When Little Rockers think of Memphis, thoughts of barbecue, Elvis or even Ikea often come to mind, but there's a new scene happening that is worth the drive. A few blocks south of Beale Street, the South Main Arts District is having a revival and mastering the balance of preserving its rich history while welcoming a new era.
The district unofficially begins at Arcade Restaurant, Memphis’ oldest cafe that still draws a crowd big enough for a line out the door, even on a rainy Thursday morning. At the other end of Main sits the historic Orpheum Theatre, known for its gilded interior and impressive Broadway lineups.
Between those two anchors is the National Civil Right Museum at the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968. After his assisnation, the motel fell into disrepair before reopening as the National Civil Right Museum in 1991. Now listed as a Smithsonian Affiliate Museum, it's a necessary experience both for those who've never seen it and for those who welcome the reminder.
The motel’s facade has been historically restored to look as it did on that tragic day, a wreath now hanging from the second floor balcony where King was shot. The interior of the motel has been transformed to house the museum’s exhibits, which are a timeline of the American Civil Rights Movement from slavery through 1968. Artifacts, film and interactive media tell the stories of Jim Crow, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and other monumental fights for freedom and equal rights.
Across the street from the museum is one of the area’s boutique hotels, Arrive. With vintage-inspired floral wallpaper mixed with concrete floors and iron accents, Arrive is the definition of industrial chic. The hotel is welcoming with velvet chairs and worn leather sofas arranged in cozy conversation areas throughout the lobby, with full bar service available in the evenings. Arrive is also the home of Hustle & Dough, a bakery and cafe, and Vice & Virtue Coffee, which makes mornings at the hotel all the better.
Restaurant options abound in the South Main Arts District and include Memphis staples like Pearl’s Oyster House and Central BBQ alongside new favorites like Bedrock Eats & Sweets, a health conscious cafe that feels more like a divey diner. This fully gluten-free cafe specializes in waffles like s’mores waffles for the sweet tooth or a waffle grilled cheese for a savory craving.
Of all the restaurants in the area, Catherine & Mary’s best represents what is currently happening in the South Main Arts District: blending the past with the present. Memphis restaurateurs and James Beard-nominated chefs Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman opened Catherine & Mary’s, which is named for their grandmothers and showcases their families' Tuscan and Sicilian cooking traditions.
Like many spots in this area, Catherine & Mary’s has an industrial feel with a large warehouse-style dining room and exposed concrete walls, yet somehow the space feels warm and inviting like the family atmosphere Ticer and Hudman intended. The rigatoni is served with "Maw Maw’s gravy," and rumor has it the recipe is so guarded that a trusted family member comes in weekly to make it. Combining those heirloom cooking philosophies with the owners' proven ability to create modern dining experiences has created the district’s most impressive restaurant.
One block off of Main and across the street from the legendary Gus’s Fried Chicken is Old Dominick Distillery. With Memphis roots dating back more than 100 years, the distillery offers an impressive collection of whiskey, vodka and gin, as well as daily tours and tastings. Their lobby bar is open to the public and serves cocktails made exclusively with their own spirits. The bar overlooks the distillery’s pristine operating floor and keeps a steady supply of Memphis Toddy, Old Dominick’s signature infused bourbon.
The Central Station Hotel is the area’s newest hospitality option and the current crown jewel of the district. Originally built as a passenger terminal, the train station has been transformed into one of the city’s trendiest spots to congregate. Memphis’ rich musical history is not lost on this hotel. The station’s lower concourse was transformed into a midcentury modern lounge complete with a two-story, 40,000 record collection for the resident deejay to choose from.
Bishop, another Ticer and Hudmon eatery, is located in Central Station. The French brasserie-inspired restaurant is moody with dark walls and velvet banquets. Touches of Parisian style dot the space and everyone seems to dress the part, while the French-influenced menu and wine list add to the swankiness of the space.
South Main Street is steadily bringing new energy to old spaces and is creating a unique destination — one where you can stay, eat, shop, learn and be entertained. Memphis has long been the inspiration for music, movies and literature. There is something special about this river city that too often is forgotten, and the South Main Arts District reminds us it's still there.