If breakfast is indeed the most important meal of the day, then the Bluff City of Memphis is the place to be.
After five visits, I can safely say we look forward to breakfast more than the meals that follow. I say that knowing that this friendly city on the Mississippi River is known for its barbecue, but more on that later.
My first choice is Brother Juniper’s near the University of Memphis campus. Bypass the conventional options and go right to the “open face omelets,” of which there are seven.
Other places call these “skillets,” typically a hot mess of potatoes, sausage and gooey cheese. I picked the Desperado, consisting of sauteed tomatoes, green onions, black beans and salsa arranged over an avocado spread and topped with mozzarella and sour cream.
To my mind, the creamy avocado spread is what sets apart the Desperado. It is featured in several other of their open-face omelets.
Brother Juniper’s opens early enough but shuts off the lights at 1 p.m. most days, so don’t sleep in.
Close behind is Café Keogh in the heart of downtown Memphis. It is open until 7 Monday through Saturday and until 4:30 Sundays, but we’ve experienced as a breakfast-brunch kind of place.
In what once was a bank, the striking crown molding, big windows and terrazzo floor gives Café Keogh a special feel.
I’m a sucker for New York-style lox and bagel with capers, onion and cream cheese, but next time, I’m going to order the Bavarian breakfast – black bread, fresh fruit, brie and soft-boiled egg.
Café Keogh is coffee central, any way you like it.
Next is Blue Plate Café with locations downtown on South Court Square and out a ways on Poplar Avenue. There are fabulous pancake and waffle choices, but I want to put the emphasis on the biscuits and sausage gravy, country ham and grits. These are things that define southern breakfast.
I also can vouch for the Eggs Florentine, Eggs Benedict and French toast. Good stuff.
On our first visit, our friends the Leavitts led us to Bryant’s on Summer Avenue. Write down everyone’s choices because you order at the counter and hungry folks are waiting behind you.
Bryant’s offers all the southern morning essentials, especially killer biscuits. The sandwich with country fried steak, egg and cheese between biscuit halves puts the McDonald breakfast biscuit to shame.
Before the next visit to Bryant’s, I need to decide between cinnamon roll French toast and pancakes embedded with white chocolate chips and topped with a Nutella smear and strawberries. Hmmm.
Another place that serves classic the southern breakfast is the Arcade in the South Main Historic District.
The area thrived through the mid 1960's. With the rail depot bustling with both passenger and freight traffic, South Main was busy 24 hours a day. Police directed traffic around the clock. But railroad activity declined, businesses fled to the suburbs and Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed at the nearby Lorraine Motel.
But South Main has rebounded with a funky charm. The Arcade says it is the oldest restaurant in Memphis, opening in 1919. But the claim doesn’t hold up as the Little Tea Shop on Monroe Avenue says it opened a year earlier.
That is the perfect segue to introduce what may be Memphis’ most interesting and quirky dining venue.
And here we depart from breakfast, unless fried chicken, stuffed avocado and catfish gumbo qualify. The crunchy cornsticks would go great with scrambled eggs if the Little Tea Shop happened to go in that direction.
The walls are covered with local memorabilia, including a photo of Memphis royalty Elvis with blues legend the late B.B. King.
The Little Tea Shop’s hours are its own – 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Other notable dining stops:
Our friends took us to Bosco’s brewery and restaurant after touring the Memphis zoo. It’s in the hip Midtown area. The beer was great and so was the food. Highly recommended.
On our first visit, they took us to Hog & Hominy, where I ordered an appetizer that included pigtail morsels. We learned that the pork-loving owners, Michael Hudman and Andrew Ticer, operated another restaurant nearby, Andrew Michael’s Italian Kitchen.
This year, they said they still plan to take us there, but after seeing Hudman and Ticer’s newest attraction, Porcillino's. It is a craft butcher shop that sources meat from a 50-mile radius.
You can walk away with packaged, paper-thin slices of lamb pancetta and salami – things I’ve heard of – and of cured delights I haven’t, such as fiocco, filetto and spuma dinduja.
Porcillino’s won’t send you away hungry. Do sit to enjoy a charcuterie plate or a sandwich bearing three or four of the aforementioned salumi. I ordered one that included ham, capicola, tasso and pastrami. So much going on there I can’t even tell you.
Oh yes, the capicola is called gabagool, which is the way they say it in New Jersey. Boddabing.
All three establishments are within walking space on Brookhaven Circle, mingled among bungalows.
I’ve left the topic of barbecue until now to allow time to consider precisely which words to set forth.
First, it has been some time since barbecue – meat smoked “low and slow” – was the exclusive domain of Memphis, Kansas City, St. Louis, Lexington and other places in the South and West. I can source excellent ‘cue at a half-dozen outlets within 70 miles of my Grand Blanc residence.
I have dined at eight barbecue joints in and around Memphis. There are at least a half-dozen more to try. From that limited experience, I have concluded some Memphis barbecuers are leaning back somewhat on past laurels. Defenders may say, well, we do what we do the way we do it, take it or leave it. Fair enough.
If you only go to one place, make it the Rendezvous downtown. It’s got all the history in the world, employs veteran male servers who go about their work efficiently and turns out delicious ribs that go against the model of what Memphis barbecue is supposed to be, or perhaps was.
The Greeks who founded the Rendezvous didn’t subscribe to the so-called Memphis barbecue tenants of hardwood smoking and sweet sauce. They use natural gas and charcoal, cook at a higher temperature and shun a glossy sauce for a rub including things as celery seed, oregano and marjoram, although the recipe is officially a secret.
We will return to the Bluff City next spring to continue barbecue sampling, go back to some favorite eateries and depend on our friends to lead us to the new and the tasty.