I love Memphis. I’ve been in Nashville for nearly nine years, but Memphis will always be my home and I love it dearly.
In those nine years, a lot has changed. It’s gotten a lot more veg*n-friendly. There are even several vegan restaurants as well as more restaurants that have vegetarian and vegan options. But I rarely go anywhere new. There are just so many restaurants that I love and always like to visit every time I go back because they feel like home. Here are my favorites.
The Arcade – Memphis’s oldest restaurant and a popular film location. It’s downtown in the South Main Historic District (walking distance from the Civil Rights Museum). I love their lunch, too but I really love the breakfast. Sweet potato pancakes! And it’s just an awesome place. If you go for dinner, walk a couple of doors down to The Cheesecake Corner for dessert.
Brother Juniper’s – This is a breakfast and brunch spot in western East Memphis near the University of Memphis. It’s a street over from where I lived when I was in college, though I rarely went then because I was flat broke. Their food is fantastic and very vegetarian-friendly. Note, though: the place is busy all the time, so be prepared to wait when you go and note that it closes at 1 p.m.
Blue Plate Café – This wonderful diner is in actual East Memphis, right off I-240 at 5469 Poplar Ave (there's also one downtown, apparently). Great food and great service. Very popular, but the tables turn quickly, so wait times are pretty low. Mr. Eats and I ate breakfast here the day we got married at Graceland.
Also: not so vegetarian-friendly, but very authentically Memphis: Bryant’s in East Memphis closer to Midtown on Summer Avenue and the Barksdale in the heart of Midtown near Cooper-Young at 237 South Cooper.
Panda Garden – The Panda Garden on Summer Avenue was, for many years, Formosa. I lived in the adjacent neighborhood (High Point Terrace, just north of the University of Memphis) and ate there frequently. When the owner’s health began to fail, a few of the employees purchased it from him (his brother’s Formosa is still operating out off Quince and Mosa Asian Bistro is also in the family and fantastic). They kept just about everything the same except you can order spring rolls without meat because they make them fresh. I get the vegetable soup for lunch with a side of white rice. It’s just my thing. I think the broth is vegetarian. They said it was, but, well, some people have different definitions of vegetarian…
Memphis Pizza Cafe – it’s not New York or Chicago style; it’s not covered in fancy toppings, but I love it. You can get whole pizzas or by the slice on a crackery-thin crust. My favorite is the Ultimate Cheese that has feta and cheddar along with mozzarella. There are locations all over town, but my favorite is the one in Overton Square because of the seating outside.
Three Angels Diner – This restaurant has opened since I moved away, but quickly became a favorite of mine and a go-to. It’s a funky little space in a revitalized neighborhood on Broad Street, which is tucked into the space just east of Midtown and just west of East Memphis. The service is good and the specials are truly very special. If the gnocchi is on the menu, get it. Their sandwiches are great, too.
Fuel Café – This is another restaurant that wasn’t around when I left, but opened shortly thereafter. The walnut loaf (vegetarian meat loaf) is unbelievable. It’s so good that I tried to replicate it at home. My version is good, but nowhere near as good as the original. It's in a cute converted gas station that's been home to several good restaurants over the years, but I'm glad this is the one that's stuck around.
La Baguette – It’s a cozy little place for ladies who lunch, pearls optional. I get the pimento cheese and a pastry to go. Their bread, cakes, and pastries are fantastic, too. It's in old-school East Memphis not far from the University of Memphis at 3088 Poplar Avenue.
Huey’s – Huey’s has long been known for it’s burger, but also has a great black bean burger (which is vegan). It’s a small chain (with a number of locations all over the area) that’s local to Memphis and is just very comfortable to me. I get the burger, fries and usually a starter or two (fried pickles and pretzels). It’s great food, but cheap (and I like that).
The Majestic Grille – Majestic Grille is difficult to describe in a single word. It's just all-around good for any occasion that brings you downtown. The food and service are consistently good, it's inexpensive, kid-friendly, and has a lovely patio right on the Mid America Mall (I guess they’re still calling Main Street that around there). I usually get an app and a flatbread, but there are salads and sandwiches and big entrees as well.
Pancho’s – The old Tex Mex joints in Memphis are getting crowded out by the fresh Mex and authentic Mexican places, but I still love Pancho’s. It is by no means Mexican in any literal sense of the word and the restaurant at Summer and White Station (East Memphis) has changed little, if any since I started going there in the 80s. But I love the cheese dip (it has quite a following) and the Tropicale dressing. I always get the chicken fajita salad minus the chicken. It's one thing that has a taste that matches my nostalgia.
Ciao Bella – I’ve been a fan of Ciao Bella since it first opened (in the original location) close to 15 years ago. At that time, it was based on a restaurant in Destin. Since then, they’ve moved and made a few changes (including adding some Greek and Italian-Greek fusion items) and even added the option for vegan dishes. Good Italian restaurants are easy to find in Memphis (and good Italians, for that matter), but this one’s my favorite. I love the pizzas, pasta and particularly the makaronapita (like a Greek mac and cheese—so decadent!). Also, it’s very kid-friendly. If you ask, they’ll bring a little ball of pizza dough for the kids to play with. It's in the same East Memphis shopping center off Poplar as Huey's.
Café Ole – This is another non-Mexican “Mexican” restaurant, but it gets a special mention because I love the patio. I have spent many, many hours of the last 20 years of my life on that patio, eating quesadillas, chips and frozen sangritas. It’s a little dingey, and all the cool kids are going to Chiwawa now (for possibly the city's best patio), but I still love it. It’s just another very comfortable place for me. It's literally in the heart of Cooper-Young in Midtown at the intersection.
Gibson’s Donuts – I could tell you about the New Orleans Buttermilk Drop donuts, but you can read all you need to know in Memphis magazine. They’re amazing. The donut’s mafia name would be Big Puffy. But I loved Gibson’s long before I knew anything about those donuts. It’s a great shop run by great people. The caramel glaze, OJ cake, and blueberry cake are some of my other favorites. But I’ve never had a bad one, no matter what time of day. Though it's best to get there early for the best selection. For those keeping up with the neighborhoods, Gibson's is in East Memphis, not far from Ciao Bella, Huey's and one of the Memphis Pizza Cafe locations.
The Cheesecake Corner – Every time I hear of a friend going to Memphis, I tell them they have to go to The Cheesecake Corner downtown in the South Main historic district. It’s closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and doesn’t open until 3 p.m. other days, but it’s open until midnight most nights for a perfect afternoon snack or dessert. The slices are $7.95 each, but are big enough to split 2, 3, or maybe 4 ways. I’ve never been able to finish a slice on my own in one sitting. There’s everything from plain to red velvet, caramel white chocolate, amaretto, lemon, coconut, turtle, butterscotch…the list goes on. All are delicious. Plus, it’s a lot of fun to park and ride the trolley down to South Main.
So, that’s it. Just about any time I visit Memphis, I will go to at least one (and probably multiple) of these restaurants. Even though there are a ton of new ones that are really fantastic, these are my comfy favorites.