The night of May 27, 2013 , Memphis, TN saw a fantastic night of activities come together for one night of united camaraderie around the NBA semifinals and a minor league baseball game. While neither their Grizzlies nor their Redbirds saw victory that night (The Grizzlies lost to the Spurs and the Redbirds lost to the Red Rock Express of Texas), downtown Memphis experienced a street flooding celebration on one of the coolest spring nights in the city's history.
We were sitting in Peabody's Corner Bar on Union Avenue, just visiting for a few days for a wedding, when we found ourselves surrounded by a chanting crowd inside and outside the bar. You know a town is experiencing an important moment of pride when a city of music legends tells the piano player and singer to take a break for a tie-breaking free throw on a flat panel television above the bar.
Quite the contrast from the scene earlier in the day when we strolled down the famous Beale Street and were drawn into an open courtyard by the sounds of a rhythmic bass guitar and the guttural chords of "Mustang Sally." Kings Palace Café, where the late Rudy Williams entertained thousands of people with his trumpet and bowler hat, has an open courtyard next to the restored restaurant. The day we strolled by, Sonny Mack was strumming our pain with his fingers on the patio stage. We didn't have to be jazz experts to know we were in the presence of an extremely gifted musician.
Feeling lucky to be there, we grabbed a seat under an umbrella covered bistro table. Sonny the kind of jazz and blues singer who gets even the shyest listener to stand up and sway to his melancholic tunes can only be found playing for free on Beale Street. The same street offering at least a dozen places where you can get a "Big Ass Beer" (BAB) or "Fishbowl Margarita" that actually comes in a real fishbowl.
The best dish to pair with a BAB is fried crawfish with Voodoo Potatoes. Don't look for ribs on Beale Street - just funnel cake, fried bottom feeders, and beer. And while a few blocks away the ribs at Charlie Vergo's Rendezvous draws visitors from around the world, and has for decades, the place is now nothing more than a tourist trap where antique memorabilia and fading media coverage line the walls. To find the Rendezvous, you have to head down a back alley and duck into what looks like a back-entrance, which might be the only remains of its former "secret" hot spot life. If you want the best ribs, you're probably going to have to venture a bit further than downtown.
Beale Street was a safe respite for African Americans at the turn of the 20th Century, attracting talent such as B.B. King, whose store and bar stand at the top of the street. It's a tourist trap now. Schwab's Dry Goods Store holds a menagerie of bizarre and useless trinkets, clothes, guns, hats, and period pieces that are mildly interesting after a few BABs.
One thing we noticed outside of every establishment on this historic road was a sign dedicated to team spirit: "Go Grizzlies!" they read.
Then, for something totally different, we hoped over to Twilight Sky Terrace on the rooftop of the Madison overlooking the Mississippi River. We didn't find the overpriced appetizers or weak margaritas to be much fun, but the view and therapeutic breeze was worth the price of admission. A similar reprieve can be found on The Peabody's rooftop deck where the ducks have the penthouse view when they're not working the fountain in the lobby. This same roof deck hosts Thursday night parties in the summer worth checking out if only for the people watching.
At night the ornate dark wood bar in the courtyard comes alive with tourists of all ages, many in town for weddings like the one we attended at the beautiful Cadre Building two blocks from the Peabody. Two of the must-try beverages at this bar include the Mint Julep and the Old Fashioned, which the bar tender warned us was made using their Peabody recipe. Both were delicious but different. The Peabody has an agreement with Jack Daniels allowing them to select their own whiskey barrels. Each of the "Peabody Select" barrels is indicated with a metal medallion that hangs over the nozzle until the barrel is drained. Medallions, which indicate that barrel's number, are then placed on each corresponding glass bottle for the bar. Normally they get discarded, but our bartender saved one back and gave it to us.
At first we thought it was a gimmick, but when we finished that night at The Corner Bar we saw the same type of medallion in a frame on the wall across from the piano player, along with a certificate and explanation of the medallion.
While the Grizzlies lost that night to the San Antonio Spurs, the streets flooded with proud fans proved that Memphis has more than history to offer its guests. Once the game was over, the pianist took his seat once again to rev up good old "Mustang Sally." Memphis continues to host ridiculously talented musicians keeping up the tradition of it being one of the most musically rich cities in America.
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