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Southern crossroads with treats for every sense

The Peabody Ducks are accustomed to getting a lot of attention. Photo by Sierra Harrop.

Memphis is where Interstate 40 crosses the mighty river, where FedEx funnels packages from all over the world, and where Deep South cuisine and Cajun food mingle with a unique local barbecue style and flavor. It melds into a culinary experience as savory as the bent notes in Robert Johnson’s 1936 delta blues anthem Cross Road Blues.

You can access the city easily from several general aviation airports, including General Dewitt Spain Airport right on the river near downtown or Olive Branch Airport/Taylor Field in Mississippi, in the southeast part of the metro area. Memphis International Airport is the commercial aviation hub.

I cannot overstate how fantastic the experience of staying at the legendary Peabody Memphis hotel was. This grand hotel is neither the fanciest nor the most expensive place I have ever stayed, but it was the most enjoyable stay I’ve ever had. Billed as “The South’s Grand Hotel,” it lives up to that motto. The staff are professional, the setting is nothing short of spectacular, and the hotel offers guests a unique experience of watching the march of the Peabody Ducks—five mallards who live on the rooftop in a “Royal Duck Palace.” The pampered pets are paraded with great fanfare down to the lobby fountain at 11 a.m. and back up to roost again at 5 p.m.

Get to the lobby of the hotel at least 30 minutes before these times to guarantee a good view. The uniformed Duckmaster will ceremoniously lead the four hens and a drake with a swagger cane, rhythmically, to a John Philip Sousa march. Trust me, you do not want to miss this.

You can enjoy a fruity cocktail called a Rubber Ducky in the lobby’s grand bar while you watch the spectacle.

Right across from the Peabody a row of local restaurants beckons hungry visitors. My AOPA colleagues and I were drawn first to aviation-themed seafood joint Flying Fish. The sign out front is complete with a catfish that’s sprouted radial twin bomber wings.

The Southern seafood staples offered are well done. I had blackened grouper with red beans and rice and grilled vegetables. One of the AOPA You Can Fly staffers who grew up in a Northeastern state tried his first catfish meal there and saw what all the fuss was about. There’s lots of aviation kitsch in this fun and casual joint. There were aviation point of view camera shots playing on monitors around the restaurant, showing off aerobatic maneuvers.

In search of a treat after the seafood lunch, we wandered back into the Peabody Deli & Desserts café for a pick-me-up of lattes and sweet treats. The Chocolate Dome pairs marvelously with a vanilla latte. Great little cap to a sultry lunch after a morning of travel.

Miami Rose performs at Atomic Rose. Photo by Sierra Harrop.

I had dinner at a club just off Beale Street, Atomic Rose Club and Grill. Known for being a hub for colorful drag performances in the mid-South, the club’s steak did not disappoint. Walking back after dinner, Beale Street was literally bumping from disparate styles of music, all played equally loud. There were places rumbling and bumping to classic R&B, modern hip-hop, hard rock, and, of course, Memphis delta blues. I was raised on roots rock and blues, and as a teen dreamed of roaming Beale Street on a Saturday night to take in the music. It was awesome!

For barbecue, I avoided the tourist-heavy places and went well out of the city center to suburb Germantown, Tennessee, and the famous Germantown Commissary. This unassuming joint is about a 15-minute drive from Olive Branch Airport/Taylor Field, and serves up traditional Memphis barbecue. AOPA Senior Photographer David Tulis and I were pleasantly surprised to find the small interior filled with aviation memorabilia. There are old AOPA and Experimental Aircraft Association stickers on the door that leads to the office, and the décor also features historic photographs documenting the rich aviation history of the area.

The food was monstrously portioned. Tulis (“Dave T” to me) and I each got a three-meat special. I’m glad I didn’t order anything bigger. Memphis is known for its ribs and pork, so I opted for pork shoulder, a hot link, and ribs alongside baked beans and coleslaw. The sign claims the food is “So good y’ull slap yo’ mama” and I’m inclined to agree (I wouldn’t dare). Want to try it for yourself? The restaurant sells its classics via Goldbelly.

Aside from delta seafood and ribs, Memphis seems to have a strong brunch culture with most establishments advertising trendy fare. Across from the Peabody, I stopped in for an omelet and cheese grits at Automatic Slim’s. The house specials featured mimosas and bloody marys set in a fun and funky atmosphere. Great way to ease into a day if you go hard on Beale Street the night before.

Speaking of which, I couldn’t be two blocks from it and not go back while I was in town. I asked a bartender from the Peabody with whom I had developed a rapport for where locals would eat downtown. He told me that BB King’s Blues Club is legit. Listening to live music from local blues and cover band The Memphis Royals while enjoying Yazoo Creole Catfish—served blackened on a bed of seafood rice with Creole sauce—proved it. Truly, a quintessential Memphis moment.

The final night in town, I was invited out to 117 Prime steakhouse. It is what you’d expect from the name, but I especially enjoyed the opportunity to get a steak done Oscar style. I had a prime New York strip topped with crabmeat, asparagus, and bearnaise sauce. With a cocktail and appetizer, I was perfectly satiated but still pushed for dessert. I’m a sucker for a good creme brulee, and the amazing server we had told us about the restaurant’s holiday spiced version. I didn’t love it, but it was a unique journey through a complex palette. Nutmeg, hits of cinnamon, the classic custard flavor, and the caramelized sugar atop were overwhelmed by a very clove-forward flavor. It was a culinary feat, if not an enjoyable treat. This was also the single most expensive meal I’ve ever had, at close to $200 for my tab with generous tip—and another guest bought the wine. Bring your wallet.

Back at the Peabody, our dinner group opted for a nightcap from the bar. The dark wood monolith stands as a bottled bookend to the expansive space that is the lobby. A soaring and ornate stained-glass mosaic ceiling is accented by carved wood three floors up, with a mezzanine from which to gaze on the solid marble fountain that serves as the daytime respite for the iconic ducks. It stands to reason that a bar in this setting would be like something you’d imagine in a Humphrey Bogart film. It lives up to that because of the highly trained expert bartenders that staff it. I ordered every pretentious, archaic cocktail I could think of, and not even one of them had to look anything up. It really is one of those magnificent places that you thought only existed in old movies.

Memphis was a delight. My times there in the past have always been whirlwind business trips. The chance to eat my way through a city at a more relaxed pace was one of the highlights of my decade of travels in pursuit of GA. I can’t wait to go back and spend more time.

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