State Eleven – Tennessee. Memphis – Revisited

As regular readers of this blog (hi there!) will know, in our quest to visit each and every American state we often have to dash around like Usain Bolt. We generally get to sample only the smallest bites of any town or city we visit, let alone the state, so getting to re-visit Tennessee was hugely exciting. And even though it was a tough choice between Nashville and Memphis as we so love both places, we feel like Memphis is a little down on its luck so wanted to drop by one more time.  Memphis is described by Rough Guides as ‘laidback and oddball, melancholy and determinedly nostalgic’ and we like that very much. If you love music and/or barbecue then go there. Really. Go there now.

Memphis Recording Service
Memphis baby!

We arrived in Bluff City and drove straight to Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken for lunch, expecting good things. We were not disappointed. This is as good as fried chicken gets. Tender, moist meat, covered in crisp, perfectly spiced golden batter. The “Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken” recipe is a closely-guarded family secret. Once upon a time, Saveur Magazine asked Gus himself for the recipe. His response: “I ain’t telling!” Well, we don’t need to know the recipe but we do want to go back for more.

A plate of Gus's chicken.
Gus’s chicken is famous with good reason!

In the Sixties and early Seventies, Memphis’s Stax Records provided a rootsy alternative to the poppier sounds of Motown. This hard-edged Southern soul was created by a multiracial mix of musicians, Steve Cropper’s fluid guitar complementing the blaring Memphis Horns. The label’s first real success was Green Onions by studio band Booker T and the MGs; further hits followed from Otis Redding (Try a Little Tenderness), Wilson Pickett (Midnight Hour), Sam and Dave (Soul Man) and Isaac Hayes (Shaft).  We listened to all these songs and more during the headset tour at the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum which houses  an exhibition by the Smithsonian Institution, includes original interviews and great music. We loved the exhibit about Sputnik Monroe, a white wrestler who used his black fan base to integrate the city auditorium in the 50’s and we also loved seeing the flamboyant pants he wrestled in.

A duck from the Peabody Hotel
A Peabody duck just hanging out…

Described by New York Times as one of the city’s best secrets, the Talbott Heirs Guesthouse, where we spent the night was an absolute delight. Each and every apartment is carefully designed with its own theme, loads of artistic quirky touches and contains a kitchen, seating area, full bathrooms, and a dining nook. The walls in our apartment were covered with black and white framed photos of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and other Blues legends, the kitchen was a retro-fan’s delight and there was all kinds of breakfast goodies waiting for us. It was a shame we couldn’t have stayed longer so we could take time to kick back there. Very reasonably priced, with absolutely great staff and just over the road from the Peabody Hotel (where we stayed last time) should you want to pop over and see the Famous Ducks. Seriously, we wouldn’t stay anywhere else in Memphis.

Neon on Beale Street.
Bright lights on Beale.

Keen to have a few aperitifs before that night’s barbecue we took in a few bars on Beale – the street that gave B.B.King his nickname (the Beale Street Blues Boy) – and well, they were OK. We managed to find a bar that served great craft beer and drinks with a liquor-to-mixer-rate that delighted Hannah (i.e. strong enough to knock out a horse) and wasn’t too cheesy. Most of the bars are a bit naff though and we’ve read lots of Memphis guides which describe downtown as ‘Disneyfied’. There are some excellent dive and indie bars in Memphis apparently – it’s just plenty of them are a drive away and we wanted a night without cabs or our designated driver (Josh) not being able to drink. Next time we’ll take in some of these drinking establishments for sure. If there are any you really recommend then let us know in the comments!

A big plate of ribs
Ribs of JOY!

And so, it was inevitable that two years later, we would take a pilgrimage to Charlie Vergos Rendezvous for those world famous ribs. They’re not wet, they’re not dry, they’re just so. Basted just before serving with a vinegar solution and followed by a dusting of spices – these ribs pack a punch. Located in an alleyway basement in the business district and comprised of a cavernous maze of dining rooms, Charlie Vergos’s walls are covered with bric-a-brac and Memphis memorabilia and employs waiters have a great line in sass. I’m pretty sure we’ll be eating here before too long. Although we’ve sworn to ourselves that next time we’re in Memphis we’ll try one or more of the following: Central BBQ, Dyer’s BBQ, The Bar-B-Que Shop. Yep, you could say we’re big fans of barbecue.

Good for: Whiskey, barbeque, all kinds of live music, civil rights history.

Bad for: Those trying to avoid fatty foods.

Overall: 10/10


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