Author Justin Goldman Photography Dave Anderson
DAY TWO | I ’m feeling a bit fragile this morning, but if there’s one thing that can cure the brewer’s flu, it’s a classic Southern breakfast. A few blocks up from the Peabody, on Court Square, I duff into the Blue Plate Cafe, where the cheesy scrambled eggs, buttery grits, flaky biscuits and peppery gravy engage in an artery-hardening competition.
Having discovered the redemptive power of fatty food, I shoot down Elvis Presley Boulevard, to Graceland. After a lengthy wait on the other side of the street (make reservations, y’all), I’m waved onto a tour bus that’s driven through a gate and up a hill to the mansion, which Elvis bought in 1957 and where he died 20 years later. The most striking thing about the property is that it’s actually not that big, and the rooms, while opulent enough, aren’t all that impressive by today’s “MTV Cribs” standard. Still, it’s a marvelous monument to kitsch—the collection of spangly jumpsuits alone is worth the price of admission.
From here, it’s a 15-minute drive back downtown, where I drop my car at the Peabody and cross the street to Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous, Memphis’ best-known barbecue joint. Sitting at a red-and-white-checked table in the subterranean dining room, I order pork ribs and inspect the schwag hanging from the ceiling—decrepit clarinets, snowshoes, football helmets. “You’ve got a pretty good view,” my waiter says, grinning as he sets the plate down. The ribs are dusty with dry rub, and as I add spicy barbecue sauce, I note that my only utensil is a plastic spoon for the beans and the tangy mustard-and-vinegar slaw. So … this is gonna get messy. Not that I’m complaining, as I strip the meat from the bone.
Next, it’s time to visit one of America’s most somber historical sites. Just off South Main Street stands the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. In front of the building—now home to the National Civil Rights Museum—I meet Aram Goudsouzian, a history professor at the University of Memphis and author of Down to the Crossroads, a book about James Meredith’s 1966 March Against Fear.
Goudsouzian and I walk through the museum—which reopened last year after an extensive renovation—pausing inside a 1950s-era bus, in which there sits a statue of Rosa Parks, still refusing to cede her seat to a white passenger, an act of defiance that launched the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. There’s also a vintage Woolworth lunch counter, a replica of the one where students initiated anti-segregation sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960. Then there’s the room in which Dr. King was staying when he was killed. It looks so mundane—a basic, unadorned room—and that, somehow, adds to its power.
“For years, I lived in a condo that looked right down on the Lorraine Motel,” says Goudsouzian, a Boston native who’s been in Memphis for more than a decade. “The history just sort of spills out here. It feels like part of you. Martin Luther King is like a ghost that hangs over Memphis. He’s an inspiration, but also his assassination has become the great tragedy of the nation and of Memphis’ story.”
I leave Goudsouzian and head back across town to Hog & Hominy. Owned by Memphis natives Michael Hudman and Andrew Ticer, the restaurant is renowned for its fusion of Southern and Italian cuisines. My fast-talking waitress, Jenna, runs me through the menu. “If you like spicy food, and you’re an adventurous eater, the sweetbreads are great,” she says. I’m barely able to nod before she zips off, returning shortly with the sweetbreads, served in jalapeño vinaigrette, and a The Wry Is Cast cocktail, made with moonshine and mezcal. For an entree I have the wood-oven Thunderbird! Forty Twice! pizza (the name comes from a song about Thunderbird wine), topped with pepperoni and Calabrese salami and drizzled with honey. If that’s not decadent enough, I cap it off with a slice of peanut butter pie, which, with its bottom layer of banana, would have made Elvis happy. “I have a hard time keeping them in,” the chef, Lee Mitchell, says of the pie. “If I make a hundred of them, we sell a hundred”
After dinner, I make like Jenna and zip back downtown to see the Memphis Grizzlies. The “Grit and Grind Grizz” have become a unifying point for this basketball-mad, blue-collar city. There are a few Memphis touches to the game experience: The nachos come topped with barbecued pork, and the halftime entertainment is a jumping set from house band Black Rock Revival. The crowd goes nuts in the second quarter when swingman Tony Allen gets a steal and a breakaway layup, but sadly the Grizz have run into the best team in the NBA, the Golden State Warriors, and they fall 103-83.
Outside, I join the disappointed masses on neon-lit Beale Street. With me are Chelsea Chandler and Eric Hasseltine, both of whom cover the Grizzlies for local radio. Music blares from the doorways of Silky O’Sullivan’s, the Rum Boogie Café and B.B. King’s Blues Club, but we have another Memphis institution in mind. A few blocks away, on South Main Street, stands the city’s best dive bar, Earnestine & Hazel’s. Named for two sisters who ran a café out of the building in the 1950s and ’60s—where they catered to musicians like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin—the bar has an in-house ghost and a jukebox that Eric describes as “the best in America.” Then there’s the Soul Burger, a simple, perfect bite of late-night grease.
As we sip cheap beer and munch on our patties, I ask Chelsea, who’s also a singer, what her favorite Memphis tune is. “Probably ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,’” she says. “It’s perfect.” Moments later, we hear Otis Redding in the air. “They say the jukebox starts on its own and plays records that aren’t there,” Chelsea says. “That could be Earnestine and Hazel coming back,” our bartender chips in. “I believe it,” Eric replies. “I’ve come up here and the hair stood up on the back of my neck, and not because it was cold.”
Seeking spirits of a different kind, we hop a cab over to Paula & Raiford’s, a smoky, neon-lit disco that Chelsea calls “a club for people who don’t like clubs.” The music here tends toward Michael Jackson, and the Rubik’s Cube dance floor has me looking for John Travolta. There’s also a drum kit and an, um, exercise pole that are available to anyone brave enough to jump on them. I am not that brave. And I need my bed.