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December 2003 -- If you haven't been to Nashville or Memphis in a few years, you're in for a pleasant surprise. Tennessee's two largest cities continue to evolve into reenergized metropolitan communities that manage to pay loving homage to their storied musical pasts while offering an increasing array of new cultural attractions, professional sports, and dining and lodging options to please travelers with varied tastes and interests.

From Elvis Sights to Goo Goo Clusters: How Do Memphis & Nashville Compare?

Tennessee's two largest cities have much in common, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're equal. Here's an off-the-cuff primer on what's what:

  • Barbecue: The cities tie in this category. The slow-cooked, pulled-pork sandwiches served up at Corky's Bar-B-Q, 5259 Poplar Ave. (tel. 901/685-9744), a Memphis-based barbecue landmark, are just as good at the newer location in Nashville, 100 Franklin Rd., Brentwood (tel. 615/373-1020). If you have an aversion to coleslaw sharing bun space with the pig meat, remember to order yours without the customary cabbage topping.
  • Brew Pubs: The oven-roasted gourmet pizzas and specialty-brewed beers of Boscos, a Tennessee-based chain that originated in suburban Germantown (outside Memphis), are also great in either city. Both boast prime locations: In Memphis, there's a Boscos in midtown's Overton Square, 2120 Madison Ave. (tel. 901/432-2222); while Nashville's is not far from Vanderbilt University in the West End, 1805 21st Ave. S. (tel. 615/385-0050).
  • Elvis: If a home is a man's castle, Graceland, 3734 Elvis Presley Blvd. (tel. 800/238-2000; www.elvis.com/graceland), was the King's. Memphis may have the best Elvis Presley sights, from the infamous monkey'ed Jungle Room at Graceland to the slick souvenir shops that enshrine the late entertainer. Nashville, however, offers a lesser-known and less-exploited facet of Elvis's career in the RCA Studio B at 30 Music Square West, (clisk here) a small, nondescript studio on Music Row where he recorded albums.
  • Football: Yes, the Tennessee Titans (tel. 615/565-4200; www.titansonline.com), the pride of Nashville and the city's first NFL team, have an embarrassing past. When the former Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee and awaited Nashville to build a new stadium, the future Superbowl competitors played their first season in Memphis. Snubbed at not landing the team, Memphians stayed away from the games in droves.
  • Goo Goo Clusters: You can buy Goo Goo Clusters in both cities, but they might taste gooier in Nashville, where the nutty, chocolate-covered marshmallow-crème candies rose to fame as a one-time sponsor of the Grand Ole Opry.
  • Music: Sometimes stereotypes are true. While both cities offer more than one musical genre, when boiled down to basics, their musical personalities stack up like this: Memphis is low-down, greasy blues played in smoky juke joints or along neon-studded Beale Street. Nashville is plaintive bluegrass performed in concert halls or rowdy, boot-scootin' country blaring away in barn-sized clubs.
  • Parks: Overton Park in Memphis is a lush oasis in an urban setting. Ditto for Centennial Park in Nashville; however, Music City's green space is also home to an impressive replica of Greece's Parthenon.
  • Rivers: Nashville has the Cumberland, a bucolic tributary that wends through one edge of town, while Memphis has become synonymous with Old Man River, the broad and muddy Mississippi River that slices between Tennessee and Arkansas.
  • Statues of Famous Sons: Guitar slung over one shoulder, the bronze Elvis statue on Memphis's Beale Street is a favorite place for a photo op, as are the larger-than-life likenesses of the two kings -- Elvis and B. B. King -- at that city's Tennessee State Welcome Center. But Nashville, with all its august state capital buildings, has Sgt. Alvin York, a beloved Tennessee war hero and Quaker (immortalized in the movies by Gary Cooper). Trivia-loving shutterbugs take note that this stately statue bears a flaw: The rifle the World War I soldier is holding is from World War II.

Nashville

Nashville is basking in a resurgence of popularity unmatched since the mid-1940s, when singer/songwriters such as Hank Williams first came to town and helped launch American country music. Today his grandson, Hank III, takes the stage for his own brand of "HellBilly" music. Among the up-and-coming acts on the Nashville rock-and-alternative scene are the Kings of Leon, as well as Venus Hum, which has been touring as an opening act for Blue Man Group.

Due to construction, the 2004 Southern Festival of Books (www.tn-humanities.org/sfbmain.htm) will be held in Memphis. It is expected to return to Legislative Plaza in 2005.

The city's finest historic hotel, the Hermitage, 231 Sixth Avenue North (tel. 615/244-3121 or 888/ 888-9414; www.thehermitagehotel.com) is now open following a $15 million renovation. The landmark property is better than ever, a 123-room haven of refinement and elegance. Its flagship restaurant, Capitol Grille, is the epitome of civility and charm -- a gourmet restaurant with a club-like atmosphere that remains locals' top choice for power lunches or pre-theater dinner.

One of the newest additions on the lodging scene is in the West End, where the Nashville Marriott at Vanderbilt University, 2555 West End Ave. (tel. 615/321-1300; www.marriott.com) is drawing raves from business and leisure travelers alike for its spacious rooms, superior service, and birdseye views of the nearby Vandy football stadium and the Parthenon in Centennial Park. Latitude seafood restaurant has become a happening nightspot, too.

When it comes to new restaurants, Nashville has a tempting array of choices. In the artsy, bohemian 12th Avenue South district, which is evolving into one of Music City's coolest neighborhoods, look into Mirror, 2317 12th Ave. S. (tel. 615/383-8330). "Eat, drink, reflect" is the motto of this chic bar that serves killer martinis, delicious salads and grilled fish, and terrific tapas with your choice of Spanish sherries. If you're in a pizza state of mind, make your way across the street to Mafiaoza's, 2400 12th Ave. S. (tel. 615/269-4646), a friendly Italian eatery where you can get it by the slice or whole pie, and munch on some calamari while you're waiting for the pizza to toast in the wood-fired ovens.

In the West End, Acorn, 114 28th Ave. N. (tel. 615/320-4399) is one of the most promising new restaurants to open in Nashville in many years. This place has buzz like you wouldn't believe. The strikingly modern two-story eatery is set inside a gracious old mansion shaded by towering oak trees. Abstract paintings, decorative sculptural pieces, and dramatic lighting set the mood inside, where well-heeled diners can opt for entrees such as grilled lamb or wasabi-crusted, sushi-grade seared tuna; plus tapas and quiche. A heated, outdoor patio upstairs makes a romantic spot for a late-night drink.

Don't look now, but Fan Fair has a new name. The annual bonding celebration between country music stars and their fans is now known as the CMA (Country Music Association) Music Festival (tel. 703/759-0575 or 800/472-3054; www.countrymusictravel.com/www/id14.html). It's still being held in early June at The Coliseum downtown.

Meanwhile, several worthy exhibitions are set to open in 2004. At the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, 225 5th Ave. S. (tel. 615/416-2001; www.halloffame.org) Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues 1945-1970 will explore the link between country and R&B. It opens in March 2004 and will run through December 2005. In summer 2004, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, 919 Broadway (tel. 615/244-3340; www.fristcenter.org), will present Migration Series from the Philips Collection, an exhibition of works by 20th-century African-American artist Jacob Lawrence. Included are works tracing the movement of blacks from the rural South to the industrial North between the first and second world wars. Running concurrently will be an exhibition of European masterworks from the same collection, showcasing such superstar artists as Cézanne, Monet, Degas, Picasso, and Gauguin.

On the outskirts of town, expect big doings from the Hermitage (www.thehermitage.com), the plantation home of former U.S. President Andrew Jackson. In 2004, a series of events is planned in observance of the mansion's bicentennial. A side note for those who love good home cooking: Monell's, a Nashville meat-and-three eatery famous for its fried chicken and turnip greens, has opened a cafe at the Hermitage, 4580 Rachel's Lane (tel. 615/889-2941).

A handful of new nightspots keep Nashville jumping after dark. Easy's in the Village, 1910 Belcourt Ave. (tel. 615/292-7575) has become a welcome West End addition, where college kids and the laid-back singles crowd mingle over Cajun-inspired munchies, mini-hamburgers, and plenty of beer. Closer to downtown, partiers can join the mixed (gay and straight) crowd at Tribe, 1517 Church St. (tel. 615/329-2912), a hip urban club and video-music bar that offers a full menu, too.

If it's an authentic Delta blues jukejoint you're after, look no farther than B. B. King's Blues Club, 152 Second Ave. (tel. 615/256-2727). The best in live blues, rock and gospel music are frequently booked here, though B. B. and his legendary guitar, Lucille, are expected to do at least a couple of shows each year, as with the original B. B. King's Blues Club in Memphis.

Memphis

"What's not?" might be the better question. This lazy Southern city that languished in the decades following the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been reborn. Unprecedented development over the past few years has transformed downtown into the vibrant heartbeat of a newly energized city that proudly trumpets its musical heritage as Home of the Blues and Birthplace of Rock n' Roll.

One of the biggest current construction projects is the new 18,200-seat FedEx Forum arena (www.fedexforum.com), which is being built for the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies. The targeted completion date is August 2004, just in time for the 2004-05 basketball season.

Not a hoops nut? Well, music fans should also take note of that date, too, because the Smithsonian's nearby Memphis Rock n' Soul Museum (www.memphisrocknsoul.org) recently announced plans to relocate inside the new arena, allowing greater access and expanded viewing hours for this cultural treasure trove of American music.

Also, book lovers should plan to visit Memphis -- not Nashville -- for the 2004 Southern Festival of Books. The festival will be held at the Cook Convention Center and outdoors on Civic Plaza.

Hands down the most sophisticated hotel in Memphis, The Madison, 79 Madison Ave. (tel. 901/333-1200; www.madisonhotelmemphis.com) is a jewel in downtown's bustling landscape. Converted from a historic 1905 building (a former bank), the property has 110 rooms, including 44 suites. The independently-owned member of the prestigious Small Luxury Hotels of the World offers 24-hour room service, valet parking and doormen, and twice-daily maid service. Rooftop views of the Mississippi River are sublime. And here's another one for the camera: the modern exercise room is in the old bank vault.

A more inexpensive alternative to the pricey Madison is the immaculate SpringHill Suites by Marriott, 21 N. Main St. (tel. 901/522-2100; www.marriott.com). Spacious suites are well equipped for business travelers but are comfortable enough for leisure tourists as well. There's a small outdoor pool and a cheery breakfast area. Free parking is a value-added plus.

Located in the Cooper Young Historic District of Midtown, one of the hot new restaurants in town is called the Beauty Shop, 966 S. Cooper (tel. 901/272-7111). Just for fun, this upscale bar and restaurant is located in a former 1940s-era beauty parlor. While noshing on gourmet fare with a New American/global flare, guests may sit in refurbished hairdryer chairs -- or at tables and banquettes. It's the current place in Memphis to see and to be seen.

In the heart of downtown, next door to the landmark Automatic Slim's Tonga Club (and right across the street from The Peabody) sits Café 61, 85 S. Second St. (tel. 901/523-9351). This funky, laid-back eatery -- a cross between Highway 61 and Route 66 -- serves up an eclectic menu of Cajun, American and even Asian dishes. It's a one-of-a-kind place where you can choose an egg roll or satay of the day, or a thick Creole pork chop served with spicy crawfish macaroni and cheese.

Rising from the proverbial ashes in South Memphis is the new Soulsville USA: Stax Museum of American Music, 926 E. McLemore (tel. 901/946-2535; www.soulsvilleusa.com). This state-of-the-art museum and youth academy for the performing arts opened in 2003 on the grounds of the former Stax recording studio, which was razed in 1989. In the 1960s and early 70s, Stax produced more than 500 hit songs by the likes of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, the Staple Singers, and many more. The museum pays homage to these and other stars of American popular music. Don't miss the revolving display showcasing Isaac Hayes' blinding "Superfly," a gold-trimmed, peacock-blue 1972 Cadillac Eldorado with thick shag carpeting inside.

After much hoopla and anticipation, the pandas have finally landed at the Memphis Zoo, 2000 Prentiss Place (tel. 901/276-WILD; www.memphiszoo.org). The adorable black-and-white giant pandas, named Ya Ya and Le Le, are the main attraction at the zoo's new China exhibition that opened last spring. Keeping Ya Ya and Le Le company here are graceful swans, cranes, otter, goldfish, hog deer, and monkeys. A Chinese sculpture garden, tearoom, pagoda, and dragon-shaped walkways are among the architectural elements of the exhibition.

Beale Street is still the life of the party when it comes to Memphis nightlife. Joining the crowd recently is Pat O'Brien's Memphis, 310 Beale St. (901/529-0900), a long-awaited outpost of the famed New Orleans original. The huge, two-story bar has an outdoor patio as well as a quiet piano lounge. On any given weekend, the big beer hall is where you'll find the rowdiest of the rowdy, however.

Meanwhile, everybody's talking about ten at the Plaza Club, the hippest private late-night club in Memphis. Owned by business and civic leaders Dean and Kristi Jernigan (who spearheaded the birth of the Memphis Redbirds' baseball team a few years ago), the club was launched in late October 2003 as an adjunct to the existing Plaza Club in the Toyota Center at AutoZone Park, 175 Toyota Plaza, Suite 200 (tel. 901/405-0700). The posh Plaza Club is transformed into a tapas bar and nightclub with deejay-spun tunes every 10pm Thursday through Saturday. Annual memberships for the late-night club only start at $150.

A few blocks away, Isaac Hayes is giving his relatively new namesake club at 150 Peabody Place (tel. 901/529-9222) another try. The restaurant, bar, and live-entertainment venue closed briefly in fall 2003, then reopened with new management, but with Hayes' ongoing involvement. On that note, visitors should be aware that Elvis Presley's Memphis, the Beale Street nightclub operated by the same folks who run Graceland (and all The King's ventures), unceremoniously closed in late summer 2003, after several years in business. At press time, the glitzy, Graceland-esque property was still vacant, with no plans for another tenant to move in.