The calendar entry winks at me all week — 7:30 p.m., Folk’s Folly, dinner and drinks. By Saturday afternoon, I am so excited I think carefully about what to wear. I select a blue shirtwaist dress with a skirt that swings, and at the last minute, I dig out a string of pearls, a small homage to the mid-century heyday of America’s great steak houses and the celebratory dinners still held at Folk’s Folly today.
When we arrive at the restaurant, I smile at the considerate amenities that linger from an earlier time: candy coated chocolate mints; wooden matches in mini-boxes, black and glossy; and a walk-in closet with an open Dutch door that makes me yearn for a cozy mink coat.
Intuitively, we head for the crowded Cellar Lounge, and when we settle into our table with icy martinis, I study the crowd. An older gentleman hands a single red rose to his dinner date. On the bar’s leather sofas, a good-looking foursome turns heads with their impressive beehive updos. Nearby, baby-boomer couples like us study the tome-like menu’s tantalizing array of prime cuts, lobster tails, and side dishes culled from Southern favorites.
People much younger also fill the room — a reunion of 30-something college roommates from Ole Miss and a well-behaved toddler who happily plucks skinny fries from his father’s plate. Still, I can’t help but wonder why young people eat at an expensive restaurant with no trendy cocktails or special bar menu. The answer comes to me as I dip bite-size pieces of filet mignon, battered and flash-fried, into creamy béarnaise sauce: Tradition, service, and prime-cut steaks lure all ages, a wisdom clearly understood by founder Humphrey Folk Jr. when he opened his East Memphis restaurant in 1977.
The oft-repeated story of Folk’s Folly Prime Steak House is a treasured culinary mainstay, especially for longtime Memphians. A successful developer who broadly traveled, Folk wanted a steak house like the kind he frequented in larger cities. So with no restaurant acumen (that’s the Folly part), he opened Folk’s Folly in a corner house on South Mendenhall. In 2003, Thomas Boggs, already established for his Huey’s restaurants, joined Folk’s Folly as a managing partner.
Today, the restaurant occupies its same location and is still family owned by Folk’s four sons, Tripp, Carey, Chris, and Michael Folk, and Boggs’ three daughters, Lauren McHugh Robinson, Ashley Robilio, and Samantha Dean. All are active partners, overseeing day-to-day operations and the restaurant’s recent remodel, a freshening up of interior decor that accentuates the restaurant’s collection of paintings by American artist Leroy Neiman.
Like the restaurant’s ownership, the menu is longstanding, and for good reason. Named best steak by Memphis media year after year, the restaurant’s USDA prime cuts are sourced from Stock Yards in Chicago, a 100-year-old company specializing in Midwestern corn-fed beef. At Folk’s Folly, butchers hand trim rib-eyes, New York strips, and filets in two sizes for 250 people on an average Saturday night.
On New Year’s Eve, more than 600 guests celebrated at Folk’s Folly, a testimony to the skill of line cooks who judge the temperature of steaks with the tap of a finger. (The firmer the meat, the higher the temperature.) Like the rest of his team, Johnathan Towns, who started working at Folk’s Folly when he was 16 years old, is a pro. Precise and graceful, he seasons steaks with salt and pepper, positions them under the broiler’s robust rolling flames, and places the meat on plates, warmed in a 500 degree oven.
For our first dinner visit, we try both a 22-ounce cowboy rib-eye, impressive in size and sizzle, and a New York strip, drizzled with butter and chopped parsley and so tender that a butter knife could slip right through the meat. In an almost reverent ritual of appreciation, the men at our table eat every bite, but I veer off course, ordering a four-bone rack of lamb. When the meat comes to the table, I think of spring. The lamb is silky in texture and aromatic from fresh rosemary warmed by hot butter.
For salads, we show a little restraint, splitting an enormous double wedge of iceberg lettuce, draped with bacon, tomatoes, radishes, and blue cheese. Side dishes at Folk’s Folly are oversized, as well. Share them, but don’t skimp them, especially the restaurant’s signature spinach casserole and a rich and decadent spin on jalapeño mac ’n cheese.
While steaks build the core of Folk’s Folly menu, cooks also stretch their wings with daily specials like grilled Berkshire loin pork chops served with cornbread and greens. I explore the specials on a return visit for dinner in the lounge: sea bass, perfectly prepared and resting on a wild rice medley. My husband discovers the restaurant’s off-menu treasure: a gourmet prime burger on a focaccia bun and gumbo that tastes rich and mysterious like the Louisiana bayou.
For fun, we splurge on dessert, a hot chocolate fudge brownie topped with ice cream and chocolate syrup. On my second or third spoonful, pianist Larry Cunningham swings into “Walking in Memphis.” The song makes me look up, and I notice the fire trucks across the street, illuminated inside Station No. 21. The food and the fire station and the baby grand piano make me feel safe, full, and happy, a feeling that is as good as a meal can get.
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Justin Fox Burks
AUSTRALIAN RACK OF LAMB:
Order eight bones if you dare, but for me, a four-bone rack of range-fed lamb is heaven sent, especially when served with mint jam and rosemary seared by hot butter.
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Justin Fox Burks
GOURMET PRIME HAMBURGER
Shssh. It’s a weekend secret served only in the lounge. But this half-pound burger for $12.95 — hand-patted and held together with a cocktail pick — deserves a hearty shout-out.
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Justin Fox Burks
FRENCH ONION AU GRATIN
Is anything more satisfying than prying baked Gruyere off the edges of a warm ceramic ramekin? Yep. The croutons, onions, and rich beef stock hiding underneath the melted cheese.
Prime Steak House
551 South Mendenhall
Food: A classic American steak house with large shareable sides, like potato dishes served nine different ways.
Drinks: Memphis magazine readers recently voted the wine list, curated by assistant manager Carlos Sejas, the best in the city.
Atmosphere: Formal, but fun. Be sure to peek into the music room, where black-and-white photos honor the city’s musical icons.
Service: On one visit, I notice a server escort a woman to the restroom, a show of restaurant manners I don’t often see.
Extras: The restaurant’s Prime Cut Shoppe, located off William Arnold, sells the same cuts served in-house.
Reservations: For the dining rooms, reservations are a must. For the lounge, arrive early on the weekends to avoid a wait.
Prices: Appetizers and salads: $8 to $16; Entrees: $29 to $68; Sides: $9 to $10; Desserts: $7 to $14.
Open: Monday-Saturday from 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Sunday from 5:30 to 9 p.m.