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VOL. 10 | NO. 37 | Saturday, September 9, 2017

Memphis Has Earned its ‘Foodie Town’ Reputation in Past Decade

By JODY CALLAHAN

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When Sabine Bachmann arrived in Memphis more than 30 years ago, she was a little stunned at the city’s meager restaurant scene. The city wasn't barren, of course, with longtime mainstays such as Justine's and the Four Flames. But beyond that and some Italian family-owned places, the restaurant scene simply wasn't very diverse or widespread.

Marlena Warner puts the finishing touches on a specialty cocktail at the bar in Catherine & Mary’s. Located in the former Chisca Hotel in Downtown Memphis, the restaurant is best known for its authentic Italian cuisine. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

That's why when Bachmann looks around now, she smiles at the wealth of options available to those interested in fine cuisine.

If you go Downtown, there’s Catherine & Mary’s or The Majestic Grille. Head to Cooper-Young, and you can eat your way through Tsunami and Sweet Grass, the Beauty Shop and Bar DKDC. Go to Overton Square and you can visit Restaurant Iris or Bari. Go further east and you’ll hit Erling Jensen’s or Interim.

And that’s just a quick sampling of the options, many of which have only sprung up in recent years.

“The truth is, when I came to Memphis there was not much of a restaurant scene that I would enjoy,” said Bachmann, who operates Midtown’s Ecco restaurant and the new café in the bookstore Novel. “It has been amazing, especially lately. This year and the year before, so many restaurants opened up. And really good restaurants, too. I think Memphis is in a really great spot.”

Iris’ Kelly English, who got to Memphis 10 years ago, has also seen the changes.

“What I’ve seen that’s changed over the last 10 years is I think people really cook from their hearts more,” he said. “I think people are telling their story through their food more than they were when I first saw this town.”

They aren’t the only ones who think that. Ask Memphis foodies about the city’s burgeoning scene, and they almost start to drool. One of those is Fredric Koeppel, who has spent more than 25 years writing about food and restaurants in Memphis.

“When I started reviewing restaurants in 1988, Memphis had some good restaurants, but going out to eat (for) fine dining or special occasions basically meant steak or lobster or sort of New Orleans-style eating at Justine’s and the Four Flames,” Koeppel said. “(Then), things became more sophisticated. Dining became more adventurous. It felt like you were not in Memphis. It felt as if you were in New York or L.A. Memphis became its own city.”

A primary reason behind that growth has been the influx of several chefs, many of whom were Memphis natives returning home after spending time elsewhere. Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudson are a prominent example, as the longtime friends returned home to open a succession of notable restaurants, including the Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, Catherine & Mary’s and Hog & Hominy.

Another of those was Ben Smith, who opened Tsunami in 1998 after attending culinary school in New York. He believes situations like his – where he both owns the restaurant and cooks the food – have helped the city’s scene grow.

“The scene today, it’s eclectic, it’s creative (with) a lot of independently owner-operated restaurants. That’s always a good thing, when you have an environment where you have invested owners,” Smith said. “Especially chef-driven restaurants. That’s what changes the culinary landscape of a city. That’s when you have that sort of commitment and involvement in the people operating a restaurant.”

But those restaurants wouldn’t have survived or thrived if there wasn’t an audience for what they were cooking. In other words, not only did these chefs have to offer adventurous and creative food, but Memphians had to grow their palates beyond barbecue and the meat-and-three.

“A restaurant community can’t grow without an audience. And an audience can’t grow without those restaurants,” Koeppel said. “It’s a mutual relationship.”

Smith and others pointed to the influx of several new corporations, as well as the continued growth of FedEx, to explain some of this growth.

“FedEx, International Paper, big corporations brought executives from bigger cities,” Smith said. “People that were well-traveled and understood the food and food culture around the world. They came to Memphis and helped drive that demand for a higher level of cuisine.”

Chef Karen Carrier, who owns the Beauty Shop and Bar DKDC, thinks native Memphians also deserve some of the credit.

“I think the city’s palate has always been there. There have been some sophisticated people here for a long time,” she said. “If they couldn’t find the food here, they would travel all over the country and the world. They were waiting for the chance to experience this in their own city and they’ve now got it.”

Ask those in the culinary community what ground zero was for this restaurant explosion, and you’ll get different answers. Bachmann said it was Smith and Tsunami, while Smith pointed to the former Marena’s. English believes it was La Tourelle.

Koeppel, however, believes it all started with Carrier and Automatic Slim’s, the restaurant she opened on Second Street in 1991 and sold in 2008.

“She opened Automatic Slim’s on Second Street when there was nothing there. And nobody anticipated that you could open a great restaurant on Second Street across from the Peabody,” he said. “And moving to Cooper-Young was an extension of her philosophy of really interesting food, fresh ingredients, taking your audience by surprise.”

But regardless of where this food scene began, one thing seems certain: The city has never had as many good restaurants as it does right now.

“There’s so much going on, so much talent, so much richness of diversity,” Koeppel added, “that when somebody opens a great restaurant anymore, it’s like, ‘That’s what we do in Memphis.’”

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