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It would be remiss to talk about Memphis without mentioning barbecue in the first sentence. The city is famed for its 'cue, which comes in two main forms: pork ribs (which can be either "dry-rubbed" with a dry spice mix, or "wet-rubbed," with sweet tomato-based sauce) or chopped pork. Chopped pork takes its highest form when stuffed between two floppy hamburger buns and topped with a spoonful of slaw. Barbecue is considered an art form here, and "pitmasters" (who cook the meat) are treated as respected artisans. Don't shy away from the more hole-in-the-wall-looking joints—some of the best 'cue comes in the ugliest packages. Memphis also has its fair share of mid-range and high-end restaurants serving New Southern cuisine. Restaurant Iris, in particular, has done a notable job at using local ingredients in new and unexpected ways. Though the ethnic dining scene in Memphis is far from robust, there are several good Vietnamese and Mexican restaurants, for when you tire of pork.
Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Expensive
In an Antebellum mansion just a few blocks from downtown, this atmospheric dining room serves opulent French-style dishes with just a hint of a Southern accent. House specialties include chilled cucumber soup, duckling with sweet potato pudding and Calvados sauce, and white chocolate bread pudding. The dining area, with its burnished wood floors and stately high ceilings, is deeply romantic—if you're looking to impress a date, this is the place. On balmy spring nights, consider booking the more casual veranda dining area. Reservations are recommended.
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Neighborhood: Midtown Price: Expensive
Critics and local foodies alike have been heaping praise on this midtown establishment ever since it opened in 2008. Chef Kelly English, a Louisiana native, gives Creole cuisine an entirely new spin. The menu is full of quotation marks—lobster "knuckle sandwich," "surf and turf" of strip steak with fried oysters, "grilled cheese" of smoked salmon and brie—demonstrating the kitchen's lighthearted approach toward its upscale ingredients. The restaurant is tucked away in a green cottage in a residential neighborhood, so it's easy to miss if you don't know where you're going. Crowds are well-heeled and cosmopolitan, and service is flawless without a hint of pretension.
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Neighborhood: East Memphis Price: Expensive
The restaurant of choice for Memphis's Old Guard establishment, Erling Jensen specializes in seafood and big, manly portions of meat and game. There's nothing subtle about the food here—Black Angus filets are topped with foie gras butter, crawfish bisque is made even richer with a pinch of rare and expensive saffron. The wine list is a big draw—oenophiles should consider booking the Friday night wine-tasting dinners. Housed in a modern building in suburban East Memphis, the dining room has a muted contemporary decor, with white walls and abstract paintings.
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Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Moderate
Through an alley and down the stairs, this cave of a restaurant has been a Memphis favorite since 1948. Hoards of hungry diners tuck into Rendezvous' famous dry-rubbed pork ribs as fast as the kitchen can sling them. There are other things on the menu (mostly meat, in various guises), but don't bother—the ribs are the name of the game. Red-and white-checked tablecloths and walls hung with a half-century's worth of memorabilia give the space a kitschy charm. Expect crowds, especially on weekends.
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Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Moderate
This funky downtown establishment goes for an urban loft vibe, with high ceilings hung with colorful paper lanterns. Arty 20- and 30-somethings sip neon-colored cocktails and munch on coconut shrimp and other Caribbean-influenced dishes. Happy hour, which lasts from lunch through 7PM, is popular for its massive selection of $5 martinis. Brunch is also big, with lots of creative takes on classic egg dishes and free-flowing Bloody Marys. If you're not ready for a full meal, Slim's is a good place to stop by for a drink and some nibbles.
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Neighborhood: South Memphis Price: Moderate
Jim Neely has been slow-cooking pork shoulders and racks of ribs at this homey Memphis barbecue joint for three decades. Both are excellent (we especially love the chopped shoulder sandwich), but the must-try item here is the barbecue spaghetti. Yep, it's just what it sounds—cooked spaghetti tossed with Neely's own barbecue sauce and chunks of roast pork. Some say it's an acquired taste—if you're unsure, go for the sampler platter, which includes the spaghetti and five kinds of meat. Atmosphere is cozy and laid back, with worn tables and family photos on the wall.
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Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken
Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Budget
People don't come to Gus's for the atmosphere, that's for sure. The line of customers snaking halfway out the door of this dumpy concrete chicken shack is all about the food. What to order? Delicately battered golden fried chicken, shatteringly crisp on the outside and dripping with juices on the inside. We prefer dark meat, which many Southerners consider more flavorful. Classic sides like turnip greens, mac and cheese, and fried green tomatoes are pretty good, but it's the chicken that earns Gus it's "word famous" designation. Clientele includes everyone from cops to European tourists to city councilmen.
Neighborhood: Midtown Price: Budget
A relative newcomer to the Memphis barbecue scene, this midtown cafe is less gritty and more family-friendly than some local 'cue shacks, but no less delicious. The owners here had the stroke of genius insight to place chopped pork barbecue on buttery Texas toast, creating a sandwich that's earned slavish devotion from aficionados. Ribs, barbecue baloney and beef brisket are also popular. Diners eat at comfy wooden booths or perch at the burnished wood bar. The dim light and burgundy walls give the place a bit of a vintage pub vibe.
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Neighborhood: South Memphis Price: Budget
Thought by many (ourselves included) to have the best chopped pork sandwich in Memphis, Payne's is the kind of 'cue shack that makes this city one of America's barbecue capitals. The secret is all about the mix — bits of crunchy exterior "brown" meat mingle with shreds of creamy interior "white" meat. The location, an aging storefront in a slightly down-at-the-heels neighborhood, is not exactly a draw, but don't let it scare you off. The owners are friendly as can be, and the clientele represents a vast spectrum of Memphis life.
Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Budget
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There are two kinds of people in this world: the kind that say "burgers cooked in 100-year-old grease? Gag me with a spoon!" and the kind that say "Whoa! Where can I try that?" If you're the second kind, welcome to Dyer's. The grease in question has been used to fry Dyer's burgers since 1912. It's strained daily, so there's unlikely to be any of the original material remaining. Still, it makes for a good legend, right? It makes for pretty good burgers, too—thin, juicy and doused with yellow mustard. Milkshakes and fries round out the menu at this retro-style Beale Street diner. Be warned—Dyer's is open until 5AM on weekends and gets pretty crowded and rowdy after the bars let out.
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