The Great Dining Debate

Twelve classic, established restaurants and vibrant new contenders round out the Memphis dining scene.

Photos by Rick Bostick

I've been in the middle of more than a few debates about where to find the best ribs, fried chicken, and burgers in Memphis. It's always entertaining to watch otherwise reasonable people's hackles rise and faces flush over these very serious and divisive issues, but maybe it's time to change the subject. Plenty of Memphis restaurants are just as great as the more obvious choices, and they really shouldn't be overlooked.

Some of the following places are well-loved and old school, and others are relatively new to the scene, but what they all have in common is the promise of a uniquely Memphis experience.

For a reliably stellar breakfast, head to Brother Juniper's College Inn (3519 Walker Avenue, 324-0144). From sleepy college students in pajama pants and young families out with their early-bird toddlers to local newscasters and business leaders, everyone eats here. Breakfast classics are the rule, but some detour into Greek and Mexican flavors; the sides, especially home fries and biscuits, simply make the meal.

Bryant's Breakfast (3965 Summer Avenue, 324-7494) is inviting from the get-go: it's neat as a pin with a retro feel in all its bright red, yellow, and blue glory. Not only did I get to sit by my childhood hero Jerry Lawler during a recent visit, but I also found the grits bowl and biscuits to be the ideal Southern breakfast. (Plate lunches, salads, and sandwiches are also served after 10 a.m.) In addition, the atmosphere is warm and homey, thanks to the sweet staff taking good care of everybody.

The oversized, icing-drenched, brioche cinnamon roll at Au Fond Farmtable (938 South Cooper, 274-8513) has recently proven to be a major draw, and yes, it deserves all the attention it's getting. I've tried many of the other items listed on the rustic chalkboard doors above the register -- including red-eye gravy and one memorable, airy, giant pancake — and they're also hearty and over-the-top in the best possible way. Monday night family dinner and frequent cheese tastings mid-week are other highlights in addition to breakfast and lunch.

Fino's from the Hill (1853 Madison Avenue, 272-3466) is the place to go for authentic Italian deli food. The lunchtime run on gargantuan sandwiches tightly wrapped in butcher paper is a study in expert crowd control. Any sandwich that includes the house olive dressing just can't be beat, and traditional pasta, pizza, and salads round out the menu. Tiramisu and cannoli are standard offerings, but so are inventive desserts like blueberry mascarpone cake.

Jillbilly's in the Trolley Stop Market (704 Madison Avenue, 526-1361), owned by Keith and Jill Forrester of Whitton Farms, is our new local food headquarters. When I tried the pickled beets, mashed potatoes, and purple hull peas straight from the farm and expertly cooked, it crossed my mind that everyone would eat more vegetables if they always tasted so fresh and pure. Pizza with a thin, chewy crust and a dusting of cornmeal is sold by the slice, and fresh produce and local products are sold at the Locavore Market space next to the dining area.

Kwik Chek (2013 Madison Avenue, 274-9293) may look like a regular c-store from the outside, but it functions as Midtown's semi-secret spot for the unlikely combination of killer sandwiches plus Mediterranean and Korean food. The muffalettas, gyros, and ultra-spicy Ninja and Bloody Valentine sandwiches are crowd favorites. Kimchi fried rice, bi bim bop, and pajeon, dishes once served at Petra, are offered as well on a separate new menu.

Many Memphians conjure up just about any excuse to stop by The Peabody Hotel (149 Union Avenue, 529-4000). Making a reservation for the proper English-style afternoon tea at Chez Philippe gives us yet another lovely reason to show up there. Served Wednesday through Saturday from 2 to 3:30 p.m., it includes three courses of sandwiches, scones, and sweets with some surprisingly kid-friendly choices.

Chao Praya Thai Cuisine (3588 Ridgeway Road, 366-7827) offers challenging extras like green papaya salad and black rice pudding that are just as nuanced as the fine curry and noodle dishes. The low-key atmosphere belies the fantastic food being served there, one of those rare surprises that makes dining out worthwhile. I also like the calming music and the gentle, unhurried way the servers guide customers through their orders.

Pancho's (717 North White Station Road, 685-5404) is a Memphis legend, partly due to their pepper-flecked American cheese dip, which is served cold with yellow tortilla chips. Displaced Memphians gorge on it when they're back in town, and I've heard many a suitcase-of-cheese-dip story of disaster and success. At Pancho's, chips, salsa, and cheese dip come free with any entrée order. During a recent visit, I found the straightforward Tex-Mex flavors exactly as I remembered them from years past, just like the restaurant's darkened, moody atmosphere, thick stucco walls, maze-like interior, and pretty stained glass windows.

Pete and Sam's (3886 Park Avenue, 458-0694) is the venerable, windowless, everyone-knows-you-there gathering spot for many generations of Memphians. Owned by the same family for more than 50 years, Pete and Sam's is notable for its classic and straightforward Italian pizza and pasta and, of course, the excellent Miss Vita's Salad. Having dinner here with my family and checking out the upside-down Christmas tree decorated for each holiday takes me back in time in the most comforting way.

Abyssinia (2600 Poplar Avenue #115, 321-0082) provides an instant immersion into the culture and cuisine of Ethiopia. Here you use injera, a spongy, lightly sour bread, to pick up traditionally prepared meats and beautifully spiced vegetables, and the deep jewel-colored and palette-like platters of food elicit plenty of sharing, surprise, and discussion.

Besides being haunted by its namesake ghost girl, Mollie Fontaine Lounge

(679 Adams Avenue, 524-1886)

boasts the sort of meticulous, big-time décor that'll give even the pickiest design-freak chills. From Wednesday to Saturday, it sparkles and beckons from its perch in Victorian Village and radiates a relaxed vibe inside. Cocktails and decadent small plates are served downstairs at loosely grouped conversation areas instead of boring old formal tables. 

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