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VOL. 126 | NO. 251 | Monday, December 26, 2011

Changes in Dining Scene Highlight Dynamic Year

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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On Thanksgiving Eve, we drove to the airport to pick up my stepson, one of whose flights had been delayed, so it was after 10 by the time he emerged from baggage claim. All being hungry, I drove to Cooper-Young, thinking we could easily get in at the recently opened Alchemy at 10:30.

Think again, Mr. Big Stuff. The place was crammed to the ceiling, and the line for valet parking stretched down the block. On a Wednesday night! Valet parking! “Whoa,” I said to my companions, “this is a game-changer for Cooper Young.”

The question is, does Cooper-Young want the game changed that much? We’ll have to see, but this is just one piece in the mosaic that made up the intriguing saga of the restaurant industry in Memphis in 2011.

(We went home that night and had scrambled eggs, and that was just fine.)

Readers, this is the final week of 2011 and a perfect vantage from which to look back at the year in the local dining scene.

The first point, and a happy one, is that we did not see in 2011 – though the closing this summer of Thyme Bistro hurt – the rash of restaurant closings that highlighted the economic interregnum between mid 2008 and the end of 2010. Some of those previous closings gained great attention – Encore, Jarrett’s – while others happened quietly, with little fanfare but equal sorrow.

The shocker this year was when restaurateur George Falls announced that his stalwart Paulette’s, long a mainstay of Overton Square, was closing in February and moving to the location of the former Currents in Harbor Town’s River Inn, where the “new” Paulette’s would feature a “chef-driven” menu as well as the old favorites. Falls cited the age of the building and repairs it needed as well as the depressed economy, not to mention the ghost-town atmosphere of Overton Square, for his decision.

Also a surprise was the decision of Karen Roth, popular chef de cuisine at Erling Jensen: The Restaurant, to leave that well-tended institution in order to open her own place – every chef’s dream – which turned out to be Alchemy. How could she have resisted the offer of her backers – Bert Smythe and John Littlefield, owners of McEwen’s on Monroe, Ben McLean of Soul Fish and Stewart Wingate of McEwen’s Oxford – not only to be executive chef but a managing partner, also every chef’s dream. (Fortunato Oliva took Roth’s place at Erling Jensen.) The combination of a sleek, completely renovated interior, with David Parks in charge of the bar and Roth and her staff delivering inventive small plates from the open kitchen, made Alchemy this fall’s hottest new restaurant.

The Cooper-Young neighborhood, however, centered on the intersection of those streets, has seen more changes in 2011 than the advent of Alchemy. Early this year, David Cleveland and Leslie Billman opened Cortona, an Italian restaurant that occupies the vast corner space that last held Dish. In April, Kristie and Adam Jeffrey launched Imagine Vegan Café, where Casa Grill had been. Within the last two months, business partners Sharron Johnson, former co-owner of the long lamented Buns on the Run, and Emily Bishop brought home-cooking-style breakfast and lunch to Cooper-Young in the form Stone Soup Café; and Duncan Aiken, a fixture in the local restaurant community, took over Lou’s Pizza Pie and remade it into Skunx Chefs Pub, where he will dispense his well-known pizzas as well as other food from a short menu.

In other words, Cooper-Young, in 2011, along with its already established restaurants, cemented its burgeoning reputation as a dining destination for the region. With its close-knit diversity, cuisines and prices, Cooper-Young has emerged as the city’s most vital dining arena.

Beside Alchemy, the year’s other most significant restaurant openings were The Elegant Farmer and Acre.

The Elegant Farmer is the creation of Mac Edwards, who owned McEwen’s from 1998 to 2008. Conceived as a “farm-to-table” restaurant that relies, for the most part, on local producers, it fits into the space in Wellford Antique Collection, on South Highland, once taken by the English-themed Crumpets, which closed a year ago today. Edwards has worked in the restaurant business in Memphis for decades; The Elegant Farmer feels like his most personal project, delivered from the heart. Few restaurants have induced the anticipation of Acre, which was four and a half years in gestation, since Wally Joe closed his eponymous temple of fine cuisine at Mendenhall and Sanderlin in January 2007. With his partners Mary and Frank Stanley and architect Doug Enoch, Joe planned the utter transformation of a suburban house built in 1941, on Perkins behind Theatre Memphis, into a sleek, beautiful contemporary restaurant that feels as comfortable and elegant as its fare, created by Joe and his longtime friend and chef Andrew Adams.

In a town the size of Memphis, of course there was more activity than I have recorded here, though not, perhaps, on such high planes. A sampling of such restaurant openings would include Jack Magoo’s on Broad; Slider Inn, from Bardog Tavern owner Aldo DeMartino, on Peabody, where Bayou Bar & Grill closed; the revival of cookbook author Jennifer Chandler’s Cheffie’s on High Point Terrace; the Brass Door on Madison Downtown, an Irish pub where the fish and chips are terrific; Rizzo’s Diner, replacing Harry’s Detour on G.E. Patterson and giving chef Michael Patrick another outlet; and, also Downtown, the remodeled and reconceived bleu in the Westin Beale Street Hotel and eighty3 in The Madison Hotel.

PROPERTY SALES 101 603 9,602
MORTGAGES 92 538 10,616
BUILDING PERMITS 215 1,282 20,958
BANKRUPTCIES 51 408 6,108