VOL. 10 | NO. 50 | Saturday, December 9, 2017
By Andy Meek
Say what you want about the kind of city Memphis is or isn’t for foodies who prefer originality to the chains and knockoffs that are so familiar a sight in suburbia. But let it be known that 2017 was another year of ascendancy for Memphis’ singular, distinctive food scene, with the constant arrival of new concepts and experiences that in turn also says something about the city that patronizes those establishments.
We’ll resist the pun-worthy opportunities that abound to describe the appetite here for something new. It’s also a fool’s errand to keep a comprehensive tally of additions to and subtractions from the food scene here, because it’s in a constant state of flux thanks to openings, additions, departures and closings.
If you wanted to grab on to what some of the big themes of the year have been, the newest arrival to the burgeoning Broad Avenue commercial district – Lisa and Luis Toro’s newly opened diner The Liquor Store – might be a good place to start.
It’s a few things in one. It’s an attempt to fill what the couple saw as a gap in Broad Avenue offerings, namely, a quick place to get some comfort food. The kind of thing that will keep people in the district longer, shopping at retail establishments like City & State – the Toros’ other Broad Avenue business – among others. It’s got a funny story. The restaurant at 2655 Broad Ave. used to be a liquor store, and the vintage liquor sign that greets entrants speaks to that.
The concept is also a bit cheeky. Lisa Toro recalls how she and her husband thought it would be quirky and different and funny for people to have to wonder aloud what they’d have for lunch today, or where they’d go for breakfast. And have to answer their own question with the strange-sounding decision that their destination should be The Liquor Store.
“I think City & State showed us that now that we’re about to hit three years, that we’re capable of doing this,” Lisa Toro said. “When you go into something the first time, like with City & State, you have no clue if you can build something sustainable. But we’ve over the years seen some pretty phenomenal growth with the City & State concept.”
So much so that not only were they flush with enough confidence to try something new in the neighborhood. They were also able to get buy-in from nine women entrepreneurs to help put up the financing to open The Liquor Store. That provided the foundation to give their concept a try, a concept focused on the staples of breakfast like pancakes and biscuits, typical diner fare and a robust bar program.
Show us something new. That’s what diners in Memphis are after. Implicit in that word, though, is more than just The Next Big Thing. It’s new, as in – originality, a creative flair, an experience that compels you to come back and keep coming back for more.
“I believe that the culinary scene in Memphis this past year has responded to the notion that no longer is it acceptable to just open a restaurant,” says local food blogger Cara Greenstein, creator of the food and lifestyle blog Caramelized. “Competition demands that you are better in every area.
“Beyond excellence in food, there’s a renewed, required focus on excellence in comprehensive, heightened experiences – from the culture and branding, to the staff and service. Newer spots like Catherine & Mary’s, The Liquor Store on Broad, Edge Alley, and City Silo are investing as much into their spaces and ambiance as their menus, and I find that attention to quality to be extremely important. Such energy is reflective of the greater city’s development – it’s a very refreshing feeling.”
Among other big themes this year, Greenstein also points to a kind of maturation of the concept of a food truck in the city. There’s a sense of permanency and expectation around such pop-up offerings, she says, such that it leads to things like Lucky Cat Ramen’s Cooper-Young presence and the growing brick-and-mortar presence of MEMPopS.
Ghost River’s tap room has a daily food truck or pop-up on its schedule, and Court Square Thursdays consistently draw crowds with more than a dozen options. Areas like the Levitt Shell also have specifically built infrastructure to accommodate rotating food offerings.
Then there’s Crosstown Concourse, which has reaffirmed Memphis’ growth into “neighborhood” versus establishment destinations.
“There’s a desire to ‘go try a spot at Crosstown’ or ‘grab a drink in Overton Square’ or ‘head to Cooper Young’ for dinner,” Greenstein says. “And it’s not just that there are different food options. There is diversity and energy in the people and food around them. The walking, interacting, experimenting is all part of the elevated experience for Memphians and visitors.”
Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau new media content strategist Holly Whitfield, who also runs the “I Love Memphis” blog, said she was excited to see the return in March of Memphis Black Restaurant Week, led by Cynthia Daniels. She describes the occasion – similar to the Downtown Memphis Commission’s “Downtown Restaurant Week,” with participating restaurants offering deals for the week – as “a smart way to draw attention” to the black-owned businesses that contribute so much to the city’s culinary scene.
Meanwhile, there’s so much more still to come.
For an incomplete – a bite-sized, shall we say – look at how the city’s restaurant scene is changing, here are some other recent happenings:
The husband-and-wife team of JoBeth Graves and Jeff Watkins is planning to open a restaurant, Grecian Gourmet, in the South Main Arts District early in 2018.
They started the business in mid-2016, offering a variety of Greek cuisine and started with the St. Jude Farmers’ Market. They expanded into several other farmers’ markets and retail locations – like the Curb Market and Miss Cordelia’s – and offer catering services for individuals and businesses.
Atlanta-based gourmet sandwich chain Rising Roll Café is coming to Memphis. The company signed a franchise agreement in recent weeks for the development of three stores in the area. Founded in 1999 and franchising since 2003, Rising Roll Café has a menu that includes gourmet sandwiches, hot sandwiches, wraps, salads and breakfast.
Sunrise Memphis is a new breakfast, lunch and coffee spot at 670 Jefferson Ave. that opened in recent days. Ryan Trimm, a partner with Across the Board Restaurant Group, told The Memphis News that, “After a year of work and preparation, we are opening our doors for Memphis to enjoy our biscuits and breakfast. I’ve been blessed to team up with two great partners and a fun, energetic staff. We are all looking forward to slinging some good grub.”
Austin, Texas-based burger bar Hopdoddy announced plans to move into the Overton Square site that previously housed YoLo Frozen Yogurt & Gelato, for the company’s first location east of the Mississippi River. Memphis also got a new taco restaurant from the owners of Belly Acres, with the launch a few months ago of Tennessee Taco Co. at 3295 Poplar Ave.
The restaurant includes a menu of different street tacos and other Items like fresh guacamole and doughnuts.
I Love Juice Bar announced plans for a third location inside the Tennessee Brewery’s Bottle Shop, at 500 Tennessee St., complementing its existing locations in Midtown and Crosstown. Also Downtown, the South Main Market at 409 S. Main St. held its grand opening, offering a variety of food related concepts like additional locations of Java Cabana and City East Bagel & Grille. And then there’s The Brass Door, which has reopened Downtown with a new team behind the scenes at the Irish pub.
The Majestic Grille owners, Patrick and Deni Reilly, shifted to The Brass Door at 152 Madison Ave. as the next project to take on as part of their consulting enterprise that complements The Majestic. The Reillys also revamped the restaurant at Beale Street Landing this summer into The Front Porch. The husband-and-wife team described one of their biggest contributions to the Irish pub as helping put a solid “operational infrastructure” in place.
Memphis saw a bevy of barbecue restaurant-related news this year, with the arrival of King Jerry Lawler’s Memphis BBQ Co., renovations at Corky’s, and expansions of Central BBQ and the Germantown Commissary.
UberEATS also launched in Memphis earlier this year. The service is a sister of the Uber ride-sharing app that lets diners order meals from their phones, which Uber drivers deliver straight to their door.
In other news, starting in January the Brookhaven Pub & Grill will be getting a new look, with S. Berry Jones Architects designing the project and managing the renovation.
Among the changes to the East Memphis pub, the outdoor deck areas will be upgraded to a new higher-end, long-lasting material. There will also be new landscaping, and the existing outdoor deck canopy will get a new permanent roof structure.
Other improvements in the works include upgrades to the bar, game area and the kitchen, which will be expanded and upgraded with new equipment.
Christy Spell, who owns the pub with her father, Rick, said the business is still finalizing plans but work will start soon.
“We’ve continued every year to see an increase in sales and revenues,” she said. “We just felt it was time to give our customers a better environment. We want to make sure we’re giving them the best Brookhaven that we can.”