Photo by Thomas Hawk
Nearing 200 years old in 2019, Memphis, Tennessee’s rich history and cultural heritage are ever-present fixtures of life in the Bluff City. There are countless ways to experience Memphis history, whether it be a visit to a museum, a walk down Adams Avenue, or a trip to Elmwood Cemetery. While the options for a historical experience in Memphis are seemingly endless, it can sometimes be hard to get out and learn about the city.
If you’re looking for another reason to learn about Memphis, here are 7 ways to learn about Memphis history through the greatest motivator of all: food. Not only does food lure us out of houses to get a nice bite to eat, but it provides a means of communication and connection with our surroundings, our friends, and our past. Stop by one of these 7 places, eat some good food, and ask someone about what they know about the place. You just might learn something new.
This list is divided into two categories: age-old Memphis restaurants, and restaurants in historically significant buildings and locations. Each category, and each restaurant within them, provides a unique experience. Not only will you experience different cuisines around Memphis, but you can sit and appreciate a gorgeous old building, imagine someone eating the same food as you half a century ago, or learn about all the families that have moved to Memphis and decided to add their own flavor to Memphis’ already colorful and diverse cultural heritage.
The Grandfather Restaurants of Memphis, Tennessee:
Memphis’s oldest restaurant, located on the corner of South Main and G.E. Patterson, has seen almost one hundred years of Memphis history from the same spot it first opened its doors. Founded by Greek immigrant Speros Zepatos in 1919, The Arcade has always been a classic in Downtown Memphis, staying in business through the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, and the gradual abandonment of South Main – and most of Downtown. Head down to the recently revitalized and thriving South Main, eat the Arcade Cheeseburger, and give a nod to the business that never gave up on Memphis.
Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous first opened in 1948 in a basement in downtown Memphis. Since then, their classic dry-rub pork barbeque has become a local staple, barbeque itself has become the most essential food in Memphis, and the tiny little alley where Rendezvous found its home has since been named after the restaurant. Drawing from Cajun, Greek, and local influences, Charlie Vergos was able to elevate the lowly pork rib from scrap meat to a Memphis dining classic.
Eating food cooked in century-old grease may sound a bit risky to most newcomers, but to anyone who’s tried a burger at Dyers, it’s simply delightful. Having survived a few moves to various locations around town, the restaurant (and its grease, protected by armed police escorts) has lasted for over a century. Now located on the already iconic Beale Street, Dyer’s is famously simple. Burgers are fried in the same grease they’ve always been, and the glowing neon sign inside tells you, quite simply, what you’re eating: good food.
The Green Beetle
The Green Beetle, the oldest tavern in Memphis has been on South Main since 1939. Opened by Sicilian immigrant Frank Liberto, the Beetle was originally a classic “mom and pop” restaurant, with Frank whipping up meals in the kitchen, and his wife, Mary, serving them to the hungry guests up front. After a rough decade during the sixties, marked by constant drunken fights, and even a shooting in the women’s bathroom, Frank closed the doors in 1971, but specified in his will that the building at 325 S. Main always be called the Green Beetle. Following various owners in previous decades, Josh Huckaby, the grandson of Frank Liberto himself, eventually bought the building in 2011 and restored the Green Beetle to what it was in 1939. Stop by on a Friday night and enjoy some live local music with your food.
New Food, Old Buildings
The Victorian Village, an architectural oasis located on a small stretch of Adams Avenue holds the largest collection of Victorian style houses in Memphis. In its early days, there were dozens of beautiful homes scattered around the neighborhood once called “Millionaire’s Row.” Today, less than ten remain. Mollie Fontaine’s Lounge, both restaurant and nightclub, has done well to repurpose and preserve a gorgeous example of Victorian architecture. Built by Nolan Fontaine (once the owner of the Woodruff-Fontaine house, located just across the street), the House was a wedding present for his daughter, Mollie Fontaine and her husband. Both the food (with a menu curated by Karen Carrier of The Beauty Shop), and the decor offer an eclectic mix of new and old inspirations. Enjoy the intricate moulding on the antique brick facade, and the funky decoration embellishing the interior. Order the popular Mac-and-cheese, and feel at home.
The Majestic Grille
In 1895, The Lumiere brothers showed their first payed screening of ten short films in Paris. In the years following, the motion picture became increasingly popular, as movie theaters began to pop up around Europe and the U.S. In 1913, Frank T. Montgomery opened the Majestic No. 1 at 145 S. Main. Only equipped to show silent films, The Majestic was quickly overshadowed by newer theaters, capable of playing films with sound. After closing, the building at 145 S. Main cycled through a variety of uses before becoming what it is today: The Majestic Grille. Featuring award winning food from Chef Patrick Reilly, The Majestic Grille allows diners to eat in a century-old movie theater, while silent films play overhead.
Silky O’ Sullivan’s
Walking down Beale Street, you may have noticed a row of heavy iron bars lining the sidewalk on the corner of Third and Beale. If you haven’t gotten the chance to look up as you pass these (and most people don’t), then you may not have noticed that the building next to you isn’t actually a building, rather a facade being impossibly held up by a few iron bars. Silky O’ Sullivan’s, a famous Irish Pub in a century old building, is located just next to the facades. It is a feat that the building still stands on its own, as its next door neighbors had to be torn down for their crumbling structures. Today, all that remains is a memory of the buildings that once stood, with the remaining facades a testament to Memphis’ constant efforts of preservation and revitalization. Try some of their barbeque and don’t forget to check out the Irish Diving Goats!