For people who love to eat out (we certainly do!) the words “new restaurant” resonate with one of life’s memorable pleasures: food shared with friends and family, and libations to match spirit and mood. In Memphis, where the food scene this year moved from emerging to full speed ahead, an astonishing number of new restaurants directed the question of where to eat toward more than 30 different choices. Feel like a robust bowl of ramen on a chilly February day? No problem. Looking for a scrumptious Delmonico with asparagus and Parmesan truffle fries? We know where to go. Daydreaming about charcuterie plates and Italian home cooking elevated for modern tastes? Yep, we’ve got that, too.
Certainly, the burgeoning list of new restaurants in Memphis owes much to the renaissance of Midtown’s Overton Square and to the continued popularity of Cooper-Young, its more established sister neighborhood. The hub of nighttime entertainment during the 1970s, Overton Square reemerged in 2014 with a parking garage and a unique patina, mingling art, theater, music, and food. In fact, more than half of these restaurant picks, determined by reader and staff favorites, are located in or near Overton Square. But we happily spread our love up and down the Poplar corridor, and to an independently owned treasure in the heart of downtown, shaping a top-10 list of new restaurants that is diverse, trendy, and delicious.
Babalu brings tapas, tacos, and tableside guacamole to Memphis.
Normally, people might think a menu as culturally diverse as Babalu’s is a bit strange, offering Mexican, Spanish, and American staples. But customers flocked to Babalu when it opened last June, and they still do.
For the most part, the restaurant’s influence is South American, embracing the Spanish custom of tapas and plates to share with an equal focus on Mexican cuisine. The menu offers an extensive taco selection, excellent guacamole prepared tableside, and, of course, crafty margaritas. The eclectic culinary variety pops up with garlic shrimp and grits and an addictive Baba burger that’s dressed with roasted Roma tomatoes, caramelized onions, white cheddar cheese, applewood-smoked bacon, avocado, and chipotle aioli. The spice seared yellow fin tuna BLC is the standard BLT’s exotic cousin. The seared tuna steak is topped with bacon, arugula, marinated cucumber, and wasabi aioli inside a sourdough bun and toasted.
Along with Babalu’s menu, the modern Spanish decor adds a festive touch to Overton Square, and its inviting patio with a great view is packed, with a wait, when the weather is nice. In fact, Babalu ranks as a finalist in this year’s Readers’ Restaurant Poll for Best People Watching, Best Patio Dining, and Hippest Bar Setting, duplicating the restaurant’s original success in Jackson, Mississippi.
babalutacos.com • 2115 Madison • 274-0100 • $-$$
Capital Grille serves mid-century ambience with opulent dry-aged beef.
The throwback elegance of upholstered chairs, martinis prepared tableside, and expert waiters with manners and mini-flashlights almost trumps the exquisite steak tartare at Capital Grille, but not quite.
One of several signature preparations at the well-known national chain, the dish stacks capers, diced onion, hard-boiled egg, and a patty of chopped sirloin, like a flashback from a mid-century menu well worth rediscovering. Although it’s listed as an appetizer, try tartare as an entrée alongside crispy Parmesan truffle fries and a shaved Brussels sprouts salad tossed with spinach, goat cheese, red onion, Marcona almonds, smoked bacon, and mustard vinaigrette.
Open for almost a year at the Crescent Center in East Memphis, the Capital Grille settled in quickly, offering a busy lounge with its own menu (cheeseburgers, seared tuna, and lollipop chops) and a wine list with more than 350 choices. Already, the restaurant has earned a spot in our Readers’ Restaurant poll with a high finish in the Best Steak category for its dry-aged beef prepared in numerous ways. The scrumptious Delmonico, crusted with porcini rub and finished with aged balsamic, is particularly good, especially when paired with Sam’s mashed potatoes, a medley of roasted mushrooms, and La Crema Pinot Noir from California’s Sonoma coast.
thecapitalgrille.com • 6065 Poplar • 683-9291 • $$$-$$$$
Seasons 52 layers trendy ingredients into a seasonal and accessible menu.
One thing is certain at Seasons 52, the popular chain from Orlando now located in East Memphis next to the Capital Grille. Visit on a busy weekend without a reservation, and you’ll be circling the piano bar looking for any empty seat.
Fortunately, bar entertainment is lively and craft cocktails are fun. Color-coordinate a cucumber basil smash with edamame from the Gengler family, who operate a 1,200-acre organic farm in southeast Minnesota. Steamed and accessorized with a finger bowl of Japanese green tea salt, the dish is what Seasons 52 does best: make fashionable food trends approachable for everyone.
Consider the menu: Along with organic produce, popular ingredients and flavor combinations pepper the restaurant’s choices. Micro basil, goat cheese, and toasted pistachios turn a plate of warm golden beets into a riotous first course. For entrees, there’s rainbow trout or grilled flat iron steak salad made with Bibb lettuce and an assortment of winter vegetables. A perky cheddar cheese tuile tops the dish, served ceremoniously from a cylinder server to an oversized plate.
While menus are updated regularly at Seasons 52, signature dishes stay true. Order flatbread with artisan sausage any time of year (the kids will think it’s pizza) and a decadent flight of desserts layered into shot glasses.
seasons52.com • 6085 Poplar • 682-9952 • $$
Schweinehaus blends Bavarian with local ingredients and inventive specials.
Traditional German cuisine aficionados can sneer all they want, but let’s face it: With fried Brussels sprouts, burgers, and spatzel mac and cheese on the menu, Schweinehaus is much more than Bavarian goodness, thanks to executive chef David Todd’s local Southern flair.
Still, Todd honors the restaurant’s slogan “A celebration of pork and bier.” The boisterous beer hall offers classics like the Konigsberger Klopse, German meatballs with a caper cream sauce, and the jägerschnitzel, fried pork cutlets topped with a traditional hunter sauce. But recently Todd has come into his own with inventive late-night and brunch specials — more refined Southern, but with a slight Bavarian touch — that have people talking. And for good reason. The ham and cheese brunch special features a cheese grit tart shell topped with roasted tomato goat cheese, house-smoked ham, butternut squash, arugula, caramelized onions, and a 147-degree sous vide egg.
The food at Schweinehaus reflects the atmosphere: just fun. A late-night PB & J will get you house-made strawberry jam, sunflower seed peanut butter, and Yukon gold potato chips inside toasted slices of brioche from a kitchen that stays open until 1 a.m. weeknights and 2 a.m. on the weekend.
schweinehaus.com • 2110 Madison • 347-3060 • $$
Cafe Keough builds dedicated following with its relaxed European flair.
Walk into Cafe Keough any given day, and the 4,000-square-foot space invokes a sense of peace and tranquility, despite its grandeur. Opened by Kevin Keough early last year, the restaurant is a happy place, nestled inside the Commerce Title building built in 1904 — a former bank. Stately tall ceilings, worn tiled floor, and European flair complement the menu lettered across giant chalkboards posted on the wall.
Order a bowl, not a cup, of the melt-in-your-mouth French onion soup. The roasted chicken panini and the acclaimed-by-many roast beef sandwich made with sweet onion, provolone, arugula, and mushrooms are also favorites.
Cafe Keough not only serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it has a tapas menu, too. Add a full bar that pours house Lillet cocktails, local draft beer, and a decent wine selection, and it’s a no-brainer why the cafe’s become a local hot spot for the downtown business and residential crowd. Get past Main Street’s parking issue, and the sprawling space with reliable Wi-Fi is by far the perfect place to set up a laptop, enjoy a latte, and work remotely.
12 S. Main St. • 509-2469 • $
Ecco on Overton Park adds neighborhood fun to a Mediterranean table.
If God is in the details, then God certainly dines at Sabine Bachmann’s Ecco on Overton Park. Everything has been carefully thought out, from the font on the menu and art on the walls to the pretty wood tables topped with delicate wine glasses and the exquisitely thought-out menu.
Bachmann, who also runs Fratelli’s at the Garden, leaves the cooking duties to her son, Armando Gagliano, who proves up to the task. The menu revolves around simple and fresh ingredients, and flourishes abound. The pretty-as-a-picture cheese plate is embellished with flowering broccolini. The hearty grain soup is ostensibly a simple tomato affair, but treasures of squash are hidden within its depths. The orange-glazed pork chop proves to be a revelation and is so huge as to inspire little gasps of awe.
Ecco, according to Bachmann, means “Here it is,” another bit of perfection. There is no murmur of diners quietly enjoying their meals. Instead, Ecco is a place filled with happy chatter, for this is a neighborhood restaurant to its core — Bachmann lives in the neighborhood — and it’s nearly guaranteed that you’ll see a friend or two at lunch or dinner.
eccoonovertonpark.com • 1585 Overton Park • 410-8200 • $-$$
Tart invigorates Cooper-Young bungalow with French food and local art.
The wrought-iron sunburst on the front door of Tart, open since mid-May, is a harbinger of the French cafe’s sunny disposition. So are the snowflake meringues floating on a pretty pedestal cake plate.
Open since mid-May, Abby Jestis and Heather Pike bring a hybrid setting for coffee, art, and food to Cooper-Young with a guerilla gallery for emerging artists and a French-inspired menu that is playful and delicious. Feeling healthy? Tart serves pears poached in cabernet with spices. Feeling ravenous? Try cassoulet, a chicken casserole slowly cooked with white beans. Feeling French? Sink into salmon rillette tartine, a scrumptious pain de mei topped with fig preserves, salmon pate, and red onion relish that is as pretty as Monet’s gardens at Giverny.
Open seven days a week until 4 p.m., Tart serves teas, juices, and coffees along with breakfast, brunch, and lunch anchored by exceptional baking. Favorites like croissants and brioche buns sprinkled with pearl sugar headline a patisserie menu that includes bread pudding and loaf breads (sourdough, pecan raisin, and seeded whole wheat) baked fresh every day. Once a week, the café rolls outs a new macaroon with a fanciful flavor. “People are here first thing every Monday morning,” Jestis says. “I can never make enough.”
tartmemphis.com • 820 S. Cooper • 725-0091 • $
Soup’s on at Jimmy Ishii’s Robata Ramen & Yakitori Bar.
With a menu as extensive as Robata’s, you’ll need a strategy. We suggest gathering your friends, grabbing a table, and flipping straight to the back of the menu for the star of the show: Robata’s ramen bowls. There, you’ll find a dizzying number of options: noodles, broths, toppings. Ask your server to guide you.
The vegetarian Yasai bowl is particularly good. Its seaweed and soy broth is savory, and the soup comes with cabbage, carrots, bean sprouts, and tomatoes. Top it with marinated boiled egg and tofu. Next, we recommend flipping back to the front of the menu, ordering sake for all, and then several appetizers and skewers (yakitori) to share. The deep-fried garlic is a creamy surprise, and there is nothing wrong at all with the asparagus skewers. The onigiri, rice balls with a choice of garnishes including plum and salmon, are good too.
Jimmy Ishii, who is credited with introducing sushi to a broader Memphis audience when he opened the first Sekisui some 25 years ago, has achieved something significant with Robata as well: great, authentic Asian food that seems almost old school and, at the same time, completely new.
robotamemphis.com • 2116 Madison • 410-8290 • $-$$
Strano Sicilian Kitchen & Bar updates favorites with modern cooking.
When we think of Josh Steiner and Strano, we mainly think of carrots. Specifically, the terrific roasted carrot soup, a rich delight you’ll be thinking about days (weeks!) later, and the carrot cake, a lofty beauty deserving a spot on all local foodies’ Instagrams.
Steiner’s Italian fare is equally good. The crust for the pizzas, not thin or thick, is excellent. The fried olives stuffed with cheese seem too good to be true. House-made pastas include the black pasta, with squid ink pasta topped with prawns, and the pasta pappardelle alla olive, dressed in olive oil. There’s Grandma’s spinach pie, made from a secret family recipe, and meatballs, another family favorite.
Strano also offers a nice brunch with a fine selection of poached eggs Benedict, breakfast pies, pancakes, and donuts. All traces of Ink, the restaurant/bar that preceded Strano at the corner of Cooper and Young, have been wiped away in favor of a space that hits somewhere in between rustic and chic. The restaurant is also popular for family gatherings like the recent watching party for Midtowner Logan Guleff’s national win on Fox TV’s MasterChef Junior.
stranoskitchen.com • 948 S. Cooper • 275-8986 • $-$$
The Second Line mixes a spirited pub with authentic New Orleans eats.
Kelly English’s Second Line, winner of the Best New Restaurant category, doesn’t seem “new” as much as it does “meant to be,” so seamless is the transition from the fine dining Restaurant Iris to its fun little sister.
The menu, though spare, features dishes both familial — the fried oyster salad borrowed from Iris — and playfully affectionate — the Verno, a chicken thigh po’boy named after local radio host Chris Vernon. Here, the pleasures come from the menu’s unfussy-ness: the fine bread for the po’boys (imported from New Orleans’ Leidenheimer); the great horseradish-spiked “hot” potato salad; the over-the-top andouille and crawfish-topped pimento cheese fries.
Diners are best advised to leave their fine silks for another dinner, as the gravy tends to drip from the roast beef po’boy (an English favorite) and meaty mushrooms are apt to slip out of the hearty Chubby Vegetarian po’boy and onto your lap. A finalist in the Best Cajun/Creole, Best Patio Dining, and Hippest Bar Setting categories as well, The Second Line has been packing them in since day one.
On the eve of the restaurant’s opening, English told a reporter, “[The] Second Line is going to be a place that speaks truly to what I would eat every day in New Orleans. We wouldn’t eat crawfish étouffée or stuff like that. What we’re going to serve is indicative of, ‘It’s lunchtime. I’m going to grab a sandwich.’ Or, ‘I’m in a bar, and I’m wasted. I want to eat these things.’” We want to eat these things, too.
secondlinememphis.com • 2144 Monroe • 590-2829 • $-$$