Justin Fox Burks
With a colorful history and proximity to the University of Memphis, the Highland Strip has been a playground for college kids for many decades. And while South Highland between Central and Park still caters to young people, a renaissance is under way, connecting community and commercial development in more urban-friendly ways.
Simply put, the University Neighborhood District is having a moment, thanks to substantial private investors who see the University of Memphis and the students who graduate as building blocks for the city’s future. Loeb Properties has invested $5 million in acquisitions and renovations into the Highland Strip, a row of a dozen store fronts stretching south from The Bluff to Burgerim, both new businesses for food and entertainment. A block away, Char Restaurant, a contemporary steakhouse and piano bar, and the Casual Pint Craft Beer Market, a fast-growing national franchise, anchor a mixed-used development with amenity-studded apartments called Highland Row.
City leaders agree with the neighborhood’s potential. In October, Memphis City Council members approved a funding stream that will redirect a portion of property taxes from the University Neighborhood District back into the community. The money, about $80 million over the next 20 years, will pay for security, infrastructure, and street improvements such as crosswalks and lighting.
Aaron Petree, brokerage vice president for Loeb, says the successful model of Overton Square, another Loeb project, steered the Highland Strip’s redevelopment. “We like tired buildings with history,” Petree says. “Rather than razing them, we want to embrace their character and update all the things that people don’t even see, like the roof and the buildings’ infrastructures.”
A clearly visible upgrade, however, is the district’s new 6-foot-tall sign which stretches across the Highland Strip rooftops in open-face channel letters. Backlit with red neon, the retro signage nods to the Strip’s earlier store facades and invites the extended Normal Station neighborhood to its new retail offerings.
“Our goal is to make the Highland Strip walkable, urban, and modern, a place where students engage with the community, so when they graduate, they want to stay in Memphis,” explains Ciara Neill, Loeb’s director of marketing.
For principals Bob and Lou Loeb, the appeal of vibrant off-campus life is both personal and professional. The pair operated a bar called London Transport from 1977 to 1983 in the same Southern Avenue block where the student apartment complex The Gather on the Southern now stands. “Since then, they have really loved the area,” Neill says. — Pamela Denney
The Bluff Don’t Bluff
With an impressive renovation and 7,000 square feet, the Bluff turns sports, music, and po’boys into an upbeat neighborhood party.
by Pamela Denney
Justin Fox Burks
First-time visitors will want to settle into a window table in the Bluff’s front room, charmed by rustic brick walls and the unplugged version of “Layla” on the loudspeakers. Please do. But after ordering a draft from one of 12 local crafts on tap, wander into the venue’s cavernous interior, where a 15-foot projection screen plays the Grizzlies game and garage doors roll open to greet warm-weather days. Wait around until 10 p.m. or so, and the music cranks up: local bands on Monday and Tuesday, DJs on Wednesday and Thursday, and bigger name acts when the weekend rolls around.
“Think Club 152 and Lafayette’s had a baby,” explains bartender Tony Vaughan about the Bluff concept, fashioned after Rafters, a popular sports bar and music venue off the Oxford town square. Rafters’ Hudson Chadwich is a partner in the Bluff, along with Austin Wallace and Nickle Smith, and the menus and music are much the same.
Open since early January in a space formerly occupied by Newby’s, the Bluff includes two outdoor patios, a mezzanine bar, and a family-friendly vibe before the college kids show up. “We want to appeal to everyone,” says Smith, who took some time from a busy Saturday to discuss the Bluff’s renovation and its Cajun-inspired menu. “We don’t want the party to ever stop.”
Justin Fox Burks
Memphis: Your building has a colorful past. Can you tell a little about its history?
Nickle Smith: We fell in love with the space right from the beginning: the height of the ceilings, the old brick, the exposed beams, the old wood ceilings. We felt like the building had a lot of character and, obviously, it has a lot of history.
From what I know, the building was built in the 1930s, and it was originally a movie theater. Actually, it’s been a number of theaters: The Normal, the Studio. It was a comedy club. It was even an adult entertainment theater at one point. And, of course, the space was Newby’s for the next 40 years. The buildings connected where our men’s bathroom is now.
Tell me a little more about your concept for the Bluff. Is the Bluff a lot like Rafters in Oxford?
The Bluff plays off Rafters. It’s the same general concept. Basically, we don’t want to be just a place for college kids. We want to be a fun place for people of all ages to watch their favorite teams play, hear live music, and eat some Cajun-style food.
Let’s talk about the New Orleans food on the menu. Do you love the Big Easy?
I do love New Orleans. I’ve been going to New Orleans all my life. I think I went to Mardi Gras seven or eight years in a row.
And the po’boys. People seem to be crazy about them.
Yes, they are. All of our po’boys are made from scratch, except for the French bread, which is from Leidenheimer bakery in New Orleans. Basically, we don’t cut any corners. Nothing is frozen, the remoulade is house-made, and the batter is also made in-house every day. The batter is a great recipe: airy, with a good crunch to it, and a little kick. And for chicken, catfish, and shrimp, you can get them grilled or fried.
I saw a burger go by. It looks huge and delicious.
All of our burgers are half-a-pound, and they are definitely going to fill you up. We source all of our meat from Charlie’s here in town, so we patty them by hand every day. We have four kinds of burgers, but my favorite is the Babineaux. It comes with Pepper jack, bacon, fried onion, and remoulade.
You mentioned before that you would be making some changes in the menu. Can you elaborate?
We will be adding cole slaw, some mac and cheese, and a few different desserts. We tested a bread pudding today made with Jameson Whiskey, and it was delicious. And we will have a dessert we are calling Butterfinger cake.
Is it made with Butterfingers as in the candy bar?
It is. It’s a family recipe, and we love it. You sprinkle the Butterfingers on top of a chocolate cake made with caramel that’s topped with whipped cream. The cake is served chilled.
Are any other new events in the works?
We are starting a brunch with live music, maybe bluegrass or jazz, with a menu that is a little more upscale than our regular menu. We are excited for when the weather gets nice, and we can open the garage doors and have that nice indoor/outdoor feel.
Best Friends Forever
Highland Strip regulars keep watch over CK’s, despite fire at the longtime shop.
by John Klyce
Justin Fox Burks
Torn Styrofoam cups and bits of paper lay scattered across the charred floor of the CK’s Coffee Shop on South Highland, while the seats rest empty and the kitchen ceiling, already weakened, looks ready to collapse.
Outside, the classic bright-red CK’s sign stands tall. “CK’s Coffee Shop,” it reads. “Always open.”
But after a grease fire October 30th, this location for the longtime local chain remains closed.
“A lot of business they’re losing.”
So says John Sharp as he takes a sip of lukewarm McDonald’s coffee and leans back in a metal foldup chair outside the store. The 53-year-old has been coming to this CK’s for 35 years, and he’s not about to let a fire and closing deter his daily routine.
Twice a day, Sharp and friend Rick Castleman spend time outside the closed CK’s. They pick up coffee from McDonald’s down the street, plop down on their chairs, and chat.
“We’ve just been sittin’ out here, drinking coffee, and watching traffic,” Sharp says.
Next to him, Castleman lights a Pall Mall cigarette. A regular at this CK’s since the 1960s, he’s the store’s only customer who’s been around longer than Sharp. “We’re here every day,” he explains. “Every morning and every night, 365 days out of the year. Rain or shine.”
“Yeah,” he says. “We sit with an umbrella in the rain. People look at us like, ‘What are they doing?’ Two sad-ass guys out there in the rain.”
Upon first glance, the hours Castleman and Sharp spend each day outside the coffee shop might seem like a waste of time. But the two men were practically raised on the Strip, with Castleman growing up just a mile down the road. They’re staple observers of the area, and they’ve seen it undergo sharp changes over the years.
“It’s mostly turned into Memphis State now,” Sharp says. “They’re trying to turn it into the Memphis State scene.”
But flashback 40 years, and the Highland Strip painted a much different picture. CK’s was a Dobbs house, McDonald’s was a Sandy’s Hamburgers, and drugs were rampant.
“It was crazy,” Sharp recalls. “People did whatever the hell they wanted to do. Weed, acid, police didn’t care back then. They pretty much knew who you were.”
Of course, that didn’t mean everyone approved. Castleman, who didn’t do drugs but spent time on the Strip, was considered by some to be bad news. “Back in the day, they thought I was a nark,” he says. “I was clean-cut.”
Sharp looks at him and smiles.
“What happened?” he asks.
Time passed. And as years went by, the Highland Strip changed. It faded, only to slowly rise again. More recently, Loeb Properties invested $5 million to refurbish commercial buildings, part of a push by the city and the University of Memphis to position the area for future growth. But while the rest of Highland is rejuvenated, CK’s Coffee shop finds itself drained, and Sharp and Castleman find themselves a bit misplaced.
Which is too bad, because according to the two, they don’t have much else.
“It’s all we got,” Sharp says. “We watch the traffic and the new generations go by and say,‘Oh well.’ It’s sad.”
“Yeah,” Castleman adds. “Though I hate to say it.”
Some comfort could come to the two in the form of Kathy Lanier, the store’s general manager, who said recently that the store will likely reopen around the end of March. But until then, Sharp and Castleman will be sitting out front, drinking coffee, and watching the times change.
With Insomnia Cookies, late-night snacking is only a click away.
by Robby Byrd
Justin Fox Burks
Late-night cookie cravings — or early-morning cookie yens — have never been easier to satisfy. Like finding a new love, finding your cookie bliss takes only a few clicks and scrolls of the Insomnia Cookies app. But this time, there’s no awkward first date (unless you make a love connection with your delivery driver), just a heaven where cookies and milk forever flow.
I found cookie nirvana a couple of weeks after the Insomnia location on the Highland Strip opened in mid-January. At 1 a.m. (maybe I should be embarrassed to tell this story), I ordered a dozen cookies — three double chocolate chunk, three classics with M&Ms, and three peanut butter chip — two cartons of chocolate milk, and Insomnia added three free chocolate chunk cookies to the mix.
The cookies arrived warm. Opening the folding box (think pizza delivery) released a divine perfume into the air, almost like I had spent hours in my kitchen baking. Who doesn’t like to have a house that smells like freshly baked cookies?
Cookies have been my go-to late-night snack of choice since childhood. My youngest sister and I would fight over the last Chips Ahoy in the white plastic sleeve. With four kids in the house, the cookie bags seemed to always be empty — usually the milk carton, too.
All that childhood strife, however, has been redeemed by the universe, and Insomnia Cookies has improved the old-fashioned approach. Now, I hold in my pocket a virtual, never-ending, bottomless cookie jar that delivers straight to my door until 3 a.m.
Seth Berkowitz founded Insomnia Cookies in 2003 while attending the University of Pennsylvania. From Berkowitz’s dorm room, the company has grown to more than 90 locations nationwide. After testing the cookies a few times, it’s easy to see why his concept has become popular.
I do have a few suggestions for your Insomnia cookie bliss. The double chocolate chunk cookie from the traditional cookie menu is a classic for a reason. The chocolate cookie with the huge chunks of semi-sweet goodness pair great with a nice cold chocolate milk. If that sounds like death by chocolate, the peanut butter chip cookie with peanut butter chips may be the next best bet.
A crowd favorite, Insomnia’s handmade “Whiches” feature a layer of hand-dipped ice cream between two freshly baked cookies of your choice. It’s a decadent but unbeatable afternoon snack.
If schlepping to the store is too much, delivery — $6 for a minimum order — starts at 10 a.m. Monday through Friday and at noon on Saturday and Sunday and continues until 3 a.m. seven days a week.
545 South Highland street (877-632-6654). $1.50 each for traditional cookies and $3 each for jumbo deluxe.
Newby’s Gets a Makeover
Family duo spruces up Newby’s with updated menu and renovated space.
by Ana Alford
Justin Fox Burks
With an endearing family connection to Memphis and the restaurant business, Sara O’Ryan took her nephew and business partner Larry Thompson’s word on the potential of a new and improved Newby’s, which reopened last year after being shuttered since 2014.
The popular Highland Strip bar, a favorite haunt for University of Memphis students for four decades, is a natural fit for O’Ryan, who recently talked about her great-great-grandfather’s connection to the neighborhood (Hint: He was the first president of West Tennessee Normal School, the U of M’s predecessor) and the bar’s new expanded menu from consultant Chef Elfo Grisanti.
Memphis: Did you grow up in Memphis?
Sara O’Ryan: I was born in Memphis, and so were my parents. My mother’s family, the Grahams, settled in Shelby County because of a Revolutionary War land grant given to General Joseph Graham. I spent most of my childhood in Indianapolis, where my father owned all three of the Howard Johnson franchises. He also owned some Red Barn fast-food hamburger restaurants in Indianapolis, Memphis, and West Memphis.
How did you become an owner of Newby’s?
My nephew, Larry Thompson, hired my husband’s and my former business partner, Debra Holder, as general manager of Newby’s. As the widow of Memphis musician/producer Jack Holder, Debra brings strong music background and connections to Newby’s.
When was the first time you came to Newby’s?
The first time I entered Newby’s was after becoming a partner, with my nephew. Larry worked at Newby’s while he was earning his degree from the Kemmons Wilson School at the U of M. After graduation, Larry had a successful entrepreneurship with South Mouth Wings in Boulder, Colorado.
Being an owner of a bar and restaurant, does that cut into family time?
Being a widow with grown children, Newby’s doesn’t cut into family time at all. Besides Larry, my daughter, Ruthie O’Ryan, works in marketing for Newby’s. Another nephew, Frank McLallen, is a musician and recording artist who has played here with his band, “The Sheiks.” My son, Robert O’Ryan, is a student at the U of M and comes by frequently for hamburgers and wings.
Newby’s and the University of Memphis share a real bond. Can you tell me about that relationship for you?
My great-great-grandfather Seymour A. Mynders, was the first president of West Tennessee Normal School, which is now the U of M. It is a privilege to work as an official sponsor of U of M Athletics, especially the Tubby Smith radio program. We have a Tubby Smith Burger on the menu, and our brunch menu includes a Rudd Breakfast Pizza. We are the official “Away Game Watch Site” for the U of M and a preferred caterer of the Memphis Tigers Athletics. The U of M Music School performs here the third Tuesday of every month, under the direction of Professor Ben Yonas.
What is your favorite Newby’s story?
My favorite Newby’s stories are from married couples who met at Newby’s. We want to start a “We met at Newby’s” Facebook page and offer each couple two free drinks to celebrate their anniversaries.
Do you have a favorite dish?
My favorite dish is the French fries. Tim Harmon, who was at South Mouth Wings with Larry [in Colorado], created our French fries recipe. Larry and Tim came up with all of our recipes. Before Tim moved on to work for the Huey’s chain, he hired Elfo Grisanti. We have given Elfo a free hand to tweak the menu, and he has added a Sunday and Monday brunch to our food service, which includes a special eggs Benedict, chicken and waffles, and crabmeat sliders.
Is there an interesting fact about you or Newby’s that most people might not know?
I don’t drink alcohol, which may be a secret to successful bar ownership, but Newby’s bar manager, Erica Otdoerfer, has created some wonderful concoctions.
Brunch, Lunch, & Munch
At Highland Row, hop, skip or jump your way to cocktails, family recipes, or a 29-tap beer market.
by Lesley Young
Justin Fox Burks
In the summer of 2016, the much-anticipated $58 million Highland Row development on Highland opened its doors to its first wave of residential tenants, adding to the momentum and vitality that the University District has been experiencing of late.
Commercial tenants followed, and three restaurants — Char, a steakhouse with Southern and stylish leanings; Newk’s, a scratch-made, fast-casual franchise spreading across the country; and the Casual Pint, a beer market with a beer-lover’s menu — followed over the last several months, rubber-stamping the area as a diner’s destination. Here’s a look at what the restaurants offer.
Duck Eggs Benedict three ways.
Char offers brunch on both Saturdays and Sundays, and has already become such a beloved spot for brunch-crazed Memphis that general manager Andrew Fischer mentioned several times that reservations are encouraged.
Eggs Benedict are probably an already perfect dish — perhaps that is why we all love brunch so — but Char chefs add duck eggs to their version, which can come with crab cakes on an English muffin, Southern style with fried green tomatoes and country ham on a buttermilk biscuit, or with skirt steak and greens.
Throughout the week, Char offers daily specials, which feature a meat-and-three, and on Sundays, that meat is fried chicken. According to Fischer, it’s fried chicken like you get at your grandmother’s house. They soak it overnight in sweet tea, dip it in buttermilk, add Memphis-seasoned breading, and fry it up in a skillet. “We weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel,” Fischer says. “It’s just like your mother made at home.” Add two sides, such as Delta Grind garlic cheddar stone-ground grits and any number of Southern staples such as black-eyed peas, collard greens, or butter beans, or even chipotle sweet potato mash. Throw in a piece of cornbread, and suddenly it’s back home with grandmother forcing more food on your plate.
No brunch is complete without a band (on Sundays, it’s the Memphis gypsy jazz combo Le Tumulte Noir) or an obligatory mimosa or Bloody Mary. Char comes with Jim O’Brian’s Crazy Mary Bloody Mary mix. “It’s wicked good Bloody Mary mix,” Fischer says. “We try to keep everything as local as we can when we can. We’ve really become a neighborhood restaurant. On any given Sunday, almost every single customer knows every single customer.”
431 S. Highland Street • (901) 249-3533
White sauce BBQ and an ultimate mac ’n cheese.
If a chain could be a family restaurant, the Newcombs have figured it out. At Newk’s Eatery, the family’s popular fast-casual eateries, Newcomb Family Recipe dishes are a point of pride, along with freshly prepared sandwiches, California-style pizzas, soups, and salads.
The Five Cheese mac and cheese comes as a side or a meal. This family recipe that owner Chris Newcomb ate at his grandmother’s house blends Asiago, Parmesan, Vermont white cheddar, and Ammerlander Swiss cheese in elbow macaroni. More cheddar and extra bacon come on top. Or opt for six cheeses if you want the pimento cheese family recipe thrown into the mix. “That just takes it to a whole other level,” associate manager Dustin Thompson says.
The Newk’s Q — flame-grilled chicken and Swiss cheese on signature French bread — is one of their best sellers, primarily because of the sauce. What can you do in Memphis to beat out the heavy barbecue competition? Offer a white sauce.
Legend has it that Chris’ dad Don, a dentist who helped start the franchise with Chris, ate a sandwich in Florida with white sauce, the best barbecue sauce to ever meet his palate. After spending hours, maybe days, trying to convince the barbecue joint owner to give up his recipe, Don bought a bucket, took it home, and spent weeks trying to perfect the sauce.
The restaurant also offers a different freshly made soup each day, and on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, that soup would be loaded potato, a much-loved mix of potatoes, sour cream, chives, cheese, and extra bacon.
If all of the comfort food feels a little heavy, opt for a salad, an absolute win. The Newk’s Favorite comes with grilled chicken, cranberries, pecans, and grapes, topped with house-made sherry vinaigrette or one of 11 other dressings, such as lemon vinaigrette or ginger wasabi. “I’m interested in buying some of that and taking it with me next time I have sushi,” Thompson says. “It’s amazing.”
431 S. Highland, Suite 105 • (901) 207-4421
The Casual Pint
Beer, brats, and pretzels with a side of beer cheese.
Just across the parking lot from Newk’s in the neighboring complex is the craft beer marketplace the Casual Pint, which states on the left door entrance, “Where Beer,” and on the right door entrance, “Lovers Meet.” Inside the cleanly decorated, open-floor-plan establishment, the beer curious can find more than 400 beers to take home with them in six-mix cartons or crack open and pour inside. There are also 29 taps for drinking on site or for growler fill-ups, with include craft options from all of Memphis’ breweries.
To feed these huddled masses of beer pilgrims, the menu at Casual Pint is an appetizing selection of finger foods, pizzas, and sandwiches. Franchise owner Lisa Caufield says hands-down the crowd favorite is the Bavarian pretzels and beer cheese. Over-sized pretzel sticks covered in chunky salt pay homage to a ramekin-type dish of warm English Mountain cheddar beer cheese, also salty, perfect for pairing with a late-day or early-evening beer.
Caufield would put their wings up against any in the city. “They’re very, very good, to be honest,” says Caufield, who opened the first Casual Pint franchise in Memphis last November. “We get quite a lot of comments on our wings, and this is a wings city.”
An order comes with six roasted wings, tossed in either Buffalo, barbecue, or sweet and spicy chili sauce, and your choice of ranch or blue cheese sauce.
There’s also guac and chips with salsa or hummus and flatbread, and the flatbread also shapes the base for three types of pizza, including grilled chicken breast and Wisconsin mozzarella topped with red onion and either Buffalo, barbecue, or spicy chili sauce.
Sandwiches include a Southwestern chicken wrap, which is pretty much what you’d expect, but with jalapeño and Boom Boom sauce, a sort of spicy Remoulade, or the beer brat, which is a Johnsonville brat cooked in a seasonal craft beer and served on a Challah bun.
Come for the beer, stay for the food. Or the life-size Jenga. Or dogs. “We’re encouraging everyone to bring their dogs,” Caufield says.
395 S. Highland street • (901) 779-2967
Burgerim ups the ante for fast-food fare.
by Pamela Denney
Justin Fox Burks
Let’s get right to the heart of Burgerim, an international franchise that likes to break the rules. The mini-burgers? All natural, proprietary blends in 10 different flavors. The packaging? Adorable to-go boxes with tuck-in lids. And the vibe? Upbeat and contemporary with local beer on tap.
Opened since early February, Burgerim fills a space between traditional fast food and more leisurely sit-down restaurants. COO Bryan Duff, in town last month for training, uses the term “gourmet fast-food casual” to describe the Burgerim approach. “We want to offer food with a higher quality, but still give customers the in-and-out experience,” he says.
Donna Tuchner, an Israeli-born New York-trained chef, founded Burgerim in Tel Aviv in 2011, and the chain expanded to Europe, Asia, and America a few years later. The Highland location at the south end of the Highland Strip is the first Burgerim in Tennessee, part of an aggressive national rollout for 100 more stores.
Yet, despite its Israeli roots, the restaurant’s only Middle Eastern influence is the franchise name. Burgerim is a Hebrew word for “many burgers.” In fact, the mini-burgers, sold in twosomes, threesomes, and 16-combo packs, are the key attraction for local franchise owner Akta Patel, herself a vegetarian. “We like the duo and trio concept,” Patel says. “We thought here in Memphis, the city of barbecue, people would appreciate so many different burger choices.”
Indeed. On Burgerim’s opening weekend, students and nearby residents embraced the menu of burgers, fries, and drinks for one fixed price. Deciding what to order, however, is still a mix-and-match puzzle. Ten different patties — at 2.8 ounces they are a little larger than sliders — include beef (the most popular), lamb, Wagyu, salmon, chorizo, chicken, merguez (a style of spicy beef), and an excellent veggie burger made in-house.
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Owner Akta Patel operates Burgerim, the franchise’s first restaurant in Tennessee.
Toppings start with the standards and build up, with pineapple, jalapeño, sautéed mushrooms, grilled onions (yum!), and an egg, sunny-side up. Buns, baked into shiny domes topped with sesame seeds, also come two ways: whole wheat and Brioche-style, custom-made for Burgerim locations.
Cooked to order on an open flame, the patties are fatter and denser than fast-food competitors, a likely explanation for their juicy texture. In-house blends also balance seasonings with the fat content of different cuts of meat.
“We work with a meat purveyor who blends for us based on our recipes,” says Chef Travis Limoge, who brings an impressive L.A. pedigree (celebrity studded restaurant The Nice Guy, for one) to the corporate table. “All our meat is USDA choice, all natural, organic without the stamp.”
569 S. Highland St. • (901-308-1203)