Story and photos by Betsy Marvin
We sit gazing at the opulent lobby of the Peabody, “the city’s living room,” waiting to grab a cab for the airport. Back in 1935, David Cohn in God Shakes Creation described the space:
“The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg . . . If you stand near its fountain in the middle of the lobby, where the ducks waddle and turtles drowse, you will see everybody who is anybody in the Delta.”
Certainly it’s a place that feels special, (but no turtles anymore!) and it’s hard to leave. By now guests have begun to gather for the grand exit of the ducks. I think this is where we came in.
It’s been an extraordinary weekend. We capped Friday with dinner at the Peabody’s own Chez Philippe, an elegant little restaurant with the best service I can remember anywhere in America.
The young men never told us their names, never called us “you guys,” did not respond to our appreciation with, “No problem!” and were gracious, polite, skilled and knowledgeable. And the three-course dinner delighted as only something exceptional can. The fixed-price menu ($70) offered a lengthy but not overwhelming variety; Chuck had the ostrich while I had some beautiful Weathervane scallops for the main course; we sipped soups, red pepper bisque and a fresh pea cream soup, to begin, and a three-cheese tray and a bittersweet chocolate banana tart to finish. The waiter brought us a few handmade candies for a finish, and then, as we left, cellophane bags of muffins for morning.
We boarded the elevator and passed our floor en route to the rooftop, where the elegant “Duck Palace” sits, with a glassed-in back porch for visiting the ducks. Here we discovered not only the five (one drake and five hens) we’d met downstairs, but another set of five; apparently they alternate. They and their guests look west over the Mississippi, and all around at the city. The night view was magical.
After breakfast we headed west on foot, bound for the famous Sun Studio, where a teen-aged boy walked in one summer day in 1953 to pay three dollars to make a recording “for his mother.” The place was in dire straits, and, once they called him back to sing again, Elvis Presley became its savior.
A tour of the studio and adjoining museum includes some of the early recordings, including his first, and the indestructible microphone he used is still there, available for tourist pictures and pretense. Photos of Sun stars line the walls, and a blown-up picture of a spontaneous meeting there of Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, called “The Million Dollar Quartet,” occupies a prime spot.
The free shuttle run by the studio carried us back, and we took a walk through the old downtown, past elegant 1920s skyscrapers, many now boarded up. Up and down Main Street we strolled, along the trolley tracks, enjoying the sound and sight of the colorful trams. After lunch we boarded one for a dollar each, and rode south to the South Main Historic Arts District, home of galleries, coffee shops and most important, the National Civil Rights Museum. The facility, a part of the Smithsonian Institution, comprises the old Lorraine Motel, where on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. fell victim to an assassin’s bullet, as well as an annex for the entrance and a museum store.
On a warm spring Saturday, throngs of visitors lingered in front of the large white wreath that marks the spot King had stood on the balcony near his motel room, now part of the display. It’s the only window with the drapes open, situated at about the center of the building.
Inside, exhibits tell the story of civil rights in America, from the hundreds of years of slavery and struggle, through the protests and activism of the mid-twentieth century, up to the progress and challenges of the present. Educational programs and events frequently use this museum, and the streams of visitors from all over the world attest to the significance of its focus.
Up the hill, where it’s a bit more quiet, the Bluff City coffee shop serves lattes and cappuccinos under historic photographs of Memphis streets around 1950. On the last Friday of the month, from 6 to 9 p.m., the area hosts Trolley Night, with boutiques and galleries open and free trolley rides. This year-round event draws shoppers, art lovers and tourists.
Without having done much research on Memphis barbecue, we followed the advice of several Memphians and walked half a block up an alley to Rendezvous around six that evening. The restaurant’s popularity was apparent from the corner, with some fifty hungry would-be diners milling around the modest entrance. After a reconnoiter into the crowded, noisy rooms, we were directed downstairs where we found a couple of cheerful young women taking names for their list. They told us it would be around 35 minutes, and we thought that was okay and returned to the alley.
Time passed quickly, with so many interesting folks to watch, and shortly after we re-entered to find a bench, our name was called and we were seated in a very pleasant space downstairs. We ordered ribs from the large menu, and they came with wonderful baked beans and indifferent cole slaw. We’re not connoisseurs of barbecue, despite our Kansas City upbringing, but this tasted good-but-not-great.
Afterwards we wandered south to Beale Street, to catch some Saturday night action. The bright neon signs and jazzy music provided a classic atmosphere, not Bourbon Street or Broadway or Hollywood & Vine, just very Memphis. Seeking some postcards of obscure early blues musicians, we dropped into a souvenir shop, where we struck up an ephemeral acquaintance with a dapper little guy who showed us some cards, reminisced about jazzmen he’d known, and asked us to guess his age. We were amazed when he told us it was 87, and he laughed. Up the street he sent us, to Memphis Music and Malcolm Anthony, a friendly guy who appeared to know everything about the city’s musical history. He stocks CD’s no one else has, from little known singers and bands.
Outside sidewalk bars and restaurants overflowed with patrons, tourists alone and in groups ambled from one establishment to the next, catching a bit of music at each stop. The smell of barbecue and beer hung in the air, along with blues riffs and neon light.
Imagine walking down the Mississippi River, from Cairo, Illinois, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico! We did it!
Apart from the glitzy excitement of Beale Street and Graceland, “the Birthplace of Rock and Roll,” there’s another Memphis, the “Bluff City,” “River City,” a place young Sam Clemens passed through on steamboats, and where river commerce and floods alike held sway. In tribute to the Big Muddy, the mighty Mississippi, a long island just offshore in the river has been developed as “Mud Island Park,” and there a manmade 5-block-long model of the river winds its way southerly.
Topographically accurate, the river mock-up has been carved in concrete, with all its levels and depths, and along the brick sidewalk on either side, some of the river towns are laid out as well. Streets are named, landmarks are shown, and even bridges are represented in metal bars across the river.
Near the north end are three waterfall walls, showing the paths of the tributaries, coming from nearly all but the westernmost states. For map buffs like us, this was better than any GPS. Imagine an aerial view of the river and being able to touch down and walk through it as seen from above. Quite amazing! Rangers along the way answer questions, and the gift shop sells tiny boats and rubber ducks for river races. It certainly beats any geography lessons we can recall from schooldays.
No city visit for us is complete without seeing some of the traditional residential neighborhoods, and we’d heard of a place called “Victorian Village,” somewhere east of downtown. So we hopped onto the Madison Street trolley, with a driver who admitted he’d never been on this line, and we were off on another adventure.
This trolley seemed smaller than those on the north-south line, and the seats were beautifully made of contrasting wood, carefully polished. Shiny brass fixtures added to the antique feel, as did the rattling of the car. We alighted at Orleans Street, and walked north a few blocks to find a block of lovely old mansions, most in disrepair. The Woodruff-Fontaine house, however, a tall brick structure with steep mansard roofs and arched windows, was open as a museum, and we ventured inside.
Built in 1871, the house has survived several owners, periods of elegance and times of abandonment, but is now exquisitely furnished. Down the street, another house museum, the Mallory-Neely House, some twenty years older and filled with original furnishings, remains closed for lack of funds, for the past three years.
Inquiring about an eatery nearby, we heard about Neely’s Barbecue, just around the corner. We thought we really should try another Memphis barbecue meal, for comparison, and this turned out to be the perfect spot for our final lunch there. Clearly a long-time favorite, the long lines for carry-out and the varied clientele told a story of affection and great food. The knotty pine walls and large booths made a comfortable place to meet friends over a meal, and we thought the ribs on the sampler platter we shared were meatier and tastier than those we’d tried the previous evening.
Getting back on the trolley, we greeted the same driver, by now an old hand at Madison Street, and he asked how our adventure had been. When we mentioned Neely’s, another passenger told us that Neely’s is featured on a Food Network program. No wonder it’s so popular.
And here we are, up on the mezzanine at the hotel, watching the people waiting for the ducks. And it’s time for us to leave. But there’s enough here, we just might come back!
If You Go
Public transportation in Memphis includes buses and trolleys. To get out to Graceland, Sun Studios offers a free shuttle from the studio or from the Rock’n’Soul Museum. Taxis are also available.
The Peabody Hotel
149 Union Avenue
Memphis, TN 38103
This Mobile Four-Star, AAA Four Diamond luxury hotel is a southern favorite. Amenities include a heated indoor pool, spa and 42″ flat screen televisions with premium-cable. The hotel also accepts pets up to 75 pounds in a limited number of rooms.
Bluff City Coffee Shop
505 South Main Street
Memphis, TN 38103-4458
at the Peabody Hotel
Open Tuesday – Saturday, 6 p.m – 10 p.m.
For reservations, call 901.529.4188
(East) 5700 Mt. Moriah
Memphis , TN 38115
Open 7 days a week – Lunch and Dinner
Mon – Thurs 10:30 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Fri – Sat 10:30 a.m. – 11:00 p.m.
Sunday 12 noon – 8:00 p.m.
(West) 670 Jefferson
Memphis , TN 38103
Open Monday through Saturday – Lunch and Dinner
Mon – Thurs 10:30 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Fri – Sat 10:30 a.m. – 10:00 p.m.
Sunday 11:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.
Charles Vergos’ Rendevous
52 South 2nd Street
Memphis, TN 38103-2628
901.523.2746 for the restaurant
Call 888 HOGS FLY for ordering
The restaurant ships orders via FedEx for next day arrival.
Rum Boogie Café
182 Beale Street
Memphis, TN 38103
3734 Elvis Presley Boulevard
Memphis, TN 38116
Open all year but hours are seasonal. Visit the website for tour times and prices, as they vary considerably.
Memphis Music Records Tapes
149 Beale St
Memphis, TN 38103
Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum
191 Beale Street
Memphis, TN 38103
Open daily 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. (Last tour at 6:15 p.m.)
Admission: $10 for adults, $7 for youth age 5-17
Mud Island River Park
Open April 10 – October 31
April 10 – May 28 10:00 a.m – 5:00 p.m
May 29 – September 5 10:00 a.m – 6:00 p.m
September 7 – October 31 10:00 a.m.- 5:00 p.m.
General admission to the park and Skybridge access is free.
Rountrip Monorail only – $4 per person
A Museum Package includes:
Mississippi River Museum Admission
Roundtrip Monorail Ride
Optional Guided River Walk Tour
Adults (13-59) – $10.00
Seniors (60 Plus) – $9.00
Youths (5 – 11) – $7.00
Children (4 and under) – FREE
National Civil Rights Museum
450 Mulberry Street
Memphis, TN 38103
CLOSED EVERY TUESDAY
Monday – Saturday 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Sunday 1 p.m. – 5 p.m.
Open until 6 p.m. during the summer (June-August)
Students w/ID $11.00
Children 4-17 years $9.50
106 Union Ave
Memphis, TN 38103
Open daily 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Tours are given at the bottom half of every hour from 10:30 a.m. through 5:30 p.m.
Art Trolley Tour in the South Main Historic District
6 p.m. to 9 p.m. the last Friday of every month all year, come rain or shine.
The lyrics to 1991’s “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn has all sorts of musical tidbits about Memphis and the artists who made their start in or left their mark on the city. Check out the Songfacts page for “Walking in Memphis” and see if you know all the trivia.