Spring Break 2012: St. Louis and Memphis, Part One

Welcome to Spring Break 2012.

My family and I wanted to get out of town for a quick, fun, vacation this year, so back in January we started pricing airfare to a variety of locations. Flying a family of four anywhere (except perhaps Detroit) costs a crippling amount of money, so we opted for a road trip instead.

With a map folded out in front of us (okay, I lied–it was a Google Map), we decided that Memphis should be our vacation destination. The problem with driving to Memphis is that there’s a whole lot of nothing between Chicago and there (besides a GIANT, TRAFFIC-STOPPING, CROSS in Effingham, IL). Rather than make the full nine-hour trip in one shot, we diverted our navigation west to St. Louis, where we stayed for the first of our three nights on the road.

Since I know nothing about college sports, I was surprised (or pissed, depending on when you caught me) to learn that the freaking NCAA tournament was in town on Saturday night, just a few blocks from our downtown hotel. College sports fans had descended on St. Louis; specifically there were lots of Kansas Jayhawks fans congregating around my hotel’s lobby and elevators, frequently with domestic beers raised in pre-celebration.

Not long after we arrived, we walked over to the Gateway Arch, which I’d never seen from up close. It’s a pretty impressive piece of architecture.

In fact, the Mississippi Riverfront that butts up against the Arch parkway was a perfect place to go walking. The area was booming with activity on Saturday afternoon … I suspect that, similar to Chicago’s lakefront, once the weather swings in the right direction, the city’s denizens migrate towards the water. There was a lot of green grass to run, play, or lay around on.

We had left our Saturday dinner plans up in the air. About a week ago, I had asked a few St. Louis natives for ideas, and they in turn helped me compile a pretty impressive short list of must-trys. We decided to go along with a few enthusiastic recommendations for an Italian restaurant in the “Hill” area of the city called Zia’s.  Unfortunately, by the time we got there at 6 p.m., there was already a one-hour wait for a table. People on the wait list had to stand outside on the corner, which would have quickly turned disastrous with two kids in tow. Not knowing where to go to next, we jumped back in the car and slowly drove away. After we turned a corner or two, we stumbled upon a restaurant that our hotel concierge swore by: Guido’s.

Guido’s looks like a typical neighborhood dive, but the concierge insisted that the pizza there was transcendent. Since Zia’s fell through, we didn’t want to chase down another recommended restaurant on our list; we parked the car and filed into Guido’s. And yes, it’s a dive, but it’s totally charming in its own, untouched-by-modern-decorating-skills, way. Once we got our food, we happily learned that our concierge was right. The pizza was fabulous: classic St. Louis-style, with cracker-thin crust and a heart-stopping amount of provolone and mozzarella cheese weighing it down. The sauce was sweeter than I’m used to, but quite good.

After dinner, we hit a St. Louis dessert institution: Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. The drawing power of this place can’t be put into words, so I took pictures instead.

Ted Drewes crowd at night

The lines outside Ted Drewes

I ordered the Hawaiian, a combination of coconut, bananas, pineapple, and macadamia nuts. The nuts were a bit much; the sundae-ish creation would have been fine without them.

Before we left St. Louis for Memphis on Sunday, we sought out a breakfast place that wasn’t Starbucks (though there’s nothing wrong with a Starbucks breakfast sandwich). After some searching, we landed on a hipsteriffic breakfast joint less than a mile from our hotel: Rooster. Rooster’s “thing” is crepes, so I gave the Bacon #2 a try (bacon, Vermont cheddar, caramelized onions). It was delicious, but not worth the numbingly slow (and somewhat indifferent) service. The tab for our four-person meal was also higher at Rooster than at any other restaurant on our entire trip.

Back on the road, the view throughout most of Missouri, from St. Louis to the Arkansas border, was stunning. Rolling hills, trees in full bloom–it was a far cry from the Illinois farms that we drove past only one day prior. Arkansas, not surprisingly, was a different story–I-55 South through the northeast part of that state is a flat, textbook, rural snoozefest.

We got into Memphis around 3 p.m. on Sunday, and not long after we got settled, we walked over to the Peabody Hotel to see the legendary ducks. By 4:30, a large crowd had already gathered for the 5 p.m. duck walk. Sightlines for the ducks were hard to come by, but I did manage to snap this:

We took the long way back to our hotel so that we could see historic Beale Street. In my head, I imagined it to be something jazzy, yet genteel. In reality, it was Bourbon Street without the strip clubs. If you’re a fan of loud tourists drinking in the street and shady predators watching them, I can’t recommend Beale Street enough. Here’s what it looks like at roughly 5:15 (Beale Street is closed to traffic, just like Bourbon Street):

Beale Street (and downtown Memphis) felt seedy and dangerous, and I quickly called into question our decision to go to Memphis for vacation.

A trip to Memphis should, by my estimation, cover at least two things: barbecue and Graceland. Having already secured Graceland tour passes for the following day, we made plans to go out for barbecue at a midtown (at least I think it was midtown) place called Central BBQ. Central’s well-reviewed, so I was excited to go and try something of the “pulled” variety there. As we walked out of the hotel lobby, I asked the front desk clerk what she thought about Central. “Central’s in kind of an artsy area. I think the best barbecue is on Beale Street–B.B. King’s has good food, and I can recommend a few other places if you’d like.” Right then, I knew that she (and the hotel) must have some sort of reciprocal relationship with some of the Beale Street clubs. It’s the only way I can explain the clerk recommending the touristy and booze-focused Beale Street places to a family with two children. It would be like a Chicago hotel clerk saying, “Oh, you’re looking for Mexican? Frontera Grill isn’t worth the trip–I happen to have a few places I can suggest over by Rush and Division, though.”

The “artsy area” that Central BBQ was in was much warmer to me than the vaguely scary and not-so-fun downtown area of Memphis (shame on you, hotel front desk clerk). The vibe at Central was very Austin, Texas: there was a live band playing on the patio, the crowd was mostly young and college-aged, and the place projected fun and cool without it feeling forced.

As for the food: I had the brisket, which was tender and spectacular. The mild sauce was good enough to compel me to buy a 32-ounce bottle to take back home. The only disappointment in my basket was the BBQ beans, which I kinda liked, but were way too spicy for anyone else at my table to eat.

The next morning, we headed off for Graceland. On our way there, I had to stop the car and pull over when I saw Sun Studio. So much history in that little space–it’s where Elvis recorded “That’s All Right;” Johnny Cash did “I Walk the Line;” and Jerry Lee Lewis lit up “Great Balls of Fire.” I wanted to touch the building–just stand in its presence–and get a couple of pictures, too:

The path to Graceland is … ugly. There’s a lot of poverty and squalor leading up to Elvis’ pearly gates, and as I drove up Elvis Presley Boulevard, I felt a lot like Chevy Chase in this Vacation scene:


Coming up in Part Two: GRACELAND!

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