Going for the Gold

All hail the winners of the Memphis magazine restaurant poll!



In the elegant dining rooms of Restaurant Iris, Chef Kelly English presents such innovative dishes as Neola Farm marrow bones with salsa fresca and brioche (above, second left); and a “midnight snack” of shrimp, poached egg, and remoulade sauce (above right). The restaurant also boasts an award-winning wine list.

Instead of first, second, and third prizes, we offer the winners of our annual restaurant poll gold, silver, and bronze medals for a simple reason: This is the Olympics of dining in Memphis.

No other publication or organization in town offers such comprehensive dining coverage. Presented here are 45 categories, representing just about every possible dining or entertainment experience. What's more, the poll is conducted in such a way — with online ballots now, and voting safeguards (only one vote per person, that sort of thing) — that we are reassured that the results are accurate. If our readers vote that Brother Juniper's serves the best breakfast in town, for example, you won't be disappointed when you go there.

It's always a delight to look over the results. Sure, some of the old standbys are here, and deservedly so, but they share the gold with many new establishments. The restaurant scene is alive and well in Memphis, and for proof of that, just visit any of the winners of our poll.

Congratulations to all the winners.

Bon appetit!

[Restaurant Iris]
Best Restaurant, Best Chef, Best Service, Best Wine List, Best Ambience, Best Place To Impress
The perfectly named Restaurant Iris is a culinary crossroads where local ingredients and regional delicacies are filtered through Chef Kelly English's personal impressions of growing up in Louisiana.

It was a stained-glass Iris adorning the elegant old house at 2146 Monroe that first caught the young chef's eye. The Iris was a meaningful omen for English, who was born in Baton Rouge and grew up rooting for the Saints through good times and bad. In New Orleans, where he worked under celebrity chef John Bash, the fleur de lis — a stylized representation of Tennessee's state flower — is a ubiquitous presence and constant reminder of Louisiana's French heritage. For a thoughtful chef like English, who places so much emphasis on history, memory, and family traditions, the window was a perfect sign from above, assuring him that this storied Midtown address — well known to local foodies as the former home of La Tourelle, the eatery that brought chefs like Cullen Kent, Gene Bjorklund, and Erling Jensen to Memphis — was exactly where he needed to be.

There's nothing remotely fussy about English, and that may be the chef's secret weapon in the kitchen. In 2009, when he was singled out as one of America's best new chefs by Food & Wine magazine, English said the honor reflected the quality of his staff. When asked to cite inspirations or explain his approach to cuisine, he typically credits his father or grandmother before launching into another hunger-inducing monologue about humble, home-style dishes like stuffed merlitons, or grits and grillades. English is the rare chef with nothing to prove. He knows who he is, where he's from, and where he lives. That confidence and respect for traditions over trends is evident to anybody fortunate enough to taste his Natchitoches meat pie or his fried boudin, a savory house-made pudding.

Author and critic Dorothy Parker once wrote that one cannot think well, love well, or sleep well if one has not first dined well.  If you live in
Memphis you probably haven't dined well unless you've ordered a second round of sazerac cocktails at Restaurant Iris, while deciding between the lobster "knuckle sandwich" or a salad of brussels sprouts and bacon. — Chris Davis

[SWEET GRASS]
Best New Restaurant
If you didn't know about Coastal Carolina cuisine before, you do now. Chef Ryan Trimm of Sweet Grass has made sure of that, bringing to Memphis his popular blend of home-style Southern favorites like shrimp and grits, and coastal culinary delights like oyster stew and Carolina mustard barbecued yellowfin. The newest star on the Cooper-Young restaurant scene, Sweet Grass is the winner of both Memphis Flyer and Memphis magazine's Best New Restaurant award. Although the menu changes seasonally, you should be able to get your hands on the goat cheese croutons — a decadent treat atop the local field greens salad and the grilled vegetable plate. With starters as pleasing as these, you can imagine the gustatory delight of braised rabbit, cornbread stuffed quail, and locally sourced Newman Farms pork Osso Bucco. The menu consists of small, medium, and large plates — to suit your large appetite or set up perfectly for sharing — and the ambiance is upscale casual, making for an elegant meal well within any price range. The full bar provides the perfect happy-hour spot, and weekend brunch hours satisfy the late-morning epicurean. No wonder Memphis is so taken with this charming little corner restaurant. — Hannah Sayle

[Bhan Thai]
Best Thai
For years, Memphians have voted Bhan Thai as their favorite place to get tum yum soup, perfectly blended curries, and pad thai specialties. Perhaps it's the warm, elegant atmosphere inside a turn-of-the-century home, offset with trendy design. Or maybe it's the personable service, from a waitstaff well-versed on what they're serving. All factors considered, the focus is definitely on the food.

Chef Alex Kasmrijan and Owner Molly Smith have collaborated to create a menu that is both inventive and traditional, with no room left over for mediocrity. The list of mouthwatering combinations goes on and on: coconut soup and Thai salads, spicy curries and authentic noodle dishes. The appetizer menu itself is extensive (the satay and Thai toast are especially delicious), making it the perfect setting for light fare and drinks as well as a full meal.

Considering the entrees makes coming to a dinner decision next to impossible. Precisely paired spices and sauces come with loads of vegetables, and all dishes have the option of being made with beef, chicken, pork, or tofu. Speaking of tofu, I must compliment Mr. Kasmrijan on the Kee Mao from my last visit. More magnificently tender and flavorful tofu has never been prepared.

The best thing about Bhan Thai (besides the excellent tofu) is the balance the chefs achieve between cool and extra-hot palates, while keeping every dish light, healthy, and ultimately satisfying. Pleasing diners around town since 2002, this superbly coordinated restaurant will likely be around well into the future. — Ashley Johnston

[FOLK'S FOLLY]
Best Steak
One of the many reasons we applaud Folk's Folly's perennial win for best steak in Memphis is the irony of its name. In 1977, when Humphrey Folk decided to convert a house in East Memphis into a USDA prime steakhouse, his friends were less than optimistic. The restaurant's name was a nod to their good-natured ribbing. More than 30 years later, Folk's Folly is getting the last laugh. Renowned for its customer service and tender and delicious steaks, the locally owned restaurant has a hand-cut for everyone: petit filet mignon, 16-ounce New York Strip, or the monster-size Cowboy rib-eye. Even better, the steaks at Folk's Folly are served with a choice of enhancers such as Maker's Mark peppercorn sauce or crab meat Bearnaise. Vegetables are a la carte, including potatoes prepared nine different ways. (Good luck deciding between au gratin and garlic and leek mashed!)

With such expertise from the kitchen, it's no wonder Folk's Folly is a top pick for closing the deal, be it personal or professional. The restaurant's assortment of private dining rooms can accommodate an intimate romantic rendezvous or an exuberant company Christmas party. Equally appealing is the restaurant's retro piano bar, where Charlotte Hunt (Monday through Thursday) and Larry Cunningham (Fridays and Saturday) spin magic on the ivories, a charming backdrop to conversation, cocktails, and fried dill pickles, served complimentary with every drink. If the appeal of Folk's Folly still can't move you from the comfort of your couch, check out the Prime Cut Shoppe, where the same steaks served in the restaurant are sold on-site and online. — Pam Denney

[OWEN BRENNAN'S]
Best Sunday Brunch, Best Cajun/Creole
If you've never indulged in brunch at Owen Brennan's you need to raise your decadence bar. Starting at 10 every Sunday morning, what a stunning spread you'll find. Numerous stations groan with everything from Belgian waffles, eggs Sardou, omelets, cheesy hashbrowns, and stone-ground grits, to smoked salmon, cold boiled shrimp, fried catfish (yes!), and seafood newburg — and those are just the highlights, folks. You'll be groaning right along with the laden tables, but loving every minute.

Owen Brennan's also grabs the gold for best Cajun/Creole cuisine. Among the specialties are pasta jambalaya, a hearty mix of shrimp, chicken, crawfish, sausage, and Tasso ham, served over linguine in a spicy cream sauce, and the "World Famous" crawfish etouffe, swimming in a hit-the-spot roux. Steaks, seafood, salads, soups — including Creole gumbo and red beans and rice — round out the menu. And don't miss such appetizers as New Orleans Cajun shrimp, fried eggplant medallions with a lively sauce, and Oysters Bienville and Rockefeller — truly meals in themselves.

Brennan's also draws diners with its Express Lunch (try my favorite, the zesty shrimp Creole; it'll make your tastebuds sing), lunch specials (including Muffuletta Monday), and breakfast that's served all day, featuring eggs Benedict and eggs Victoria. And for dessert? Bourbon Street bread pudding, Bananas Foster, Blonde Brownie in a hazelnut cream sauce . . . enough said. — Marilyn Sadler

[BROTHER JUNIPER'S]
Best Breakfast
Other restaurants around town may complain that it's really not fair that Brother Juniper's wins the "Best Breakfast" category on a regular basis these days since — let's face it — that's pretty much all they serve.

But oh, what a breakfast it is. Start off with the usual fare: eggs and bacon and sausage and biscuits. Add in a nice selection of cereals, waffles, yogurt, or pancakes. Not filled up? Then move on to the three-egg omelets — almost 20 different kinds, including "Fahim's Favorite," stuffed with tofu, green peppers, green onions, mushrooms, olives, tomatoes, and more.

Still hungry? Then dig into Brother Juniper's amazing open-face omelets. Food guru Rachael Ray's top choice was the "San Diegan," with its enticing combination of eggs, bacon, two kinds of cheese, served on a bed of sour cream and home fries. But if that doesn't hit the spot, you have your choice of other unique and regional varieties: Pacific Northwest, Off the Border, Desperado, Bulldog, Coastal Delight, and (for the nearby U of M crowd), the Hungry Tiger.

Still not enough for you? Then try five varieties of special potato dishes, served with black beans, sour cream, choriza sausage, and more. Top that off with sides like "Kate's Fancy Fries," grits, country ham, cinnamon rolls, banana nut bread, and even entire loaves of home-baked bread.

If you still have the strength, wash it all down with coffee, espresso, juice, or tea and yes — we'd say you've got yourself the best breakfast in town. — Michael Finger

[ Best Memphis Chef ]
GOLD: Kelly English
SILVER: Ryan Trimm
BRONZE: (tie) Ben Smith and Erling Jensen

[ BEST New Restaurant ]
GOLD: Sweet Grass
SILVER: (tie) Thyme Bistro, Trolley Stop Market, and Three Angels Diner

[ BEST Restaurant ]
GOLD: Restaurant Iris
SILVER: (tie) Sweet Grass and Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen
BRONZE: Napa Café

[ Best Pizza ]
(Not Fast-Food)
GOLD: Memphis Pizza Café
SILVER: Trolley Stop Market
BRONZE: Garibaldi's

[ BEST Mexican ]
GOLD: El Porton
SILVER: Las Delicias
BRONZE: Molly's La Casita

[ BEST Chinese ]
GOLD: Wang's
SILVER: A-Tan
BRONZE: P.F. Chang's

[ BEST Japanese ]
GOLD: Sekisui
SILVER: Sakura
BRONZE: Sekisui — Pacific Rim

[ BEST Indian ]
GOLD: India Palace
SILVER: Mayuri
BRONZE: Golden India

[ BEST Italian ]
GOLD: Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen
SILVER: Pete & Sam's
BRONZE: Bari

[ BEST Vietnamese ]
GOLD: Saigon Le
SILVER: Pho Saigon
BRONZE: Lotus

[ BEST Thai ]
GOLD: Bhan Thai
SILVER: Bangkok Alley
BRONZE: Jasmine

[ BEST Continental ]
GOLD: Paulette's
SILVER: Currents
BRONZE: (tie) Restaurant Iris and Erling Jensen

[ BEST Cajun / Creole ]
GOLD: Owen Brennan's
SILVER: Bayou Bar & Grill
BRONZE: Restaurant Iris

[ BEST Oysters ]
GOLD: Pearl's Oyster House
SILVER: The Half Shell
BRONZE: Sharky's Gulf Grill

[ BEST Deli ]
GOLD: Bogie's Deli
SILVER: Fino's from the Hill
BRONZE: (tie) Jason's Deli and Lenny's

[ BEST Burger ]
(Not Fast-Food)
GOLD: Huey's
SILVER: Belmont Grill
BRONZE: Interim

[ BEST Fries ]
(Not Fast-Food)
GOLD: Huey's
SILVER: Young Avenue Deli
BRONZE: Houston's

[ BEST Steak ]
GOLD: Folk's Folly
SILVER: Ruth's Chris Steakhouse
BRONZE: Fleming's Prime Steakhouse

[ BEST Seafood ]
(Not Fast-Food)
GOLD: Tsunami
SILVER: Bonefish Grill
BRONZE: Half Shell

[ BEST Barbecue Sandwich ]
GOLD: Central BBQ
SILVER: Corky's
BRONZE: The B-B-Q Shop

[ BEST Barbecue Ribs ]
GOLD: The Rendezvous
SILVER: Central BBQ
BRONZE: Corky's

[ BEST Fried Chicken ]
GOLD: Gus's Fried Chicken
SILVER: Popeye's
BRONZE: Jack Pirtle's

[ BEST Salad ]
GOLD: Houston's
SILVER: Napa Café
BRONZE: Huey's

[ BEST Breakfast ]
GOLD: Brother Juniper's College Inn
SILVER: Blue Plate Café
BRONZE: Bryant's

[ BEST Coffee ]
GOLD: Starbucks
SILVER: Republic Coffee
BRONZE: Otherlands

[ BEST Place to Satisfy a Sweet Tooth ]
GOLD: Muddy's
SILVER: YoLo
BRONZE: Paulette's

[ BEST Place for People-Watching ]
GOLD: The Peabody
SILVER: Flying Saucer
BRONZE: Young Avenue Deli

[ BEST Late-Night Dining ]
GOLD: Huey's
SILVER: Belmont Grill
BRONZE: Three Angels Diner

[ BEST Patio Dining ]
GOLD: Boscos
SILVER: Bhan Thai
BRONZE: (tie) Houston's and Majestic Grille

[ BEST Ambience ]
GOLD: Restaurant Iris
SILVER: (tie) Napa Café and Currents
BRONZE: Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen

[ BEST Service ]
GOLD: Restaurant Iris
SILVER: Muddy's Bake Shop
BRONZE: Currents

[ BEST Place to Impress ]
GOLD: Restaurant Iris
SILVER: The Rendezvous
BRONZE: (tie) Currents and Erling Jensen

[ BEST Restaurant We Miss ]
GOLD: Jarrett's
SILVER: Justine's
BRONZE: Anderton's East

[ BEST Brunch ]
GOLD: Owen Brennan's
SILVER: Restaurant Iris
BRONZE: Majestic Grille

[ BEST Business Dinner ]
GOLD: Folk's Folly
SILVER: Restaurant Iris
BRONZE: Napa Café

[ BEST Catering ]
GOLD: Another Roadside Attraction
SILVER: Wade and Co.
BRONZE: Hog Wild

[ BEST Chain Restaurant ]
GOLD: Houston's
BRONZE: Carrabba's
BRONZE: Bonefish Grill

[ BEST Category We Left Out ]
GOLD: Best Soul Food
SILVER: Best Vegetarian
BRONZE: Best Sushi
 

[Bar picks]

[ Hippest Bar ]
GOLD: Molly Fontaine
SILVER: Bardog Tavern
BRONZE: Interim

[ Happy Hour ]
GOLD: Bardog Tavern
SILVER: Grove Grill
BRONZE: Flying Saucer

[ BEST Place to Watch the Game ]

GOLD: Fox and Hound
SILVER: Buffalo Wild Wings
BRONZE: Brookhaven Pub

[ BEST Dive Bar ]
GOLD: Alex's Tavern
SILVER: The Cove
BRONZE: Earnestine & Hazel's

[ BEST Martinis ]
GOLD: Bari
SILVER: Automatic Slim's
BRONZE: Side Street

[ BEST Bloody Mary ]
GOLD: Molly's La Casita
SILVER: (tie) Happy Mexican and Swanky's Taco
BRONZE: Café Olé

[ BEST Wine List ]
GOLD: Restaurant Iris
SILVER: (tie) Bari and Fleming's
BRONZE: Napa Café

[BEST Beer Selection ]
GOLD: Flying Saucer
SILVER: Young Avenue Deli
BRONZE: Boscos

[ RULES ]

To take the gold, winners had to receive at least 10 percent of the total votes cast.
Silver and bronze winners had to draw at least 5 percent of the total votes.
We called it a tie if the results were within three votes.
Ballots had to be at least 50 percent complete to be counted, and only one ballot per household and computer was allowed.

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