Illustrations by Tyler Hildebrand
It was the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, when I got a most peculiar phone call from my good friend Jim. We’ve known each other for years, and Jim’s done more than okay in life. Based in Malibu, he’s long been one of Hollywood’s leading agents. Smart guy, except for an annoying tendency to never stop talking...
“Listen, Ken, I need a favor. One of my best clients — a good guy; has a couple of Oscars under his belt — has just landed the lead role in this big film, where he plays an aging mobster. Good role, perfect for him.
“Just one problem; he needs to gain 30 pounds in a hurry. Like in one month...
“So he and I are at the Beverly Wilshire the other night — my client and I are splitting the 34-ounce porterhouse — trying to figure out how best to complete this mission, when I have this great idea. 'Jeez,' I tell him, 'Why don't you go on a dining tour? Go to the five or six cities you like most, eat at the best places in town, and pick up a few calories along the way?'”
I finally stop Jim long enough to get in a word edgewise. “Don’t tell me. Your client loves Memphis.” (Although Jim swore me to secrecy, I know his client has been through town a time or two.)
“Just a good guess. Well, it so happens we've got a script here he can follow!”
“You’re gonna feed him?”
“Not exactly. But we're just about to publish the results of our annual Memphis magazine Readers' Restaurant Poll. So with these in hand, we can set your client up with a one-day dining tour of Memphis, from dawn til way, way past dusk, that he’ll never forget. And yes, it most certainly will pile on the calories! I think this will be just what the doctor ordered. Though I’m not sure any doctor would approve.”
“Not our problem! I’ll book the flight. He’ll gain 15 pounds in Memphis alone! Thanks.”
He’d hung up before I had a chance to say goodbye. Busy man, my friend Jim, just like his client will be if he follows our one-day culinary prescription. — Ken Neill
Breakfast: 7:00 am
— Best Breakfast Winner—
We’ve heard for years, “Never skip breakfast.” And the crowds at this neighborhood institution near the University of Memphis must take that advice to heart. One recent morning, I elbowed my way to a seat at the counter and ordered from the “Create Your Own Omelet” section of the menu. I’m a fool for Portobello mushrooms and figured red peppers and spinach would add spice (and vitamin K) to the delicious tang and texture of the mushroom. Soon I was tucking in to a tasty and colorful concoction wrapped in perfectly fluffed eggs. The menu offers 16 three-egg omelets, as well as a few of the “open-face” variety. But I like the idea of choosing certain goodies to make the dish my own. Whenever possible, I order cheese grits at breakfast (or any meal for that matter), and you can’t go wrong with Brother Juniper’s zesty version of that staple. The same applies to the service at this friendly family diner named after a cook for St. Francis of Assisi. Brother Juniper's has been run since 1999 by Jonathan and Pauline Koplin and their children, Sarah and Patrick. Don’t be put off by the long wait some mornings. The cheerful bustle of servers and the satisfied smiles of diners — not to mention the excellent eats — make it worth your time. – Marilyn Sadler
10:30 am Mid-Morning Snack
—Best Coffeehouse Winner—
I think you can link Elvis with just about any place in Memphis, and Café Eclectic is no different. You see, before he was officially proclaimed the King of Rock-and-Roll, Elvis practiced in an upstairs room of the original Cafe Eclectic on McLean. And back in the 1950s, guitarist Scotty Moore had a day job at the cleaners next door.
This particular morning, I was looking for a simple snack, but that’s no simple task here. “Eclectic” is a good way to describe the menu, whether it’s for breakfast, brunch, dinner, or snacks.
The counters are packed with pastries and pies and cakes and cookies and doughnuts, all baked in-house. “I don’t think many people know that we operate our own bakery,” says owner Cathy Bouden, “and that even includes our hamburger buns.”
It’s hard to count how many calories go out the door every day, but Bouden pulled out a calculator to figure the number of eggs blended into their bread and baked goods — an astonishing 240 dozen every week.
And it’s not just sweet and sugary stuff either. One of their top items is a mouth-watering buttermilk scone packed with cheddar cheese, applewood bacon, and black pepper. If that still doesn’t fill you up, pick up an ice-cold Fanta from the cooler by the door. That should top off any mid-morning snack. — Michael Finger
Lunch: 11:45 am
—Best Japanese Winner—
To suppress the gnarly growl in my stomach, I headed out Poplar to my favorite sushi spot for lunch. Traditionally, I favor an assortment including the Arctic roll, the Redbird roll, and a fried Volcano roll with extra eel sauce; any combination of crab, avocado, smoked salmon, and shrimp is always a good choice. But this particular day I wanted something a bit more substantial. It was a toss-up between the Teriyaki Burger, with spicy Japanese fries, or one of Sekisui’s savory noodle bowls. It was a given that I’d start with pork dumplings, and with that in mind, I was feelin’ the Pacific Rim Noodles, the perfect pairing of spicy and tangy, filled with a few of my favorite things — shrimp, scallops, mussels, and crawfish mixed in with seafood broth and of course, noodles. What a perfect opportunity to test my chopstick skills; you never know when they will come in handy. And thankfully, Sekisui locations are literally all over town, seven in the Memphis area, in case I care to swing back by later. And I just might. — Anna Cox
Afternoon Snack: 2:30 pm
—Best New Restaurant Winner—
It had only been a couple of hours since lunch, but as I drove down Madison Avenue, the arched “Midtown is Memphis” sign in front of Chiwawa caught my eye. My tummy started rumbling for an ear of their delicious Elote, and I had to pop in and grab a quick snack. Fitting with the restaurant’s theme of offering American and Mexican street food, the Elote — traditional Mexican street fare — is grilled corn on the cob slathered with tangy crema, sprinkled with slightly salty Cotija cheese, and finished with chili lime salt. The sweet corn combined with the sour, salty toppings cured my craving for an afternoon nibble. If you haven’t tried this dish yet, you’re really missing out.
Elote is a staple on the menu, but it’s worth noting that Chiwawa offers sweet daily deals like Taco Tuesday (any three gourmet tacos for $9), Wiener Wednesday (½ off hot dogs all day), and drink specials every day of the week. And Chiwawa's catchy slogan, “When it rains, we pour,” makes rainy days well worth getting wet, for half off the select draft beers. – Shara Clark
Afternoon Nap: 3:30 pm
Peabody Lobby Bar
—Hippest Bar Setting - New Winner—
If you’re a people-watcher who also has a sweet tooth, you’re in luck in the lobby of the South’s grand hotel. Most any time of the day you can order dessert, from a decadent slab of chocolate cake to a summery slice of Key lime pie. I chose a little something in between, a fruit tart. Its blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, and pineapple – some whole, some sliced – sat atop a pretty tart whose almond and coconut flavors added just the right rich contrast to the sunny fruit flavors. If your tastebuds need a sharper buzz, you’ll like the wasabi peas and lemon-lime-chile chips the server set before us in a silver bowl. Crunching on the last of the chips, I sat back to watch others partaking of this afternoon delight. But that lasted only briefly. After a sip or two or three of Baileys Irish Cream, offered generously by my companion, my eyelids were settling at half-mast, as visions of marching ducks danced in my head. —Marilyn Sadler
After-Work Drinks: 4:30 pm
—Best Happy Hour Winner—
Consistency and attention to the basics makes Bardog Tavern’s happy hour an automatic, go-to spot in the minds of the Memphis drinking intelligentsia. Heavy mugs of ice-cold draft beer. A Johnny-on-the-spot wait staff. A killer kitchen. And a worn-from-love aesthetic. No bells. No whistles. Just a good time with good people in a great spot. Drink specials abound from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. But it’s Bardog’s feel that pulls people in. No matter where you’re from, Bardog feels like your local pub. This attracts Downtown office workers, government types, chefs, musicians, and more to this special spot founded by “surly local barman” Aldo Dean in 2008. Grab a beer, a cocktail, or a glass of wine and settle in. Don’t miss the Amazing Island Club sandwich with chicken, ham, bacon and a fried egg, or the Rambo with New York strip steak, roasted peppers, cheese, and horseradish cream. Too much food for happy hour? Snack on Bardog’s signature shoestring fries with bourbon mayo. – Toby Sells
Appetizers before Dinner: 5:30 pm
—Best Steak winner, Best Business Dinner winner—
It’s been over 35 years since Humphrey Folk opened his restaurant “folly” in East Memphis, and today the Folk and Boggs families make sure that the traditions of Memphis’ finest steakhouse remain very much alive and well. But even if you’re having dinner someplace else nearby, be sure to stop by the piano lounge and enjoy one of this restaurant's distinctive appetizer creations. You absolutely cannot go wrong with the stuffed mushrooms, the catfish beignets, or the Famous Fried Dill Pickles (complimentary in the bar). What's not to love? And nowhere else in town can you find Charlotte Hurt tickling the ivories in her own inimitable style. Charlotte is as much a Memphis institution as Folk’s Folly itself, and you’ll find her there playing jazz and Broadway classics most every weeknight. It's a perfect way to end a workday. – Kenneth Neill
Dinner: 7:30 pm
—Best Chain winner, new category—
It’s a bar, it’s a diner, it’s a first-class restaurant, it’s a rendezvous place for commuters heading home to East Memphis and the suburbs — or for moviegoers going to or from a first-run flick at the nearby Paradiso multiplex. Houston’s is all of these things and more. The only drawback, if you can call it that, is that — on weekends, especially — the evening crowds are so dense that, if it’s dinner you’re after, you’ll need to call earlier to assure yourself of a place in line. Of course, the well-equipped and well-staffed bar, complete with TV for game-watching, is a pleasant place to while away the time or chat with one’s companions while waiting. And the food and service in the restaurant proper are well worth the wait. The menu, like the dress code at Houston’s, spans the spectrum from burgers cooked to one’s taste to prime rib (a Houston’s staple) and an abundance of specialty dishes — striped sea bass, grilled over wild hickory, on a recent evening. The service is impeccable and unobtrusive, the atmosphere is electric but relaxed, and all of it is relatively easy on the pocketbook. Yes, it’s a chain (there are 11 Houston’s all across the country), but somehow the staff makes it feel just like home. — Jackson Baker
After The Game: 9:30 pm
—Best Wine List, new winner—
Come to think of it, whoever suggested Flight for drinks after the game is a brilliant son-of-a-gun. (Guilty as charged!) The Grizzlies’ victory tonight was so delicious that a mere beer wouldn’t do, and there’s a fine symmetry at play with Mike Miller’s astounding three-pointers and the restaurant’s unique three wines/three small plate pairings. So here we were dissecting every pass, every dribble, every appearance by the Bongo Lady. This could take a while, but no worries, as Flight serves dinner late on Fridays and Saturdays. We settled in and ordered the Legends Flight, a particularly excellent wine trio of the 2010 Caymus Special Selection, the 2009 Opus One, and the 2009 Joseph Phelps Insignia. These reds are rich, so we naturally opted for the restaurant’s steak flight featuring a boursin-stuffed filet and New Zealand Wapiti elk. It was packed here, but the service was flawless. (Indeed, we hear that the operation is so wrinkle-free that more than once patrons have had to be disabused of the notion that Flight is a chain restaurant.) Chef-partner Joshua Perkins’ huddle-up message for the staff stresses loyalty and humility. In the restaurant business, as in basketball, teamwork is key. — Susan Ellis
Late-night Drinks: 12:15 am
Earnestine and Hazel’s
—Best Dive Bar, new winner—
It’s late. Really late. You know you should probably go on home but, hey, it’s Memphis and you only live once. Alright, let’s go to Earnestine & Hazel’s. It comes honestly by its vintage look and lived-in feel, an authenticity that draws high society, hipsters, and Hollywood. As the bar puts it, it’s “ragged but right.” Though it’s open for lunch, Earnestine & Hazel’s is primarily nocturnal. People start to trickle in around 10 or 11 p.m. Then they pour in from bars and restaurants all over Memphis to meet friends, or for that one last drink before turning in, or to dance their troubles away in the glow of the bar’s legendary (and some say haunted) jukebox. By 2 a.m., the joint is packed downstairs and upstairs. Don’t expect a wine list or liquor. Earnestine & Hazel's doesn’t have them. It’s a beer bar and that means bottled beers, plain and simple. As legendary as the jukebox is Earnestine & Hazel’s somehow one-of-a-kind Soul Burger. It’s as basic as a burger gets but it doesn’t feel that way when you’re eating one. The salty beef, the warm bread, and the pickle crunch together are so simple and pitch perfect and exactly what you want to eat at the end of a late-night throw down. – Toby Sells