Blues, brews and style all come together in the swankiest southern town this side of the Mississippi. While the hordes of tourists might flock to Nashville, its sister city of Memphis has been quietly undergoing a renaissance, cooking up the real taste of Americana that few remaining towns can offer.
By Jeff Sobel
I arrived at the Hyatt Centric which just celebrated its grand opening in April 2021, garnering a number of records including the first and only hotel not only on Memphis’ famed Beale Street, but also right on the riverfront. With 227 guest rooms and suites, it’s the perfect blend of musical history and modern amenities. Far from a typical cookie-cutter chain, the local owners have crafted this resort into a unique and swanky oasis with all the exquisite touches and musically-inspired decor that can only be found in Memphis.
To paraphrase a Johnny Cash lyric, it was Memphis in mid-July, I’d just hit town and my throat was dry, time to stop and have myself a brew. After freshening up in my expansive, modern guest room featuring a center staged glass shower and gorgeous river views, I step right onto downtown Beale Street. I pass several historical structures with steel beams holding up the facades as Beale is one of the most protected streets in the country, adding to the movie set-like feel.Hyatt Conference CenterI met the Hyatt Centric’s director of events, Nick Janysek, for lunch at Dyers, a place I imagine B.B. King might have stepped into late one night, or early one morning. Saying it’s a southern diner doesn’t do it justice. More history than most, the secret cooking grease used in the kitchen dates back over a century – you read that right. Anyone who’s had a blues type of night on the town knows that a good hangover can only be cured by a greasy burger, and there’s no better place than Dyers. I haven’t had a night that requires a fried Twinkie, but I do have a local Fireside beer that cools me right off.
As the afternoon peaks, I take advantage of the great weather and return to the Hyatt’s resort-style pool that offers cabanas and an expansive deck for live entertainment. I set up camp half in the water and half in the sun, marveling at how the Centric managed to meld South Beach with Southern Hospitality.
Once the sun sets over the river, I tour the Hyatt’s conference center meeting space which demonstrates how different the Centric brand is than most hotels, much more in tune with the local community. The converted historic building with exposed brick walls, wooden beams and massive factory windows overlooking the river make it seem more like a country farmhouse than a typical ballroom. I meet with the general manager, Sarah Titus, for drinks at their CIMAS lounge where more touches of brass lighting and the stone bar resonate with the hotel’s overall vibe of history meets modernity. On this sultry summer evening, I dive into a grapefruit-infused gin cocktail that’s as refreshing as it is delicious. I hear tales of the owner’s family history and the long path to build this dream hotel, going so far as to commission the Memphis Metal Museum to repurpose metal and materials from the historic 1879 William C. Ellis and Sons Ironworks and Machine Shop Building.
After happy hour, I head out passing the historic red brick downtown buildings where signs of a city re-emerging from 2020 can be seen everywhere. I pass the infamous street from the film, ‘The Firm’, and a plaque noting author John Grisham’s ties to this splendid southern city. With the apropos Centric hotel so close to everything, I soon traipse through what seems like a time portal to emerge at Rendezvous, a BBQ institution for over 75 years. The servers don’t work here for months or years, but decades, and it’s a tribute to the establishment and the servers’ dedication that everyone is back and better than ever.
The racks of smoked pork ribs with dry-rub spices are a must, and the tender brisket rivals my Texas friends’ recipe, if I may say so; not to mention the pecan pie tart appetizer, because why not? Washed down with a local Wiseacre brew, my spiced and messy fingers stain the sides of the beer bottle. Getting messy is the cost of admission and I’m happy to pay.
After a restful night’s sleep in the plush guest bed, I head downstairs for anything but a traditional hotel breakfast. With a mix of southern specials through a Latin American lens, I daresay the Hyatt’s CIMAS restaurant rivals any local spot in town. Far from the typical hotel fare, the modern cuisine sporting river views gets me ready for the day with a carnitas egg breakfast hash that I never knew I needed in my life.
While aqua blue and sunflower yellow trolley cars cruise along the historic streets, I decide to instead ride off my breakfast by utilizing one of the city’s many electric bike stations. With Memphis now listed as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the nation, I’m able to travel down a scenic path before reaching the massive bridge hovering over the Mississippi River. With the breeze cooling the summer heat, I make it halfway across the bridge where I keep one foot in Tennessee and step my other into Arkansas.
After taking in the sweeping views of the city, I head to Sun Studio, noted as the ‘Birthplace of Rock ’n’ Roll. I met with Milton Howery from Memphis Tourism who gave me an inside look at the recording studio that launched the careers of countless stars including B.B. King, Johnny Cash, and an 18-year-old delivery truck driver who popped in one day on his lunch break, Elvis Presley. This is where I learn all about Memphis’ musical history and how this unassuming recording studio produced so many hits, and even is still in use today.
A short stroll from the studio lies a hip-hop inspired pizza joint, Slim & Husky’s, which can best be described as a party in itself with stunning murals, tunes and of course artisan flatbreads and cinnamon rolls as colorful as the artwork. As with so many Memphis restaurants, the ingredients are locally-sourced and the design so unique, where essentially an assembly line offers endless cheesy choices. I go with ‘Nothing but a V thing’, a fully vegan pizza to mix up my BBQ-fueled trip. Just as tasty if not more, the vegan mozzarella and even vegan pepperoni is a perfect blend for an afternoon treat, followed by the ‘Halle Berry’ lemon blueberry cinnamon roll that’s unlike any I’ve ever tasted.
Wanting to explore a little further from downtown I grab a ride to up-and-coming North Memphis, past lush green forests and even a few horses before reaching the new Grind City Brewery, a massive modern complex sitting beside the river with a priceless view of downtown. I speak with the owners who picked this location and spent years revitalizing the old factory to help the spread change in the area. I tour the facility where they brew not only different varieties of beer, but have also expanded into their own hard seltzers. With a flight tasting in the bright and open taproom overlooking the expansive outdoor green space, I try a delicious Viva Honey Seltzer followed by the ‘Not Your Kids Chocolate Milk’ stout that garners some looks on this hot summer day, but cools me off just the same.
Back downtown, the sun sets and Beale Street springs to life as partygoers stroll the pedestrian street past guitar sculptures and even a courtyard bar with pet goats. Only in Memphis can I ascend a secret fire escape just above the hopping B.B. King’s Blues Club to find a fine dining restaurant, Itta Bena, serving up contemporary Southern cuisine with a Delta influence. I meet with Milton and Nick in the literally ‘Blues’ inspired dining room where blue-tinted windows cast sapphire light throughout the swanky southern spot, topping off the speakeasy hideaway feel.
From the flash-fried crab stuffed avocado to Abita BBQ shrimp appetizers I wonder if I’ll make it to the main course. Reinforcements arrive as my old-fashioned comes smoked, not stirred, inside what looks like a magician’s glass box, the perfect pairing for my center-cut filet mignon. Great food and lots of laughs, Memphis truly has it all.
In the morning I’m surprisingly hungry again, but not for long, because a short walk from the Hyatt lies Sugar Grits, a local breakfast eatery where I sample a biscuit board followed by Charleston cheddar yellow grits with andouille sausage – I’ve never felt more southern. I meet up with Milton again from Memphis Tourism who shares his experiences growing up in this unique city, along with tales of its past. With so much rich culture it’s important to also recognize the full history of both Memphis and America, with no starker landmark than my next stop, the National Civil Rights Museum located at the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Naming it one of the top sites to visit in town is an understatement, as it’s one of the most impressive, poignant and touching museums I’ve ever experienced. Combining both the actual motel facade with a heart-wrenching museum, visitors step through an immersive and informative experience with exhibits, films, artwork, historical artifacts that detail the history from slavery through Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement and much more.
Back in the summer sun, I cool off with a Bushwacker milkshake (essentially a mudslide) at the Green Beetle, the oldest bar in town, before diving headfirst into a greasy heaven at Gus’s World Famous Hot & Spicy Fried Chicken restaurant. I go with a three-piece dark chicken with mac & cheese, fried green tomatoes, fried pickle spears and fried okra – I’m fried! It’s no frills, all taste, and I couldn’t be happier.
My stomach is stuffed just in time as I cross the street for a tour of the Old Dominick Distillery, taking an inside look at the full process from massive bubbling vats to bottling, then back to the brand new rich bar for a tasting of vodka, gin and of course, Tennessee Whiskey.
In the center of downtown lies the perfect summer venue, an outdoor amphitheater at Handy Park, which makes sense as the entire city’s spirit teems with music. As a way to welcome back live music, the city is hosting an eleven-week free summer concert series, and thanks to Milton and his Memphis Tourism team I get a front row seat to Memphis soul artist, the Nick Black Band.
Perfectly shaded and with a cool breeze, the crowd dances in delight as we all take in the tunes and for a moment forget that it’s our first concert in over a year. A frozen Wet Willie’s daiquiri drips condensation down my hand, the smell of a nearby BBQ smoker wafts over the crowd as I watch a band member’s purple-painted trombone ignite the party.
After the concert, I return to the Hyatt Centric and change into cocktail attire for dinner at CIMAS and watch the priceless view of the sun setting over the mighty Mississippi. I meet executive chef Keith Potter and his team who have infused their passion with free reign to offer unpretentious yet exquisite variety, including a refreshing summer hydro Bibb salad with charred avocado, pork belly ‘al pastor’ tostada, followed by the Mishima wagyu bavette topped with chimichurri and corn chow chow.
An elevator from CIMAS takes guests straight up to Beck & Call, the first and only riverfront rooftop bar in the city. Since I was too satisfied with the extravagant meal to try dessert, instead I indulge with a festive ‘Biscotti’ old fashioned as I watch the “M” Bridge Mighty Lights show over the river and reflect on my time in Memphis. I’ve seen so much and yet so little of this historic, musical, trendy town, wondering why I haven’t been here sooner? Better late than never, and I’ll certainly be back.