STL Today: 3 Memphis getaways: rock star, rustic or refined
With suites designed by the rock ’n’ roll legend’s former wife, Priscilla Presley, the 450-room resort is excessively stylish. In the glitzy lobby — where we spotted a bouffant and thick sideburns waiting in line at the check-in counter, along with several contenders for No. 1 fan — high-back chairs evoke the stand-up collars of Elvis Presley’s jumpsuits. Splashes of color liven up midcentury-style furnishings. Stylized close-up photos in guest rooms and common areas highlight details from Presley’s life: sunglasses, microphones, his iconic TCB (“Taking Care of Business”) jewelry.
Above a grand staircase at one end of the hotel, a replica of Graceland’s foyer stairs, is a chandelier originally purchased by Presley for his own mansion.
“Elvis never threw anything away,” explains Anna Hamilton, the hotel’s night manager. She graduated from Humes High School 12 years after Presley. “When he discovered that the chandelier was too big, he went out and bought a smaller one.”
Hamilton — a veteran of Memphis’ restaurant and hospitality industry who previously was a manager at the now-shuttered Heartbreak Hotel across the street — delights in showing off the Guest House. “I think it’s probably one of the most beautiful properties I’ve ever been on.”
Each of the well-appointed guest rooms is filled with luscious textures, silky-soft bedding, mirrored surfaces and basics such as a refrigerator, Keurig coffee machine and plenty of places to plug in USB devices. (The Gideons Bible in the nightstand is gold, naturally.)
Themed suites such as the King’s Suites were inspired by Presley’s own master bedroom, with canopy beds and TVs on the ceiling. Living Room Suites use bold combinations of deep yellow and navy blue. TCB Suites have a living room and dining area.
“The furniture, to me, is extraordinary,” Hamilton says. “Every piece is something that Elvis would have loved.”
Guests can grab a drink at the lobby bar — we tried the crisp whiskey-ginger TCB and the tequila-based Blue Suede — and enjoy it out on the back lawn. That’s where there’s a pool, hot tub and heart-shaped fire pit, all set against a serene wooded backdrop.
A state-of-the-art fitness center also has great views of the courtyard — or you can focus on the TVs built into each machine.
Dining options at the Guest House include Delta’s Kitchen, a fine-dining spot named for Presley’s aunt, and the more casual EP’s Bar & Grill, which serves up comfort food with a contemporary twist. There’s also a Shake, Rattle & Go coffee shop serving Starbucks Coffee.
At the lively EP’s, we tried the mac-and-cheese bites, which our server recommended without hesitation. They arrived within minutes, piping hot and ooey-gooey. Also delicious was the Memphis Burger, a mess of cheese, onions, tomatoes both regular and fried green, bacon and housemade pickles, served with fries in a guitar-shaped basket.
In addition to conference and banquet rooms, the Guest House has a 464-seat theater, which on our visit was hosting a student jazz competition.
“We’re welcoming all aspects of the music world,” Hamilton says. “We want everyone to feel welcome — not just the Elvis fans.”
Across Elvis Presley Boulevard, the new Elvis Presley’s Memphis greets visitors as the welcome center for Graceland tours. The complex opened in March, replacing Graceland Plaza, and is the attraction’s most significant expansion since opening in 1982.
Visitors can purchase tickets, board shuttles bound for the mansion, where 600,000 visitors tour annually, and browse well-designed exhibits of artifacts from Presley’s life and career.
The 200,000-square-foot space, which still smells like new construction, allows for double the amount of memorabilia to be displayed, including, for the first time, Presley’s boat. A room is also devoted to automobiles, including his pink Cadillac, and visitors can tour his airplanes outside.
But what visitors see is still only about 20 percent of a 1.5 million-item archive.
Libby Perry, a public relations coordinator for Elvis Presley Enterprises, says archivists aren’t finished yet. “We’ve got tons of receipts, contracts and papers. They’re still cataloging. It’ll be 40 years in August. They’re still working.”
A new archives exhibit shows some of the more mundane yet oddly fascinating artifacts from the star’s life — a shot-out TV set from his Palm Springs home, childhood toys, a TAB soda fountain from his TV room. There’s also memorabilia from his time in the Army.
The Elvis the Entertainer Career Museum is home to a floor-to-ceiling collection of Presley’s awards, including gold and platinum records that had been on display at Graceland’s racquetball court. (It’s now, once again, a racquetball court.) And a space devoted to Presley’s influence on the music world includes costumes worn by other stars including Trisha Yearwood (with an album cover signed by a young Patricia Yearwood), Justin Timberlake, Gene Simmons and more. John Lennon’s piano is also on view.
To display Dwayne Johnson’s Elvis-inspired jumpsuit from a 2016 Spike TV special, Perry says, “We had to get a buff mannequin. It just kind of hung on a normal mannequin.”
Since opening, she says, other artists have reached out wanting to be represented. “We’re trying to make space for everybody,” she says.
Perry appears daily on SiriusXM’s Elvis Radio (Channel 19), which is broadcast from a new studio on the property. She also co-hosts a “Starring Elvis Presley” podcast, with commentary on Presley’s 31 feature films — 33 counting two documentaries. “If the podcast is successful, which it’s been, we’ll watch those, too,” she says.
Touring Graceland and Elvis Presley’s Memphis brings visitors closer to Presley’s personality, says Perry, who was born and raised in Memphis.
“If you’re a fan, you end up leaving an even bigger fan. If you’re just an appreciator, you wind up leaving a fan. Whatever level you’re at, Graceland kind of bumps you up.”
• For food and drinks after the hotel’s bar and restaurants close for the night, head about 1½ miles down Elvis Presley Boulevard to Marlowe’s Ribs & Restaurant. It’s hard to miss — there’s a big, pink pig in front — but they’ll even send a pink Cadillac limo to get you. There’s live music most Fridays and heavy pours from friendly bartenders. Marlowe’s smokes its award-winning meats daily for up to 16 hours. We recommend the ribs, of course; the meat was so tender it nearly fell off the bone.
Rustic elegance: Big Cypress Lodge
Stepping onto the hotel-room balcony and gazing at the wildlife below, then at the stainless-steel “sky” above, one thing comes to mind: “Bio-Dome.”
The Pyramid downtown once was home to the Memphis Grizzlies and the University of Memphis basketball program. But when those teams left in 2004 for new arenas, the 322-foot-tall structure sat empty.
Then Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops, took over.
Since April 2015, the distinctive structure has been home to Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid and Big Cypress Lodge. The world’s largest Bass Pro occupies the first floor and a portion of the second; Big Cypress sprawls over the second and third floors, with guest rooms overlooking the retail store, which includes towering trees in a giant cypress swamp with ponds and ducks, a tank with three real alligators, 10 aquariums with more than 1,800 fish, displays of taxidermy (obtained from collectors and museums) and the world’s tallest freestanding elevator, which takes visitors to a restaurant and observation deck at the Pyramid’s pinnacle.
“It’s been a really cool experience — I’ve been here since these rooms were down to the studs,” says Anthony Long, assistant front office manager for Big Cypress. “I helped put all the mattresses in. A lot of us that have been here since opening have really had a hand in putting it all together.”
Bass Pro owns and operates another hotel property, Big Cedar Lodge, near Branson, Mo., but this is the first to be built with a store attached.
“Even though it is a lively shopping environment in the center, you really don’t hear a lot of it until you open that door,” he says. “You can hear the shoppers moving around, you hear the music playing, but at night it’s almost serene how quiet it is.”
Indeed. At night, after relaxing in rockers “outside,” it was tempting to sleep with the balcony door open, if only to enjoy the aroma of fudge and glazed nuts that wafts throughout the building.
While most rooms have interior views, a few suites give views of downtown and access to a terrace. Other suites, such as the Governor’s Suite, include living and dining areas. “The last two Super Bowl Sundays we’ve had, this room is gone almost as quick as people realize they can book,” Long says.
Each of the 104 rustic guest rooms brings the outdoors inside, with handcrafted furnishings, taxidermy and antler chandeliers. Some walls are covered with flattened tree bark, and the spacious bathrooms have lighting that creates a theatrical sunlight-through-trees effect over the big Jacuzzi tub.
Each room also includes an electric fireplace, wooden-beam ceilings, stained-glass accents, a refrigerator, coffeemaker and complimentary snacks. (Bonus: cellphone charging cables and an adapter that allows you to connect streaming devices to the TV.)
The mattresses (made by a Lebanon, Mo., company) and pillows are also incredibly comfy. Big Cypress knows; they’ll give you a list of where you can buy ’em for yourself.
“Even though Bass Pro is for the outdoors traveler, you don’t have to be an outdoors person to come and experience and have a good time,” Long says. “It’s got a little bit of everything for everyone.
“We’ve got a lot of people who check in and don’t see the light of day until they decide to check out again.”
Take a ride in the freestanding elevator and enjoy dinner, drinks or the view at the Lookout. The centerpiece of the room is its open kitchen and a 10,000-gallon catfish aquarium, but the real show is the panoramic view of the city from two glass observation decks.
The Lookout’s menu is concise but satisfying, featuring Southern fare and seafood. Try the massive pork chop, served with baby carrots, bacon, asparagus and a whole-grain mustard beurre blanc, or the blackened redfish, with red beans and rice and crawfish cream sauce. From the cocktail menu, which emphasizes regional bourbons and whiskeys, we enjoyed the classic blood and sand.
Back downstairs, end the evening at Uncle Buck’s Fishbowl & Grill, a 13-lane, ocean-themed bowling alley. Its signature drink, the Fishbowl, is made to share. It’s boozy; you may feel like you’re underwater after finishing it.
Uncle Buck’s more casual menu includes flatbreads (we enjoyed the margherita), sandwiches and burgers, and specialties such as breaded alligator and alligator mac and cheese. (Just don’t let the gators on display see you eating that.)
• Take in more panoramic views of downtown from Big River Crossing. The beautifully illuminated pedestrian bridge over the Mississippi River opened in October.
Classic sophistication: The Peabody
It’s hard to say who has it better: the ducks at Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid, who live in an environment resembling the great outdoors, or the ducks at the swanky Peabody hotel, who walk a red carpet and are treated like celebrities.
Every year, 200,000 people watch the Peabody’s famous ducks march at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. The birds spend the day in an ornate lobby fountain before retiring to their rooftop palace. Ducks serve for three months, then return to the farm that’s been supplying them since 1981.
“They’re like the Harlem Globetrotters, like the Budweiser Clydesdales — a fixture,” says Jimmy Ogle, the hotel’s Duckmaster. Edward Pembroke first held that title for 50 years.
Ogle has been on duck patrol for about nine months, but he’s no stranger to Memphis and Peabody history. He dispenses a lot of it on his 11:30 a.m. tours of the hotel, a good way to get an overview of downtown.
“You’ll put a CD in your car, you’ll have the radio turned on, you know 400, 500, 600 songs. I’m just singing Memphis history — that’s my lyrics,” he said on our tour. A lifelong Memphian, he’s also the Shelby County historian and gives walking tours downtown.
The first Peabody hotel was built in 1869, a few blocks north. The current structure dates to 1923. After closing in 1975, it was sold on the courthouse steps for just over half a million dollars. It took five years and $25 million to restore the hotel to its original splendor.
“It was the catalyst — it was the symbol of the redevelopment of downtown,” Ogle says.
With Italian renaissance revival architecture throughout, the Peabody was the first Memphis hotel on the National Register of Historic Places. Its grand ballroom was the site of Elvis Presley’s high school prom, and a piano on the mezzanine once belonged to Francis Scott Key.
Each elegant guest room is comfortable and spacious, with a sitting area, a walk-in closet and a beaded chandelier. A phone and TV in the bathroom are nice touches. Other suites include fireplaces, loft bedrooms, dining rooms and more.
The opulent lobby is a great spot for people watching. Settle into one of the comfy chairs, and order a well-made cocktail from the bar (we recommend the Jack’s Bramble, made with Jack Daniel’s Honey, or the Memphis Mule, with Pyramid vodka and ginger beer). A server will also bring you a trio of snacks: wasabi peas, crackers and nuts. There’s also the Corner Bar and Capriccio Grill, which serves a Sunday brunch buffet.
For souvenirs or light shopping, duck into one of the hotel’s street-level boutiques such as Lansky at the Peabody, where you can pick up a beautiful jacket like the one Elvis wore when he married Priscilla. Bernard Lansky was “clothier to the King.”
On Thursday evenings through Aug. 17, the Peabody hosts rooftop parties with live music, food and drinks. Admission is free for hotel guests.
As long as you’re at the Peabody, do it up all the way with a classic French dinner at the acclaimed Chez Philippe, situated in a former ballroom on the hotel’s first floor. At $90 per person for four courses (wine pairings and seven-course option available), it’s a splurge.
Among our four courses: an English pea cappuccino, a frothy soup with caramelized onion, garlic, English peas and maple verjus; a vibrantly colored seared crab cake made with scallop mousse and egg white; lightly seared Scottish langoustines with carnaroli rice; and a local roasted chicken, deboned, stuffed with brioche and wrapped with pork jowl and served with Parisian gnocchi and pea puree. It was filling, and dessert — a “trio brulee”: raspberry Chambord, lemon and thyme, and chocolate mascarpone — had to be boxed up for later. Each decadent treat was painstakingly garnished.
Chez Philippe — named for Philip Belz, father of Jack Belz, who renovated and reopened the hotel — is the only Forbes Four-Star and AAA Four-Diamond restaurant in the Mid-South. Members of the Belz family are depicted in a series of Mardi Gras murals on the dining room’s high walls. Afternoon tea is served here Wednesday-Saturday.
• Earnestine & Hazel’s is a hole-in-the-wall bar with literal holes in the wall. And floor and ceiling. And a staircase that’s a good 30 degrees off-kilter. “It’s real old and ratty as hell, but that’s why we love it,” one of the bartenders says. Upstairs, in a tiny, smoky room at the end of a long hallway, a beloved bartender pours drinks — he has six liquor bottles, so keep it simple — and makes conversation. Downstairs, three employees maneuver effortlessly in the cramped space behind the bar, serving beers and grilling up their famous Soul Burgers.
• Sure, we can have Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken any time at its Maplewood outpost, which opened in 2015. But there’s nothing like a visit to the mother ship in Memphis, where we happily waited for 20 minutes on the sidewalk to get a table on a recent Saturday afternoon. (Our server said it was a slow day.) When our plates arrived, we devoured the perfectly crispy, juicy fried chicken — lightly spicy; taste buds or lips were not damaged — and freed our table for the next hungry party.
• If you don’t go to Graceland, you can get an abbreviated look at music history at the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, which honors musicians who created the city’s musical legacy. Some of the artifacts on display: tape machines from Ardent Studios and Hi Records, Willie Mitchell’s trumpet, Sun Records checks signed by Sam Phillips, handwritten lyrics by Johnny Cash, Al Green’s three-piece suit, Elvis Presley’s portable telephone and half of Jerry Lee Lewis’ 1983 Cadillac el Ballero (the other half is nearby at Lewis’ Beale Street honky tonk).
• Our first few hours in town, while wandering the streets and peeking into shop windows, a friendly passer-by said, “Come with me for two-for-one margaritas.” We did. And they were possibly the best we’ve ever tasted — and not just because they were two-for-one. At Ave Maria, the tasty signature Agave Marita uses Altos Reposado tequila, fresh lemon and lime juice, and orange juice. Always trust the locals when they steer you to what’s good.
• On nearby Beale Street, stop by B.B. King’s Blues Club for live music and a bite to eat. We loved the beef brisket melt, piled high with juicy brisket and served with a generous pile of fries. A few doors down, A. Schwab Trading Co. is a good spot to find quirky souvenirs, from hot sauce and pickled eggs to apparel and old-fashioned candy. And if you’re thirsty, there’s a plethora of establishments where you can walk up and get drinks through a to-go window.
STL Today: 3 Memphis getaways: rock star, rustic or refined