Editor’s note: As Memphis magazine is now in its Fortieth Anniversary year, each month we are publishing stories from our four-decade archives, stories that we think today’s readers of the magazine will find of interest and value.
Our archival feature this month is an abridged version of “Dinner at Eight,” originally published in July 1983. Tom Martin, our longtime dining critic (covering the local food scene from 1982 to 1992) featured eight of “the city’s most elegant dining experiences,” in what was Memphis magazine’s first comprehensive dining guide. Of those eight restaurants, only one — The Peabody’s Chez Philippe — is still in business today, 33 years later. And while now there are literally dozens of restaurants that provide fine dining experiences, we think our readers will enjoy this stroll down Memphis’ culinary memory lane.
It’s little wonder some of life’s most special occasions are celebrated with a meal in a good restaurant. Graduation from high school or college, a birthday or anniversary, a promotion to a new job — all of these are good excuses to select a favorite restaurant and forget about the expense, at least for the evening.
In Memphis, fine dining has improved dramatically in the last few years. While we may not rival the great capitals of Europe, there are a growing number of very good restaurants in town, especially considering the city’s size and makeup.
In choosing the finest dining experiences available in Memphis, I visited all of the restaurants that I feel strive to be something well above the average establishment. Many restaurants serve good food, but only a handful reach for excellence on every front. These are restaurants with fresh flowers on each table, soft candlelight, tasteful table appointments, and a clear commitment to attractive service. You won’t find steak-and-salad-bar restaurants on this list, for example, or home-cooking restaurants, or places that specialize in only one thing.
When I began this search, I didn’t have a particular number in mind for the final list, although I knew I was hunting for just the right combination of food, service, and atmosphere that would qualify as something truly special. When my visits were completed, I had found eight restaurants that merited this distinction.
3165 Forest Hill-Irene Road
Swiss Manor radiates refinement, from the formal entry court to the airy dining room, done in soft peach colors with huge plate-glass windows looking out on floodlit gardens. It is the proper pastoral setting for a country manor house.
The food provided by Chef Roland Schneider is similarly refined, and for the most part excellently prepared. Among the first courses, the smoked trout is a standout, with a deep smoky flavor offset by garnishes of capers and a sharp horseradish sauce. The escargots are nicely done, topped with a gratinée of breadcrumbs, parsley, and garlic that makes a perfect dipping sauce for the fresh bread brought around in large woven baskets.
While the kitchen is not without fault (the soups, for example, are unremarkable), many of the entrées are truly outstanding. In the quail breasts stuffed with veal mousse, the chefs demonstrate their true abilities. The quail is plump and tender, the mousse a perfect counterpart for the birds. Other triumphs are the veal piccata (with a lemony butter sauce), king salmon, and fillet of trout. Service is generally good; taken as a whole Swiss Manor is one of the city’s best culinary efforts.
919 Coward Place
For so many years, Justine’s was practically the only game in town when it came to fine dining. There were other good restaurants, but none of them had the grand presence that Justine’s exudes. The sweeping entrance foyer, the live piano music, the long-stemmed roses, the elegant gardens … all the elements for a special evening are here.
With its long-standing reputation as Memphis’ crème de le crème, Justine’s could have been tempted to rest on its laurels. From all evidence, however, owners Justine and Dayton Smith have recognized that the competition has intensified in recent years, and they seem to be trying harder than ever to protect their position.
Aside from the sheer pomp and circumstance of the place, Justine’s food is the real attraction. The menu is probably the most extensive in town; one could eat for weeks on end without duplicating a dinner. Crabmeat Justine is the de rigueur starter: huge chunks of lump crabmeat in a sherried cream sauce, served over toast points. The soups are also renowned. The vichyssoise is supposed to be the best in town; I know of none better.
The beef at Justine’s is well-aged and tender, but I much prefer the seafood dishes. One of my favorites is one of the simpler selections: plain crabmeat sautéed in butter and roasted almonds. Another excellent combination is the fillet of trout with spinach, served in a casserole with a delicate nutmeg flavor.
While the service can on occasion leave something to be desired (if you’re not a regular, you may find the waiters a bit standoffish), the food rarely does. As the grand dame of Memphis restaurants enters her fourth decade, Justine’s seems as vital as ever.
The Bradford House
648 Poplar Avenue
Many people have trouble finding the Bradford House on their first visit; it is situated in a less-than-desirable block between two pawn shops. But don’t let the setting fool you. The Bradford House is gaining a well-deserved reputation for excellence among knowledgeable Memphis diners.
The interior of the restaurant provides a sharp contrast to the neighborhood. The lofty ceilings, gold-leaf moldings, marble fireplaces, and elaborate chandeliers have been wonderfully restored, thanks largely to the handiwork of owner Wayne Reynolds, who sometimes serenades patrons with his classical guitar.
The menu is not extensive, but the excellence of the dishes served more than makes up for the lack of selection. I begin almost every visit with a sampling of the mousseline of scallops. It is the essence of what a proper mousseline should be: subtle seafood flavor in a cloudlike creamy texture. The house paté is another excellent first choice, served with a refreshing raspberry sauce.
The soups are also splendid, particularly the mussel bisque — a harmonious blend of tender mussels and a creamy stock — and the creamy soup (laced with vermouth). Among the entrées, I find the tenderloin dishes very nice, especially the one with Roquefort sauce.
The Bradford House suffers from growing pains at times. The restaurant still seems ill-prepared to deal with a full house, and the noise from the crowd upstairs can mar the atmosphere. I can forgive such shortcomings, however, as long as the quality of the food remains as superb as it is now.
3263 Summer Avenue
In more than a decade of operation, owners Dave Pierson and Jim Shannon have perfected a competent menu with a decidedly New Orleans influence.
Some will find the menu too limited, but I like a restaurant that recognizes its boundaries. Vieux Chalet concentrates on aged beef, fresh seafood, and wonderful sauces, and what makes it so popular with the regular clientele is that it does these things so well.
While I avoid eating steak at most restaurants, I almost always order it at Vieux Chalet. The filets and entrecotes are cooked over real charcoal, which accounts for the crusty exteriors and the buttery-tender centers. While the aged beef is its star attraction, Vieux Chalet also does a fine job with its seafood offerings; the nightly specials are usually the freshest and most interesting dishes.
I like to finish an evening here with Bananas Foster. It’s a simple New Orleans dish that, at $6 for two, is probably overpriced. But I like it anyway; it seems to fit in perfectly with the overall ambience of the place.
Vieux Chalet may not be Memphis’ most imaginative or daring restaurant, and it certainly isn’t the most elaborate. But what it lacks in imagination, it more than makes up in sheer charm.
2100 Overton Square Lane
In selecting the city’s best restaurants, the most surprising choice had to be Palm Court. This is one of the newer dining establishments in the city, but Chef Michael Cahhal’s unique cuisine and his restaurant’s pleasant ambience merit its inclusion.
The restaurant is set in the large atrium at Overton Square that formerly housed an ice-skating rink. The high ceilings give an open feeling, while canopies of gathered fabric preserve a sense of intimacy. The elegance is further enhanced with free-standing antique lampposts, huge green plants, an oval oak bar, and a large fountain in the center of the room.
The menu is Northern Italian, with an emphasis on delicate seasonings, fresh seafood, and white sauces, rather than tomato sauces, parmesan cheese, and oregano.
The appetizers set a nice tone for the rest of the meal: tiny gnocchetti (little puffy dumplings of cheese and pasta in a rich creamy sauce), calzones (deep-fried turnovers stuffed with sausage and cheese), and best of all, pepperoni all bagna cauda, sweet red peppers and tomatoes in a lovely anchovy and garlic-flavored cream sauce. The rest of the menu is similarly imaginative, and included an excellent fish soup with a hint of Pernod, mussels simmered in wine and cream, and fresh salmon with a pesto cream sauce.
While Palm Court leans a bit too heavily on the same creamy garlic sauce used on several dishes, the pasta certainly tastes fresh, the atmosphere is pleasant, and the selections show there is indeed room in Memphis for a fine restaurant that dares to be different.
3161 Poplar Avenue
A relative newcomer to Memphis, Rene’s is perhaps the most French of them all. The restaurant is run by René Vincent (himself a native of Grenoble) and his wife, Marie. They formerly owned the now-defunct Café du Louvre in Overton Square, and operated Le Fine Fourchette as a French delicatessen at the present location, until changing to a more formal restaurant.
Rene’s is a tiny place, and instead of having a set menu it features two or three fixed-price meals each night. It’s an uncommon approach in Memphis, and only time will tell if Memphians are ready for this Continental custom. Yet Rene’s serves exceptionally prepared food, which is the primary reason it’s included here.
On one visit, the menu included celery soup, tomato timbales (light, custardlike creations), mixed salad with fresh peas, a choice of either seafood terrine or salmon fillet for the main course, a selection of cheeses, and dessert. The fixed price for all six courses was $25. Each dish was served with obvious care, and the presentations were the most artistic I’ve seen in any restaurant here; almost every selection was accented with a bit of sculpted vegetable or fruit. The desserts were especially nice: pears in ginger sauce, crusty lemon tart, and strawberries in wine.
It’s wise to phone ahead and check out the meals being offered on the night you plan to visit. With the ever-changing nature of the selections, it would be unfortunate to drop in on a night when none of the combinations being served suited your taste.
149 Union Avenue
Of all the hotel restaurants in Memphis, only Chez Philippe inside The Peabody made it into the top eight. The restaurant, first of all, is striking in appearance. Everything about it, from the soft pink linens to the crystal chandeliers to the silver clocks adorned with the Peabody duck, conveys stylish opulence.
The menu developed by Chez Philippe’s French-born chef, José Gutierrez, includes absolutely first-rate nouvelle cuisine specialties, something few other Memphis restaurants attempt and certainly none on such a grand scale. The cold smoked trout is properly smokey, beautifully garnished, and served with piquant horseradish sauce. The lobster bisque is also excellent.
The loin of veal may be one of the best entrées served in Memphis: tender meat stuffed with the most delicious paté de foie gras. There is also an ample selection of seafood, including enormous grilled shrimp served on a net of julienned potatoes.
A word about price: Chez Philippe is probably the most expensive restaurant in Memphis; it is relatively easy to spend over one hundred dollars for dinner for two. But the service is so elaborate, the setting so ornate, and the food so daring, that many people will feel this expense more than justified for a special evening out.
Of the eight restaurants on this list, River Terrace unquestionably has the best setting. Almost every seat in the house has an excellent view of the Mississippi River. But vistas alone don’t make a fine restaurant, and River Terrace is much more than a vantage point.
The menu features a wide selection of seafood entrées and appetizers, good soups, and several other good dishes. I especially enjoy the smoked duckling: a large portion of moist, tender meat, topped with crisply fried skin. Mussels in cream with pasta is also quite good, as is the duck and sausage gumbo, Fettucini River Terrace, and the Scampi Bienville.
For the most part, the food at River Terrace is well above average by Memphis standards, and the recent changes in management don’t seem to have slowed the restaurant’s growing popularity. What with the monorail ride and that magnificent view, River Terrace is one of the best places in town to take a friend and watch the sun go down.