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quintessential memphis & nashville

  • k

I've read through the old posts about good eats in Memphis and Nashville and I'm wondering if anyone can pick out places that really capture what these places are all about. In Nashville, everyone seems to like Loveless, Sylvan Park, and Red, Hot & Blue. Do these places really represent what Nashville cuisine is all about? And in Memphis, McNeely's Interstate BBQ, Leonard's, Corky's and Cozy? Same question?

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  1. s
    Susan Thomsen

    Nashville is a crazy mix of old Southern aristocrats,
    star-studded country-music biz, Bible Belt (Southern
    Baptist headquarters is there), academia, New South
    boom town, and on and on. So, a "representative" list
    is, naturally, highly arbitrary, but I'd recommend
    breakfast at Loveless, a lunch at the Elliston Place
    Soda Shop (a wonderful, old-fashioned counter place)
    and dinner at Rotier's. (Get the cheeseburger on
    French bread.) All of these are down-home places, not
    fancy, with a crowd that's as eclectic as the city
    itself. Also, a number of ethnic eateries have sprung
    up in the Nolensville Road area, but I haven't gotten
    down there in a while to check these out. See if you
    can find a link for an alternative paper called, I
    think, The Nashville Scene; they have a "Best Of..."

    In Memphis, my best BBQ experiences have been at
    Corky's (the one in East Memphis), Interstate and the
    Barbecue Shop (on Madison). I haven't heard much about
    the last one recently; I hope it's still open. Last
    month a friend sent me Corky's via FedEx, and it was
    WAY good. To me, the Red Hot and Blue chain is
    skippable, but perhaps others differ.

    If you're visiting Nashville and Memphis, you'll have
    a ball. Be sure to report in when you return.


    3 Replies
    1. re: Susan Thomsen
      jonathan gold

      And read, if you can, Peter Taylor's amazing, if brief novel ``Summons to Memphis,'' which in its quiet way obsesses on the difference between these two cities. No food in it, but otherwise swell.

      1. re: jonathan gold
        Susan Thomsen

        Jonathan, I second your advice to read "A Summons to
        Memphis"! What a fine writer Taylor was. If you want
        to concentrate on the Nashville side of things, pick
        up Taylor's short-story collection "In the Miro
        District," too; Peter Taylor breaks my heart every
        time I read his work.

        R.e. Nashville dining, many also like the Belle Meade
        Cafeteria. (Just to keep this note food-related!)


      2. re: Susan Thomsen

        I second Rotiers. Get the patty melt. And Brown's (21st and Blair) for burgers. Cantrell's BBQ across the river, and Gerst Haus near the Titans stadium. And, do not miss, Prince's Hot Chicken Shack.

      3. m
        Memphis Fare (bbq and other stuff)

        I'm a lifelong Memphian and I can say definitively that yes, the bbq joints you mentioned are what Memphis is about. The one not on your list is (IMO) the best bbq in town - Charlie Vergos' Rendezvoux. You gotta like dry rub to like these ribs (and I do) but you will find none better!
        In the past few years, the ethnic base of Memphis has started changing...and ethnic restaurant options along with it. Five years ago there was one place that served (East)Indian cuisine - now there are at least 5 (and they're all pretty good.) Mexican taqueria's have sprouted up all over the place too.
        Perhaps I have gotten burned out on bbq...but my favorite thing to do is hunt down new, ethnic, dives that I've never been to before.
        Oh, and for the best gyro sandwich you will get in Memphis, go to the Kwik Check convenience store on Madison Ave. - In midtown just west of Overton Square. Any midtowner can tell point you in the right direction.
        Wanna know anything else about Memphis...just drop me a line.
        Happy Chowing!

        4 Replies
        1. re: Memphis Fare (bbq and other stuff)

          I second your call for Rendezvous - it's hands down my husband's family's favorite.

          1. re: Memphis Fare (bbq and other stuff)

            I think Rendezvous is an over-priced tourist trap. Most of the menu items are just plain bad. The dry ribs are decent, but are better and cheaper elsewhere. It can't compare with Cozy Corner, Central, Payne's, Neely's, Interstate, or BBQ Shop.

              1. re: tennreb

                Without a doubt, I agree with you about the Rendezvous - I dont get it and never will except that the restaurant itself is cool - the ribs are forgettable and the sides are inedible - all served with cold white bread - what's up with that? It cannot compare to Corky's, Neely's, BBQ Shop, Central BBQ, Cozy Corner and the Germantown Commisary.

            1. Susan,
              The BBQ Shop is still open. I have never eaten there, but a good friend (and a bbq afficionado) highly recommends it. It's about 2 miles from my home...so, we'll probably go there soon.

              6 Replies
              1. re: tatia
                Susan Thomsen

                Thanks for the good news about the Barbecue Shop! I'm glad to hear it's still around. A bartender at the Peabody steered a friend and me to it a while back. (An added bonus of our brief visit to the Peabody was seeing Jerry Lee Lewis.)

                What about a place called the Three Pigs? Have you eaten there? A cousin of mine recommended it a couple of years ago, but I haven't eaten there yet.


                1. re: Susan Thomsen

                  Three Little Pigs on Highland is a very oldtime Memphis shop and has excellent BBQ. They also have an out-east joint on Quince near White Station. I've been consuming 3 Little Pigs since I was a child and my Daddy used to pick up their chopped pig sandwiches on Sundays after Church. You can NOT go wrong with 3 Little Pigs.

                  1. re: T. Twain

                    Rendezvous is awesome- best place in town for dry ribs - no doubt. Try the lamb riblets - they are my favorite. New favorite BBQ joint - Central BBQ (on Central Ave.) just west of E. Parkway and the Fairgrounds/Liberty Bowl. It's also Bobby Flay's favorite place in town (as if you or I care.) I used to work at the local Viking Range cooking school and he personally confirmed that to me when he was here for a demo a few years ago. Cheap and wonderful - plus, they have an awesome variety of sauces.

                    I agree with "Memphis Fare" about all the great ethnic places that have popped up in the last several years. Taquerias, Middle Eastern, Thai and Vietnamese - we do have a nice variety of inexpensive, authentic places now. Even a couple out in the "burbs" - but I try to avoid going out there on general principle (plus, I grew up out there.)
                    For good, authentic "meat & 3" type places (1 meat and 3 veg. sides) try
                    1. The Cottage Restaurant
                    2. Barksdale's Restaurant
                    3. The Cupboard Restaurant
                    To my knowlege, Buntyn Restaurant closed up there place on Park Ave. and is no longer open. If someone knows if they have moved to a new place - please let me know!

                    Oh, also - if you are in downtown Memphis....Gus' Fried Chicken. They have a place out in Mason? TN, but that's a pretty long haul from town. Ain't nothin fancy - the original (that burned down, in Mason) was full up with extention cords, and old ceiling fans, and a screen door half off the hinges. But man, best fried chicken ever! The one downtown, I hear, was not as good, but has gotten a lot better recently. If you are not from the south - go on and give it a try - it's surely better than KFC or any of the others.

                    For a good southern style meat & 3

                    1. re: tatia

                      Gus' is fantastic - best fried chicken I ever ate, and one of the few places you can find fried green tomatoes as well. There's a new one recently opened in Collierville.

                      To add to the list of "Meat & 3" type places:
                      4. The Little Tea Shop downtown
                      5. Dale's in Southaven (okay, it's not Memphis, but it's only 15 minutes away)

                      Best Thai Home Cooking - Ja Ja's in Collierville, on Washington street, just off the square. Go east on Poplar until you get to Collierville, hang a right on Main Street. Make a left on Washington, which is directly across from the square. I've tried several Thai places, and each has a diferent flavor...but authentic and truly hot Thai can be had there.

                      Italian food - there have been Italian familes in Memphis since before the Yellow Fever epidemic in 1880. Elfo's is fabulous.

                    1. re: prainer

                      Not the one on Quince!!! I just ate there last week for breakfast. They have the best breakfast in Memphis by far!

                2. I really like Ronnie Grisanti's in Memphis. Although it does seem kinda weird to go for Italian in Memphis.

                  And will add to the chorus of praise for Rendexvous. The dry rub makes it different from a lot of bbq places and the meat is super tender. Also, when I was there, it felt like this secret tucked down an alley. But you could smell it from a block away, and once you got in, it was very spacious. The bartender also charmed my family by carding my 50-some-year-old mom and not carding 25-year-old me.

                  As far as Nashville, there's one place my best friend and her husband always drag me to called Demos'. It's not much more than a steak house, but every steak comes with a side order of noodles, you choose the sauce. I don't think it's as great as they do, but it wasn't bad.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: AmyWatts

                    Amy I agree with you 100% on both Ronnie Grisanti's (probably my favorite restaurant in the whole city, and one of my favorite anywhere) and the Rendezvous. You do have to like dry-rub ribs, though most people miss that this only means that sauce is not applied during cooking, but rather a dry-rub of seasonings instead, sauce still being available on the table. And while I like spare ribs, I much prefer baby-back ribs like the Rendezvous uses, even though you have to eat more of them. And finally, theirs are slow-cooked in charcoal "ovens" (they did used to have a big brick pit below the smoke stack until forced to change) rather than smoked, but this is acceptable BBQ procedure for ribs (not for shoulder or butts though). I think the Rendezvous rocks!

                    1. re: gourmet padre

                      The Rendezvous doesn't slow cook. Most places smoke ribs using wood for 4-6 hours using indirect heat. Rendezvous grills directly over charcoal and their ribs cook in a little over an hour.

                  2. Nashville is typically viewed as a meat-n-three mecca of sorts. Though we do have a good few higher end establishments serving wonderful food, they are not quintessential Nashville. Avoid Demos' at all costs, and though the Belle Meade Cafeteria has always been a good choice, it has recently closed its doors. Loveless and Sylvan Park would both be great, and I would also try and hit Prince's Hot Chicken Shack for some hot chicken. Fair warning: you will wait about 20 minutes for your order and it will be hot! But this is one of Nashville's famous local cuisines. Another worthy meat-n-three is Swett's. As for Memphis, I enjoy my foragings for 'que there but do not consider myself an authority on the best. Good luck!

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: notgreg

                      Notgreg, when is the last time you tried Sylvan Park? I used to love the place, but the last two times I've been the food was very mediocre. Crab cakes made with the imitation stuff, dried out fried chicken. The cornbread and rolls weren't that fresh. Seems like it went down hill after they painted the interior. Other people I know concur. New ownership?

                      1. re: mister

                        Such a shame about Nashville's Sylvan Park (and I assume you're talking about the original on Murphy Rd). On a recent trip back home I noticed that Sylvan Park has morphed all over the place,,,maybe their expansion is an explanation for their downfall?

                        Also still mourning the loss of Belle Meade Buffet (ya, I know "Cafeteria" but family always called it by the old name)...I was practically raised on their food. Back in the day Belle Meade Buffet catered the cafeteria at MBA, where I happily lunched for 6 years.

                        I fear that the meat'n'three genre in Nashville is on the wane. However I can attest that the country ham breakfast at Wendell Smith's on Charlotte is as good as ever, praise Lordy that some good things don't change!

                        1. re: marais

                          And they catered the cafeteria at the girls' school I attended. In addition, Wed night was kids night, so I have mixed memories of pea juice seeping into my breaded cutlet. But it was free, which was great for my parents. I still hate peas. But the last time I ate at the buffet, summer 06, it was in top form, with superb food at great prices. RIP.

                        2. re: mister

                          I went about 3 months ago, had a good meatloaf and the green beans, mashed potatoes and mac n' cheese, and the cornbread was good. The chocolate pie was, as always, phenomenal. That said, a couple weeks before that I went to the outpost on 8th avenue and got a completely different vibe, rushed service, and a feeling that left a sour taste in my mouth.

                      2. I'm a Nashville native, and to my thinking, some of our old places are struggling. Loveless can vary from pretty good to so-so.It's a beautiful drive and very atmospheric, so worth an occasional trip. If you go, stick with fried chicken and biscuits. The jams and gravy formerly were homemade and really "made" the experience. Not sure if this is still the case. My last visit to Rotier's (March 07) was disappointing -- from the freezer-burned fries to the preformed burgers, it was barely above adequate. As another poster noted, the patty melt is reasonably acceptable. Belle Meade Cafeteria closed, sadly. Red Hot and Blue closed several years ago. Haven't eaten at Sylvan Park in 3 years but I ate at their other location, in the Green Hills area, last year and it was fairly good.
                        Overall, I recommend Swett's or Arnold's for our local "meat-n-three" cuisine, though there are other good choices for this type of Southern food: Pie Wagon, Dandgure's, Silver Sands, and the absolute best-kept secret in town, Carolyn's, the cafeteria at street level of the National Baptist building on Charlotte a block from the State Capitol. I think it's the best meat-n-three in town.
                        For barbecue in Nashville, it's Hog Heaven (by Centennial Park) or Mothership BBQ in Berry Hill. To me Mothership is very Nashville (though it's only about a year old) because it's run by former musicians, and it makes a local specialty with care. It's quirky and homegrown, and there are 1970s album covers on the walls. Can't beat that for atmosphere!

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: fluffernutter

                          RIP Mothership BBQ; as reported elsewhere now it's a promising Italian place?
                          Dinner Bell is a strong contender for Meat-N-Three crown, out on Lebanon Rd in Donelson off Briley Parkway. And in terms of combining hipness with elegance with comfort food, hard to go wrong with Tin Angel on West End.

                        2. I second recommendations for Arnold's, particularly lunch on Thursdays, roast beef (hand-carved by the amiable and whistling Jack Arnold) and brown, crispy, greasy fried green tomatoes, which are best eaten with cocktail sauce (just trust me). I haven't eaten at the actual Sylvan Park location of Sylvan Park in years, but the Berry Hill location on Franklin Road has been hit-or-miss on recent visits. The catfish was fresh and crunchy, the mashed potatoes where soggy, just rather uneven. Notgreg is SO right, skip Demos', I am STUMPED by the popularity of that place, with no more personality or quality than Applebee's. I wouldn't say it's capturing the flavor of Nashville, in the southern traditional sense, but Samurai Sushi is my favorite eat in town, and Germantown Cafe is consistently delightful.

                          1. I've lived most of my 43 years in Memphis, & am a BBQ nut (besides eating it, I smoke my own, make my own rub, & make my own sauce).

                            Best BBQ joints in Memphis imo are: Interstate BBQ (Big Jim does it right!), the Rendezvous (they're uniquely Memphis, baby-back ribs only, and dry-rub only while cooking, sauce at the table, but I love em), the Barbecue Shop (not quite as well known but very good), Cozy's (yum!), Hog Wild (hard to find and also less known), and maybe A&R.

                            The best place that most have never heard of is Morris BBQ, and honestly, it's probably the best pork sandwich in town, sold from a hole in the wall converted former gas station out east at Macon & Mt. Pisgah Rd., smoked all day every day by the same man, the owner. He only put up a little sign about 3 years ago or so. But plenty do know he's there, as he FedExes BBQ to people in many states. Superb!

                            Honorable mention to the Germantown Commissary, Leonard's (formerly one of the best, back in the day), Three Little Pigs, & Neely's.

                            Central BBQ does a good job with the meat, but their sauce is (at least was when I've been there) some of the worst I've ever had.

                            Corky's is the very best...at marketing. Their business model is truly to be admired. Their feaux-BQ on the other hand, I can do without. It's not a bad restaurant, just not on par with the best Memphis BBQ joints. I never choose to eat there, but do eat there when invited, and I enjoy it. It's just not what I consider to be true Q. The meat is cooked in ovens, any smoke flavor is added artificially, their ribs are "stamped" when taken out of the oven with what is basically a glorified branding iron to make them look legit. It's BBQ for those who think BBQ is a verb, or BBQ for those who don't really like BBQ.

                            But to be fair, they know how to make it right, because they did it when they won Memphis in May back in the day. And since then, they have focused their efforts on serving a decent and consistent (HUGE for a restaurant) product and marketing it into a money-making empire, and quite seriously, no one can fault them for that.

                            1. This list was written after my mom and I struck up a conversation with
                              a couple from Chattanooga at The Loveless Cafe (which did not make
                              this list...not because the food isn't good, or bad service...the
                              thing is, it's a tourist trap, and so you can get the same stuff just
                              as good and better other places for a lot cheaper). We promised to
                              exchange lists of the best food in our towns, and this is the list
                              that I sent them.

                              1) Monell's - 1235 6th Ave N, Nashville, TN. Phone 615-248-4747

                              Family style southern food, no menu. They just bring out platters of
                              delicious food and the guests pass them around. The restaurant is set
                              in an old house and there are murals on the walls inside, so it's got
                              great ambiance.

                              2) Swett's - 2725 Clifton Ave, Nashville, TN. Phone: 615-329-4418

                              Cafeteria style, more hardcore southern food then the Loveless or
                              Monell's. Get the sweet potato pie! Also, the smothered pork chop
                              and the baked chicken.

                              3) Arnold's Country Kitchen - 605 8th Ave. S., Nashville, TN. Phone:

                              Lunch only, weekdays only. Cafeteria style meat-and-three.
                              Get...Hell, get anything, just get there. Everything is made from
                              scratch and made well. Make a point to get the chess pie.

                              4) Beacon Light Tea Room - 6276 Highway 100, Bon Aqua, TN. Phone: 931-670-3880

                              This place is a hike, but it is a well-worth-the-effort hike. Best
                              biscuits and preserves I have ever tasted. Magnificent fried chicken,
                              the country ham is wonderful. Don't order dessert here (they only
                              have one dessert, an icebox pie that I really don't care for), just get
                              extra biscuits and preserves. It's a bit Jesus-y, but whatever.
                              Pretty place, nice ambiance, just don't say "Oy Vey" too loudly.

                              5) Rotier's - 2413 Elliston Place, Nashville, TN. Phone: (615) 327-9892

                              Get the grilled cheeseburger! Or the fried chicken. I've never had a
                              bad meal here. It's by Vanderbilt, and it has a very 1940's-1950's
                              feel to it. Not a theme-y feel either, it's been around since the
                              40's I think and they have never redecorated. Think old school coffee
                              shop. Don't expect efficient service, or free refills on soda as they
                              don't have a soda fountain(iced tea has free refills, though). Do
                              order dessert here.

                              6) Catfish House - 598 Sam Ridley Pkwy W, Smyrna, TN. Phone: (615) 459-3473

                              Get the catfish, fried or grilled (but I like it grilled better). Get
                              any of their seafood. The place is in the middle of the suburban
                              nightmare of chain restaurants that is Smyrna, but their food is real,
                              from scratch, and the all-you-can-eat hush puppies are delicious. If
                              you save room for dessert (and if you have room, it will be because
                              you saved it), I love their caramel pie.

                              7) The Hermitage Cafe - 71 Hermitage Ave, Nashville, TN. Phone: (615) 254-8871

                              It ain't fancy, everything isn't necessarily from scratch, and they
                              have funny hours (10 pm to 1:30 pm). However, for a burger, a BLT, a
                              bowl of chili, an omelet, or an order of pancakes at 3 am, you can't
                              beat the place with a stick. Their lunches are meat-and-three
                              (meat-and-three is either a Southern thing or a Nashville thing, it
                              basically means you pick your meat and then you pick three
                              sides...most of the best food in Nashville is meat-and-three), and the
                              lunches do have everything cooked from scratch. Don't expect
                              cheerful, efficient service. Also, you'll pay for refills on sodas
                              (but not on iced tea). If you happen to go when they have desserts
                              get one, but they don't always have desserts.

                              8) The Lazy Pig - 5234 Murfreesboro Rd, LaVergne, TN. Phone: (615) 287-1211

                              The best BBQ I have tasted since...I was born. Remember, I was born
                              in Philly and we ain't big on BBQ back home. Get the ribs, and share
                              some smoked chicken wings as an appetizer. But trust me, GET THE
                              RIBS!!! They are so luscious and tender that you could cry. The
                              place is easy to miss, it's tiny and set back a bit from the road.
                              It's a little shack with no soda fountain, so again soda refills cost,
                              but iced tea refills are free.

                              9) Sperry's - 5109 Harding Pike, Nashville, TN. Phone: (615) 353-0809

                              This is a neighborhood steakhouse in Belle Meade (an old, tony section
                              of Nashville) with lovely food. It is NOT cheap, think
                              steakhouse prices (entrees go from about $18 - $35, cooked veggies and
                              potatoes are a la carte though entrees include their salad bar). I'm
                              mentioning this place because it has a very local feel, nice ambiance,
                              and I can vouch for their prime rib and their seafood (especially the
                              halibut Oskar). If you're there and want dessert, the sticky toffee
                              pudding is wonderful.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: StrandedYankee

                                In Nashville, I second Swetts and add At The Table on 12 South. Also the food court at the Farmer's Market doesn't suck.

                                1. re: Cameraman

                                  Maybe it's just because I was lucky enough to grow up with the Reading Terminal Market back home, but to me the Nashville Farmer's Market is lame beyond lame. If I'm closeby, I might stop there if I have something to read and time to kill because it's not a bad place to sit and relax. I might grab something at the Swett's stall if I'm hungry, but for the most part the food there is nothing special. Still, you're close enough there to Monell's and to Kingfish that I usually skip the Farmer's Market.

                                  Sarah M.

                              2. I do enjoy updates and all, but has anyone noticed that this thread was started in 1999? That has to be some kind of record!

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Clarkafella

                                  LOL...I was actually a bit embarrased when I'd realized that. Since I'd already posted though, I decided to just leave it be. It's an interesting topic, though.

                                  Sarah M.