There’s a commercial that runs occasionally on Memphis television: Memphis: The Comeback. The exact meaning of this 60-second spot is open to interpretation, but after a recent couple of days there, the message is pretty clear to me.
It’s a two-highway (Interstates 30 and 40) drive from Fort Worth and just about 480 miles.
You can suit your own interests in Memphis. A blues weekend? Sure. An Elvis weekend? You bet — there’s even a Memphis map just for Elvis fans. A foodie trip? No problem — and that can be done by eating just barbecue and fried chicken.
During my stay, I found that Memphis provides the perfect mix of history and hipness. Even if you’ve gone to Memphis in the past few years, you haven’t seen it all. A comeback trip is worthwhile because the attractions are always changing and updating.
This time around, my traveling companion and I focused on the major attractions, eating at the familiar standbys and up-and-comers and staying at the city’s most iconic hotel: the Peabody. Here are some of the highlights of an excursion that won’t be our last.
First, a confession. One of us is a huge Elvis fan, but didn’t know that Elvis attended his prom at the Peabody, or that his record contract with RCA was signed at the Peabody on Peabody stationery. That’s all true, though, and that contract is on display in the hotel’s memorabilia room on the mezzanine.
The hotel is hard to top. It’s a perfect mix of history and modern amenities, located in the heart of downtown and within walking distance of Beale Street. It dates to 1925. When you enter the lobby, you feel like you’re stepping back in time. Think tuxedo-clad piano players, water features and classic furnishings.
The ground floor includes Lansky Brothers, a Memphis landmark. Elvis (see a pattern here?) shopped at the original Lansky’s location on Beale Street.
A fun attraction is the daily march of the Peabody ducks to John Philip Sousa’s King Cotton March, which has been happening there since 1933.
A tour of the Peabody should include the skybox where the Peabody ducks reside. You also can catch a rooftop view of the city and see Arkansas across the Mississippi River.
The historic feel of this place carries over into the rooms, only with a twist. While the hotel is traditional, the rooms are transitional, easily blending elements from old and new eras. Ornate chandeliers are paired with motion-sensor nightlights and reading lights built into the headboards.
Our plan was to concentrate on the major attractions, but we kept adding to the list because the city has so many options.
The first stop was Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. More confessions: Although one of us doesn’t like to eat meat off the bone, an exception was made at Gus’s. We both ate for around $25, and that included an appetizer of fried pickles. Next time, we’ll skip the pickles and save more room for the chicken. It was hot, it was spicy, and it made one of us declare it to be the best fried chicken ever.
We also knew barbecue was a must-have. We went traditional and scheduled dinner at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous. We had ribs and brisket. The atmosphere is fine. The history is fine. The food was just OK. Rendezvous is a must-try for first-timers, but it may be a last-timer for this traveling duo.
Locals told us that Central BBQ was the place to go. After we heeded their advice, we knew why. Located across the street from the National Civil Rights Museum, Central BBQ was just what we were looking for. It’s known for its pork ribs, but the brisket was also good. So was the macaroni and cheese.
We ventured off the grid for our last major meal and went to an area that resembles West Seventh Street in Fort Worth to eat at Hog & Hominy in East Memphis. It was named by GQ as one of the 12 Most Outstanding Restaurants of 2013. The place specializes in Italian food with a Southern twist. There are plenty of small plates, and we sampled as many as we could, including poutine with neckbone gravy, Brussels sprouts with ham, and biscuit gnocchi with chicken, celery, carrots and onions.
The place was packed so there was a little bit of a wait, but the food was worth it. Hog & Hominy is different from old standbys, but it fits perfectly with the city’s mix of historical and hip offerings.
In addition to our dining, we were pleasantly surprised to find that Memphis has a solid craft beer scene. Of locally brewed beers such as Ghost River, Wiseacre, High Cotton and Memphis Made, Ghost River was our favorite, and a few bottles may have even traveled back to Texas with us.
Of course, there’s the requisite trip to Graceland. Did I mention that one of the travelers is a pretty big Elvis fan?
It’s important to mention that some things may have changed at Graceland since you or even someone who’s already been to the mansion a dozen times (don’t judge) last visited. The tours are done with iPads now. The technology is great, but the setup is a little cumbersome, as the headphones can get tangled with the iPads. You can hear stories about the mansion that you may not know, but there are times when you may be paying more attention to the tablet than to the Jungle Room.
Also, you can visit the Elvis Archives, which is a basically a big barn behind the mansion that draws 600,000 people annually. You sit in a theater and get a big-screen view of some stuff that isn’t on display in the mansion.
The day we went, we saw Elvis’ first professional photos, some checks he signed, a remote control he had for his television in 1957 and his first portable phone. It was in a big briefcase along with directions written by Elvis. A recent addition, the archives are a cool touch for purists, and we’re told that it’s new enough that George Klein, who was one of Elvis’ best friends, hasn’t even visited it yet.
Another stop for tourists and Elvis geeks alike (it’s a compliment) is a trip to Sun Studio, where Elvis was discovered and which is considered one of the birthplaces of rock ’n’ roll. You get a glimpse into the history of the studio in the 40-minute tour and find out that more artists than Elvis recorded there. You can pose with the microphone that Elvis used, too, which should be a highlight for any man, woman or child.
But like so much else in Memphis, there is a new twist on the tour for those who’ve already done it. The studio where radio disc jockey Dewey Phillips first played That’s All Right has been moved from its original spot in the Chisca Hotel to Sun Studio. It was done piece by piece and, by itself, is well worth the $12 admission.
And, of course, there’s Beale Street, which is two blocks of blues and food and touristy stuff. The night we visited, the street was quiet, but that’s not always the case. The Memphis Grizzlies play at the FedExForum, which is on Beale Street.
The good news is that the street is closed to traffic, so you can walk or stumble from one restaurant or bar to another. Beale Street, the official home of the blues, has a Hard Rock Cafe and B.B. King’s Blues Club, which were the busiest places on the Friday night we visited.
If downtown Memphis isn’t for you, other areas cater to the young and hip. One is Overton Square (www.overtonsquare.com). It’s about the size of Fort Worth’s West Seventh Street area, only with more live music. Another is the Cooper-Young area (http://cooperyoung.com), which may have stolen Memphis’ should-be slogan, “historically hip.” Pretty much everything in that area is located at the intersection of Cooper Street and Young Avenue. Hip or not, at least it makes sense.
The most interesting non-Elvis attraction we visited was the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. “Powerful” is the best word I can use for this museum experience. You enter just to the left of the Lorraine Motel balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The self-guided tour, which took us three hours on a not-crowded day, is unbelievable.
Even if you’ve been before, you should make another trip, as last year the museum was updated to make it more hands-on. Touch screens give you a better idea of the civil rights struggle. There are replicas of burning buses and the bus Rosa Parks sat in. The tour also includes a trip to the motel room where King was staying the day he was killed.
Across the street, there’s more to the tour with the “Legacy” exhibits, which dig deeper into the assassination. The gun James Earl Ray used to kill the civil rights icon is there, as a well as the bullet. It’s eerie, but interesting — like Dallas’ Sixth Floor Museum, but with more details.
If you travel to Memphis in the next year or so, you can visit the new Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid, slated to open this spring. Imagine a Bass Pro on steroids, located inside the newly renovated Pyramid. For the outdoorsman whose dream is to live in Bass Pro Shops, this location inside a 100-room hotel is about as good as it gets.
For the music lover, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame also opens this spring, along with the Blues Hall of Fame. The Memphis Music hall will be in the old Lansky Brothers building on Beale Street. (Did I mention that’s where Elvis used to shop?) The Blues Hall of Fame will be across the street from the Civil Rights Museum.
The Guest House at Graceland, a 450-room hotel that will cater to Elvis fans, opens in spring 2016. Priscilla Presley reportedly has a hand in the VIP suites. More importantly, the new place will help boost the area around Graceland, which could use some help.
Elvis in Fort Worth
The touring production of Elvis Lives makes a stop at Bass Hall in Fort Worth this week. The multimedia and live musical show spans the icon’s life and features the 2009, 2013 and 2014 winners of the annual worldwide Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest: Bill Cherry, Dean Z and Jay Dupuis.
Representing Elvis during three stages of his career, the artists will be accompanied by an Ann-Margret tribute artist. The show includes content from the Graceland archives and an exhibit of life-size images of Elvis’ stagewear in the lobby.
▪ 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
▪ Bass Hall, Fort Worth
▪ 817-212-4280; www.basshall.com
Really, the tagline below says it all. Or, at least, those three little letters — HDM — that appear behind my name.
You see, I’m an honorary Duckmaster, which is an official title with a seal and all that. It allows me to sign my name with the all-important HDM at the end. Even so, I’m nowhere near as cool as Anthony Petrina, who has been the Duckmaster at the Peabody Memphis since 2011.
Petrina is in charge of the Peabody Duck March. Promptly at 11 a.m., a small family of ducks makes a daily march from its life of luxury in the $200,000 Royal Duck Palace on the hotel roof to a fountain in the lobby. The ducks spend their afternoons swimming in the fountain and entertaining guests. At 5 p.m., they take to the red carpet again, marching to the waiting elevator that takes them back to the palace.
They do all this under the direction of Petrina, who takes his job as the Duckmaster quite seriously.
“It can get kind of crazy,” said Petrina, who is the fifth Duckmaster the hotel has had since 1940. “This isn’t a job you can turn down. When the general manager calls you and says, ‘Hey, you want to be the Duckmaster?’ You absolutely do.”
The tradition of the Peabody ducks dates to the 1930s when the general manager and a friend put live duck decoys in the fountain after a weekend hunting trip. The reception to the ducks was so positive that they decided to keep them.
In 1940, Edward Pembroke took over as the first Duckmaster and did the job for 50 years. People (including many celebrities) flock to the hotel to see the ducks march. If you don’t mind a little name-dropping, you might enjoy knowing that Michael Jordan, Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Carter are just a few notables who have seen the parade.
The ducks come from the same family — or at least, the same local farm (the name of which is kept secret) — and each group stays at the hotel for three months before heading back to the farm and switching places with another set of honorary residents of the Peabody. There are always five ducks in residence — one drake and four hens — and hotel officials say they always return to the farm rather than landing on someone’s table.
Petrina says they are wild ducks, so he and the other caretakers don’t name them or feed them like pets. He is merely there to guide and lead them, often with the assistance of an honorary Duckmaster. The HDM gets a proclamation and a cane to go along with the job of helping lead the duck procession, which is choreographed down to the second.
So how do you train ducks to march?
“It takes patience more than anything else,” he said. “Patience and repetition. As long as I have the doors open and am making sure the ducks are staying together and moving their way across the rooftop, I can train them in a few days, no problem.”
Even though the ducks are trained, they do have minds of their own. They don’t always head straight to the fountain and they can occasionally take flight.
“I almost lost my team down the Mississippi River once, but they turned right around and came back,” Petrina said.
— Anthony Andro, HDM
If you go
Where to stay
The Peabody Memphis, 149 Union Ave., 901-529-4000; www.peabodymemphis.com
▪ Central BBQ: 147 E. Butler Ave., 901-672-7760; http://cbqmemphis.com
▪ Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous: 52 S. Second St., 901-523-2746; www.hogsfly.com
▪ Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, 310 S. Front St., 901-527-4877; http://gusfriedchicken.com
▪ Hog & Hominy: 707 W. Brookhaven Circle, 901-207-7396; www.hogandhominy.com
▪ Beale Street: www.bealestreet.com
▪ Graceland: 3734 Elvis Presley Blvd., 800-238-2000; www.graceland.com
▪ National Civil Rights Museum: 450 Mulberry St., 901-521-9699; http://civilrightsmuseum.org
▪ Sun Studio: 706 Union Ave., 800-441-6249; www.sunstudio.com