Exploring Memphis’ South Main Historic Arts District
A local’s guide to our new favorite Bluff City neighborhood
Josh Conley’s getting a tattoo soon. It’s going to read “4407,” which is, he’s quick to tell you, the jukebox number for Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is” at dive bar Earnestine & Hazel’s, where the Blytheville native’s been a regular since settling into Memphis’ South Main Historic Arts District seven years ago. He loves the tune, sure—he’s a musician, and has been known to break spontaneously into song. And he really loves the bar. But spend any amount of time with him, and you’ll learn that it’s the neighborhood that has his heart.
Stroll around Josh’s stomping grounds, which lie south of downtown and hug the bluff from which Bluff City takes its nickname, and you’ll realize the district is certainly historic. Turn-of-the-century red-brick buildings and factories and foundries abound. Some lie empty, ghostly. Others are abuzz, having been turned into mixed-use buildings that have breathed life back into a district (“an abandoned red-light district,” says Josh) that was all but deserted some 30 years ago. Other buildings lie in wait, like the $28 million Tennessee Brewery project set to open later this year. These buildings have seen a lot since the neighborhood’s early days as Memphis’ train yard: the rise and fall of the railroad, the origins of the civil rights movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., white flight, blight. And walking through, you can almost feel it all. It’s an area that’s moved on and prospered, yet still managed to preserve the history that made it what it is today, for better or for worse.
“It’ll be different next time you come,” Josh says. And he knows, because he, too, has seen a lot since he started occupying a stool at Earnestine & Hazel’s smoky, red-lit bar, slipping quarters into the old jukebox. And it’s just made him love the place more.
Come happy hour, you’ll find Josh Conley (left) with a cocktail at the bar at Catherine & Mary’s. Later in the evening, though, it’s all about Earnestine & Hazel’s (center).
Our neighborhood ambassador reveals all
If you want to while away the evening
Loflin Yard | “The cats who built this place had some vision—they took what was essentially a gross drainage ditch, a tiny locksmith shop and an old stable and turned it into a regional attraction,” Josh says. “Basically, it’s the Memphis version of New Orleans’ Bacchanal.” For those unfamiliar, that equates to a sort of grown-up clubhouse that sprawls over a couple tree-shaded acres with Adirondack chairs, fire pits, lawn games and live music, complete with barrel-aged cocktails and pimiento-cheese po’boys. (7 W. Carolina Ave.; loflinyard.com)
If you want the best burger ever, forever
Earnestine & Hazel’s | Dating back to the 1930s, the building housing this not-so-secret dive first played host to a pharmacy, then a cafe-slash-brothel, owned by the sisters for whom the bar’s named. The current iteration’s got atmosphere in spades—all red lights and peeling plaster and clawfoot-tubbed bathrooms—but really, it’s about two things: soul music, and the almighty Soul Burger, which is … life-changing. Maybe even tattoo-worthy. (531 S. Main St.; earnestineandhazelsjukejoint.com)
If you’re after an heirloom
South Front Antiques | Need some old cypress porch posts? A 19th-century pub light? A soda-pop-shop stool or six? Maybe just a taxidermied moose head or two? Odds are you’ll find it in this 29,000-square-foot antique emporium, helmed by a multigenerational family for whom “picking” comes second-nature. “It’s three stories!” says Josh. “You might not be able to see it all, but it’s worth a stop.” (374 S. Front St.; southfrontantiques.com)
If you take your country pate with a side of craft cocktails
Catherine & Mary’s | Helmed by James Beard-nominated chefs Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman, this stunner of a spot is home to Josh’s favorite plate in Memphis—tender Brussels sprouts tossed with smoky brisket burnt ends—and is also a pretty darn gorgeous watering hole, known for its top-notch cocktails. “This is not only my neighborhood cocktail joint, but also my go-to for special occasions. We came here the night we got engaged, but will just stop in on any given weeknight, too,” Josh says. “It’s great when a restaurant pulls double duty like that.” (272 S. Main St.; catherineandmarys.com)
If you’re into sunsets with a view
Vance Park or Butler Park | One of Josh’s favorite South Main streets for a stroll is Nettleton Avenue, an old cobblestone way that passes beneath several architectural underpasses and then empties onto the Riverwalk, a path that wends its way along the bluff. Walking along the Riverwalk gains you access to both Butler and Vance parks, which are prime spots for taking in a sweeping view of Old Man River—as well as for ogling the stately bluff-top homes that tower over Riverside Drive. (memphisriverfront.com)
If you’re in town on a Saturday morning
Memphis Farmer’s Market | “There’s a reason why its called the Memphis Farmer’s Market instead of the Downtown or South Main Farmer’s Market: It’s the very best market around,” Josh says of the locally sourced produce and locally made arts and crafts that fill the Central Station Pavilion every Saturday from April through October. “There are plenty of vendors and people around, and all of the area’s bounty is on display. I’m proud of what this market has become.” (South Front Street at GE Patterson Avenue; memfarmersmkt.wpengine.com)
If you need a touch up (or a pick-me-up)
Stock & Belle / 387 Salon / 387 Pantry | Is it a clothing boutique? A hair salon? A furniture store? A gallery? A coffee bar? Let’s just call it a “lifestyle shop,” because it’s all of the above. Not only can you find stylish duds (for both men and women), but you can also order a custom-upholstered sofa, sip an espresso tonic and get a blowout. Oh, and buy some local art—all under one roof. (387 S. Main St.; facebook.com/stockandbelle)
If you want to toss back a couple dozen
Pearl’s Oyster House | “I lie in bed at night and dream about their chargrilled oysters,” Josh says of Pearl’s, which is known for those chipotle-butter-and-Parmesan-topped bivalves. “We went so many times after we moved to Memphis that we got tired of them, but every once in a while, I’ll stop in on my way home and punish a few dozen.” If you sit at the bar, Josh says, you’ll hear Louisiana accents. “Those are some legitimate shuckers. They go back and forth from Memphis to the coast.” (299 S. Main St.; pearlsoysterhouse.com)
If you have a thing for green roofs
Beale Street Landing | This 6-acre riverfront-park-slash-working-port is a stunning feat of architecture, though not all Memphians are in love with its uber-modern aesthetic. Regardless, it’s a great place to river-watch. “I’ve sat outside at 3 a.m. to watch the American Queen dock—it’s amazing,” says Josh. (251 Riverside Drive; memphisriverfront.com)
If you like good stories
The Robinson Gallery | Dan Oppenheimer, a noted stained-glass artist working in South Main, had no idea that the artist working for him—one Jack Robinson—was, in a former life, a photographer who’d shot some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry in the ’60s and ’70 for outlets like The New York Times and Vogue. Robinson left Oppenheimer his collection of negatives, and now photos of folks like Elton John, The Rolling Stones, The Who and Jack Nicholson are on display in a gallery at his Rainbow Studio. (400 S. Front St.; robinsongallery.com)
More neighborhood spots to explore, from north to south
The Orpheum Theatre | 203 S. Main St.
“I cry every time I go to The Orpheum, and I can’t figure out if it’s because I just really love a live performance or if the space is just so beautiful that I am overcome with emotion,” Josh says. “Probably the latter.”
Old Dominick Distillery | 305 S. Front St.
“A brand new Tennessee whiskey outfit open after several years of rehab on their facility—it’s beautiful on the inside.”
Gus’ World Famous Fried Chicken | 310 S. Front St.
“Not the original location, but I would wager that it’s the best. Tall-boy Budweiser and fried chicken in a low-ceilinged, jukebox-blaring room? Yes, please.”
National Civil Rights Museum | 450 Mulberry St.
“It takes a while, but it’s very moving—you shouldn’t miss it if you have the time.”
Central BBQ | 147 E. Butler St.
“A Memphis mainstay. This is the downtown location, and the back porch has roll-up doors that make for a great place to sit and people-watch. Kind of overrun with tourists, though. Go for lunch on a weekday.”
Peddler Electric Bike Shop | 517 S. Main St.
“Just a classic neighborhood bike shop. They also have a rental program for visitors who want to ride around downtown for the day or cross the river on the Big River Crossing.”
The Arcade | 540 S. Main St.
“Classic Memphis. On every single list about eating or visiting Memphis. The food, truthfully, is just OK—don’t tell Elvis I said that—but you can’t beat the classic diner vibes.”
Ghost River Brewing | 827 S. Main St.
“I think they are the oldest craft brewer in town, and they’ve been operating on the way south end of South Main the whole time. They recently rebranded and opened a tap room, and it’s gorgeous. There’s always a food truck outside.”
Big River Crossing | Channel 3 Drive
“A super cool pedestrian crossing over the Mississippi River, built on a turn-of-the-century rail bridge. Super sleek and sexy and crosses to Arkansas.”