Elvis did eat regularly during his lifetime. So maybe it really was his spot. Not being much of an Elvis fan – I’m definitely an Elvis hipster though, his first album was his best! – I didn’t really care.
The food was decent but I must admit that Jenn and I make a better biscuits and gravy than this place. But, in Arcade’s defense, we make a mean biscuits and gravy, and theirs was pretty good. The sausage was probably the best part, more peppery than I’m used to.
After breakfast we headed up the street.
The National Civil Rights Museum
All the people out in South Main this morning were apparently in Arcade or outside of or in line at the Civil Rights Museum, as when we walked down the hill towards the Loraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King got shot and where the museum is, we finally saw a small crowd. As we approached the Hotel, we were once again presented with one of the great commonalities of these United States – this country does memorials right: a wreath hangs in front of where his room was, a marble plaque sits below it, cars from the 1960s sit in the parking lot, and the ground is full of commemorative tiles. There is a walk across these tiles, with brief video presentations about King and his reasons for being in Memphis that day. Whether it’s Pearl Harbor, or the World Trade Centre or Martin Luther King’s death site, the United States handles memorials of tragedies better than most countries. (This is just my experience. Given how many tragedies the US has experienced, especially recently, this may not be true all the time.)
We entered the museum, going through security – not for the last time on this trip – and saw a line; not a huge line but a line nonetheless. It got bigger as we waited and would be even bigger later on. We made the right choice going on a weekday morning, as this is a popular place.
What can I say about the National Civil Rights Museum? If you do one thing in Memphis, this is probably the thing to do. It is full of information – much of which the average person doesn’t know – highly interactive and deeply moving. But, be warned: it is (obviously) a difficult emotional experience and it is also so full of information that it might make sense to spread it out over two visits. The admission is not super expensive so if you are really, really interested in seeing everything and you are staying in town long enough, I’d recommend buying the pass (which costs slightly less than two admissions), and splitting the exhibits in half. We spent over two hours in there and we started skipping things and ended skipping the second building entirely, because we were running out of our ability to digest information and because it was still technically morning and we had more to do.
But seriously, this is the can’t miss thing to do in Memphis in our opinions.
It was a weird day, overcast but really humid and threatening rain. We knew that Saturday was going to be Hot, so we figured that if we did something outdoors we should probably do it on a day when it was less hot. So we decided to head to Mud Island, a park accessible from downtown by a Monorail!
But on our way, the skies opened up and we had to duck into a building’s garbage pickup area.
Once it had calmed down a bit, we made our way to the Monorail, basically on the other side of downtown from the Civil Rights Museum. It took, oh I don’t know, 15-20 minutes to walk most of the width of downtown. We had been unsure of whether or not we’d be mostly able to walk around but it turns out that Memphis has a highly walkable downtown. (Can’t really walk anywhere else, though…)
We took the monorail across to Mud Island. The “park” there is mostly concrete, so it doesn’t exactly feel like a park, but it has one of the more unique things you’ve ever seen: a full scale model of the Mississippi River (located on an island in the Mississippi River). The model is half a mile long, and if there’s anything that will ever convince you of the immensity of the river, it’s this model.
I can’t really convey the magnitude of the model, but it’s massive. It’s so big that by the time we were wandering back up the other side of it, from the “Gulf of Mexico,” the weather had changed, the sun was out, and it was Hot.
Coffee and Craft Beer
We walked back across the river, above the monorail. We didn’t bother with the Mud Island Museum simply because we were still kind of Museumed-out from the Civil Rights Museum. So we wandered into downtown proper and found coffee for Jenn and a smoothie for me.
On our way through a park we were accosted by a “vendor” who tried to sell us tickets to the Civil Rights Museum. When that didn’t work, he asked us for money. We gave in, which bothered me, because I suspected he was lying to us. But we learned our lesson about the friendliness of Memphians – some of them are being friendly and some are hoping you will speak to them so they can ask for money. (Unlike here, they don’t usually ask for money first, though the odd person did.) Also, we learned that there are licensed “vendors” around the city who sell tickets to attractions but who will hustle you if they can’t sell you a ticket to something. I saw multiple other people giving money to these guys (and other poor people who are not “vendors”) over the course of the weekend so just know that this is a thing that happens frequently in Memphis (as it does in many cities).
Part of our plan was to try some local Memphis breweries, and we were going to go to High Cotton, but they weren’t open yet. So instead we found our way to Flying Saucer, a bar located at the base of a parking garage – very classy – with 60 ish taps and a really neat idea call the “Ghost Flight.”
The “Ghost Flight” is four unknown beers. People vote on them online and the best beers are added to the Flying Saucer’s tap selection the next time its changed. This is a pretty cool idea that both makes use of beer nerds’ legendary obsession with rating and reviewing everything better for the bar and encourages regulars, as the flights change regularly. (The other thing they do which is awesome is they give rewards for drinking tons of beers. So if you consume 200 different beers at Flying Saucer, you get a $100 gift card. It’s a good thing this place is not in Toronto.)
We really liked the bar. So much so we would come back. But after our (non-ghost) flights, we went back to our hotel. Though it was only sunny briefly, it was humid all day. And the heat really sneaks up on you. Weirdly, we would both do better “hydrating” the next day, when it was way hotter.
After cooling off for a bit, we headed to Central Barbecue. Rendevous is the tourist place, apparently, but we were told by locals to go to Central. Central is the kind of place where you order at the cash and wait for your food. There were just tons of people there, even though we were relatively early. We ordered way too much food:
The wings were the best, then the pulled pork. The sauces were all good. The collards were remarkably not good, watery and overcooked.
It is a block or two east of Main, and it’s amazing how much that changes the look of the city; Main Street is a classic “Main Street USA” street, and one block later your in a wasteland. Anyway, Central is surrounded on most sides by what looks to be poverty but it’s a great place.
We walked back along BB King Boulevard and even more than Second, the street parallel to it and Main, it’s a wasteland. There are vacant lots everywhere and if you don’t look toward downtown, you could think you’re somewhere miles from downtown. (I later learned that Memphis has a reputation for tearing down buildings which owners have had to sell, and leaving the lots vacant for decades. See Stax.)
We were super full so we headed back to the hotel and got caught up in American Ninja Warrior. Eventually, we decided we should probably do the thing that everyone is supposed to do in Memphis.
Beale Street is the famous street in Memphis, considered the birthplace of the commercial version of the blues (or at least one of the birthplaces). It has been revitalized in recent years and is now a tourist trap. A few blocks are sectioned off as a mostly pedestrian-only area and at night these blocks are all licensed.
To enter, you have to get IDd – regardless of age, as this is Tennessee – and wanded and possibly searched (if you have a bag or the wand goes off). There are signs saying “No guns” and “No knives.” There were more people in Beale and in the clubs than we’d seen all day, anywhere. Awesome!
What you do on Beale at night is you buy alcohol from a counter and you walk down the street and people watch or listen to music from outside the bar. Sometimes you go inside but you don’t have to because every single bar and club has all their windows open and they are all competing with each other. The bar we were most interested in going in was so loud it was hard on the ears from outside. Neither of us brought ear plugs and so we were wary of entering. After a walk down both ends, we decided this was very much not for us.
I think I would have felt very differently 10 or 15 years ago. But now, having had my ears ring for days a few too many times, and really not wanting to spend money on shitty beer or overly sugary alcoholic slushies, I can’t say that the experience was calling to me. So went home. We’re lame but we have our hearing and somehow – yes, somehow! – we enjoyed Memphis thoroughly without doing Beale Street.
Saturday June 2, 2018
We had managed to stay up a little later, I think, Friday night, so we were up a little later, enough to think seriously about taking in the Peabody Ducks. But first, breakfast.
The Blue Plate Diner
We wandered in toward right downtown (i.e. north) and went to the other major breakfast institution in Memphis, the Blue Plate Diner. From the moment we walked out of the hotel lobby, it was noticeably hotter.
The Blue Plate was busier than Arcade but that was probably because it was Saturday. We felt lucky to get a table and, as with Central Barbecue, felt like we got in just in the nick of time (a regular feeling throughout the weekend regarding restaurants). We think food was better at the Blue Plate and my sweet tea was definitely better.
When we finished dinner, we didn’t have quite enough time to catch a the bus to Stax but had too much time for the Peabody Ducks, so we walked to a farmer’s market. By the time we got there, we were still so full from breakfast, and it was so hot, that we figured nothing would last in my backpack, so we literally did a loop of the market and then walked back to the Peabody. I suspect what we did – walking most of the width of downtown twice in less than 30 minutes – would not appear to most locals. Once again, there were not a lot of people out on the streets (and not a lot of traffic either).
The Peabody Ducks
The most famous hotel in Memphis has a unique tradition: every day ducks from the roof are led into the elevator and are brought into the fountain in the lobby of the Peabody, 6 hours later they are led back up to the roof.
This is one of the of most famous things in Memphis and we actually had to search to find a vantage point, as there were tons of people in the lobby and on the floor overlooking the lobby.
The actual moment is short-lived and, as you might expect, pretty anti-climactic as it literally is two people leading ducks from an elevator into a fountain and then announcing that is what they did. But we arrived right before it happened and got out before the crowds, so no real loss to us. (Unless you count walking across downtown Memphis twice as a loss.)
We had figured we might either walk to Stax or from Stax but that was before we knew how hot it was going to be. It was already pretty damn hot so we got a cab. As we drove, we realized that the walk would have been pretty messy, as the sidewalks disappeared at one point and this part of Memphis feels practically like another place at times. But the driver was helpful and told us about the Big River Crossing. (Someone else had mentioned it too, actually.)
A while ago, Jenn bought me a history of Stax and I had been reading it during our trip. There was a lot of overlap between the book and the museum, but that didn’t necessarily make the museum less worth it. Southern Soul is my favourite kind of soul and Stax is basically the mecca of the genre. But the story of the label, its role in one of the most segregated cities in the US, and its expansion and bankruptcy is a really fascinating one, even if you do not feel as I do, that their version of soul is the best version. It’s a great, detailed museum that covers both Stax and soul in general. It’s in a new building as the original theatre was razed (as so many buildings in Memphis has been).
This one is definitely for music fans first, but it was well worth the trip, and the nice thing about its relatively remote location – a 40 minute walk from downtown – is that it is way less busy than the downtown museums.
Given the weather, the neighbourhood of Cooper Young, are next stop, was also too far to walk, so we got another cab. This driver was a character – he was upset we weren’t going to Graceland and mystified we went to Mud Island, even after we told him about the model. He dropped us off at the corner of Cooper and Young.
Jenn got some coffee at the “Best coffee in Memphis” (not as good as her coffee on Friday afternoon or the coffee the next morning) and we went looking for a vintage clothing store. We accidentally stumbled upon the church where Johnny Cash and his band used to play gospel, before they tried their hand at rock and roll and rockabilly. A happy accident.
We realized we were just down the street from Memphis Made so we were there to try some beer. Because we had flights, we were able to try nearly all of what they had on offer. There were some interesting things on tap, including a weird orange porter and a pretty good IPA. (Though not as good as the Meddlesome IPA we had the afternoon before.)
It was a large place, a common theme as we were discovering. (Space is not yet at a premium in Memphis.) Jenn bought a t-shirt. I probably should have.
It was still early enough that we decided to go Sun Studios next. We took another cab because Cooper Young is pretty far from downtown and it was perhaps even more unbelievably hot than it had been earlier in the day. (I cannot convey to you the heat. Holy shit it was hot.) This cab driver was also a character and tried to sell us on the merits of Beale Street and styles of beer we wouldn’t like.
We got to Sun and should have known from the buses outside that it was going to be different than the entirety of our Memphis experience. But we went in and immediately got confused. The entry way is like a soda shop or something and it’s that and the lineup for Sun and the exit. There were people everywhere and we couldn’t see anywhere to buy tickets. After a few moments of standing in what seemed like the line, we decided to leave. (A cabbie later told us that you need to buy tickets ahead of time for Sun. Where you buy those tickets, I don’t know, but I assume online.)
Sun was definitely my second choice when it came to studio museums to check out, so I wasn’t too disappointed. Frankly, we never saw anything else – except Beale this night, perhaps – that was so crowded. The whole city was a ghost town most of the time, but walk in the door of Sun Studios and everyone is there.
So we headed to another brewery! Because why not. This one was just down the street from Sun, so it was walkable in the heat. Like Memphis Made, it was in a rather huge space. Unfortunately, the beer wasn’t as good as Memphis Made, and was not as interesting either.
Afterwards, we walked to downtown because it wasn’t very far and it was starting to get a little less hot.
We wandered into downtown and soon a vendor was after us for money. This time he guessed what we were looking for (as it was still hot) and we hadn’t found it. (The last guy had guessed wrong then right, but we knew where we were going.)
We were looking for ice cream. What we found was “rolled ice cream,” think “cold stone” but flatenned and rolled into logs. I’ve never seen anything like it.
After ice cream, we went back to the hotel to get out of the heat.
Pearl’s Oyster House
The cabbie on the way to Stax recommended Pearl’s to us over other seafood places even though she was allergic. We took her word for it and went over to Pearl’s, just around the corner from our hotel. The place was a zoo – not unlike most popular restaurants in Memphis, and utterly unlike the street outside – and we got a bit of a grumpy waitress. Service was a little slow, but I got to try my catfish – one of the three crucial Memphis foods to try – and I got some amazing hush puppies on the side.
Flying Saucer Redux
After dinner we went to Flying Saucer again. This time I tried the “Ghost Flight” and disliked basically every single beer in it. I’m not sure if it was me, but it tasted like they were all from the same brewery, using the same “bready” type of yeast in all but one of the beers. Anyway, it was a bust, but I still like the concept.
After Flying Saucer, we walked past Beale Street and it was even busier than Friday night. (I should also point out that we had seen some of these drinking wagons today and the Nashville party vibe was definitely becoming a little too apparent.) We decided once again to be lame and go back to our hotel where we finished watching the hockey game and went to sleep.
Sunday June 3, 2018
We once again woke up a little bit later than Friday. Having a concrete plan for lunch, we went looking for a lite breakfast. The first place we had in mind didn’t do smoothies on weekends. We eventually found our way to a coffee chain and cakes posing as danishes.
Big River Crossing
It was way less hot today, so we decided to walk to the river to see if we could walk across it. We got down to the river park but then we couldn’t get to the bridge, as a church was in the way. Eventually we found our way around their property and made it to the bridge.
We walked over the Arkansas side – check another state off my list! – and then walked back. The view over the Mississippi was pretty good and it was neat to be able to actually cross the Mississippi, one of the world’s great rivers.
Then we walked up the river park toward downtown, eventually finding some steps to walk up the bluff to the actual city.
Gus’s Fried Chicken
The last food we needed to have to make our Memphis food journey complete was fried chicken. Gus’s originated in a small town outside of Memphis but I believe this was the second location. We got one of the last tables and once again managed to sneak in just before a line started.
Despite being warned by the guidebook that the service would be slow, the service was probably the fastest we experienced at a sit-down restaurant. The chicken was excellent and not greasy at all.
At this point we didn’t have enough time to go to another museum – none of which are open Sunday morning – but we had too much time to go to the airport. So we sat in the shade outside our hotel and drank non-alcoholic beverages.
Eventually we went to the airport, where we discovered that yes, indeed, the Memphis airport is larger than it needs to be. We sat for a while in what was essentially an unused wing to avoid our overcrowded gate.
The flight back was a little turbulent, I think (I don’t remember), but we once again had to use the tarmac in the rain (woe is me), which is not something one expects at Pearson.
It was a brief trip but it was great, as we ate lots of great food, tried some good beer (and some bad beer), and learned lots. Highly recommended.