Neighborhood Watch: Cooper-Young

The best of the Old and New South mingle in this storied Memphis neighborhood.

WORDS Hunter Braithwaite
May 2018
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Photography Luis García

Back in the 1960s, a teenaged Priscilla Presley would travel the six miles north from Graceland to Atkins Beauty and Barber Shop, located at the intersection of Cooper Street and Young Avenue in Memphis, where she would sit in a glass-bricked booth and get her beehive teased and coned. Today, you can sit in the same booth. And while beehives are off the menu, they do a killer coconut cream pie.

Karen Carrier, owner-chef of the Beauty Shop Restaurant, as Atkins is now known, welcomes me with a heavy glass of Beaujolais. We chat over faint soul music. The old hair-washing sinks are behind the bar, and the plastic dryer helmets mounted above the tables give the place a Sputnik sock-hop vibe. The food, similarly, is both down-home and out-of-this-world. “We took traditional and twisted it,” Carrier says. Which means chicken wings tossed in a sweet lime-chili sauce, served with dramatic wedges of watermelon, cashews and crumbled blue cheese. “It’s our answer to hot wings, a big thing here in Memphis.” Another favorite is the pork and peach: The kitchen team pickles or grills the fruit, depending on the season, sears the chop, tops it with blueberry vinaigrette and dishes it up alongside an ear of corn. 

Carrier was raised kosher in this barbecue town. R&B legends Sam & Dave played her high school dances. Her best friend’s father pronounced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dead. A former art student, she is responsible for several restaurants around Memphis, including the funhouse-gothic Mollie Fontaine Lounge. In 2002 she opened the Beauty Shop, attracted by the neighborhood as much as the salon. “I loved the feel of this place,” she says. “Everybody rode their bikes here. There were hipsters, first-time homeowners. It was local. It was really local.”

Beauty Shop Restaurant.

The Beauty Shop’s twist on Southern cuisine sums up Cooper-Young, a neighborhood encompassing about 60 blocks four miles east of downtown. The area has a small-town feel and plenty of history—many of the homes date back 100 years, passed down through the generations. In lots of ways, it was the quintessential middle-class enclave: a trolley line, a Piggly Wiggly (the supermarket chain was founded in Memphis), horse racing at the Fairgrounds. But in this city, greatness has never  been far away. In 1954, Johnny Cash played his first gig in the basement of the Galloway Church, across the street from the salon. When Memphis was down on its knees in the 1970s, artists moved into the neighborhood. That bohemian presence lingers today.

If the Beauty Shop is Memphis’ radio-friendly A-side, then Bar DKDC is the dark, riskier B-side. The late-night spot, also owned by Carrier, boasts a globe-trotting cocktail and small-bites menu. “Street food is the true food of the great cooks,” says Carrier, whose travels to Israel, Mexico, Jamaica and New Orleans inspired the fare. They host live music every night. Band after band, legendary and unknown, united only by surging voltage. “I don’t like acoustic acts,” jokes Carrier, who goes on to say that Bar DKDC’s catchy name stands for Don’t Know Don’t Care.

A few feet from here is Goner Records, an unassuming mecca for garage rock enthusiasts, whether they grew up down the street or just got off a flight from Tokyo. (Add it to any itinerary including Graceland or Sun Studio.) As I push through the shop’s front door, raw, pulsing chords sound over the speakers. Owners Eric Friedl and Zac Ives lead me into a back room, which is only slightly more packed with vinyl and concert posters than the storefront. “We started with about 100 records and a whole lot more space,” says Friedl, who plays guitar in the garage-punk band the Oblivians.

“We’re able to do what we want here in Memphis. It would be tougher to pull that off if we were on one of the coasts. It’s cheap living, and there’s a good community.”

The stock list ranges from new releases to obscure oldies. The blend of genres, past and present, is richer than delta soil—and nearly as dusty. Every estate sale, every time someone clears out the attic, treasures are unearthed. Flipping through Goner’s bins is a crash course in Memphis music history: Stax, Sun, Ardent, Hi, and artists such as Al Green, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes. I snag Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” for three bucks.

Goner is more than a shop. Its label has put out some key Memphis records, including Reigning Sound Live at Goner Records, one of the best live albums ever recorded in the city. Then, there’s Gonerfest, a multi-day blowout that is scheduled for late September this year. The festival draws musicians and fans from around the world, but it feels very local. “There’s a very communal nature to just about everything we do,” says Ives, a guitarist who has lived in Cooper-Young for the past 14 years. “We’re able to do what we want here in Memphis. It would be tougher to pull that off if we were on one of the coasts. It’s cheap living, and there’s a good community.”

“It’s a great neighborhood for us,” says Friedl, rattling off a list of nearby businesses: 901 Comics, Java Cabana, Bluff City Coffee & Bakery Co-op, Burke’s Book Store (founded in 1875), Two Rivers Bookstore (founded in 2017) and House of Mews, a cat sanctuary with a big front window and, on the day that I walk in, 87 cats up for adoption. “Then, there’s Dave Halford’s place,” adds Ives, referring to Halford Loudspeakers, the custom speaker and stereo shop a few doors away.

All of these spots are clustered around the intersection of Cooper and Young, where the sidewalk curves around an old gazebo to make way for a long-gone streetcar. Heading north on Cooper, I swing into Burke’s Book Store, which is run by writer Corey Mesler and his wife, Cheryl. Their rare and regional selection is rivaled only by the shelves of vintage pulp. In the end, I grab a new release: Robert Gordon’s new book on music in his hometown, Memphis Rent Party.

While traffic’s not a problem in Memphis, the new bike lanes on Cooper make my walk that much calmer. I step off the main drag and find block after block of century-old houses: tiny shotguns without driveways (people took the trolley); baroque Queen Annes and stately brick Foursquares. Bungalows line up so residents can see their neighbors’ porches all the way down the block. “Not to say we don’t like our privacy, but if you’re on your front porch having a beverage, it means you’re open for conversation,” says Emily Bishop, who has lived here for 30 years. “It’s all about the porch.” Bishop is spearheading an effort to have Cooper-Young landmarked as a historic district. “In order for the neighborhood to be historically hip,” she says, referring to its official tagline, “we have to protect our history.”

Up and down each street, Bishop acts as my Virgil, pointing out the original streetlights, the double-wide front doors on some of the homes. “You used to have your wake in your living room,” she says, “so your door had to be wide enough for the casket.” Proof, in architectural terms, that people planned on spending their whole lives here. Surrounding these homes are patches of green: the sloped and terraced lawns, the trees. The tulip magnolias are the first to bloom, sprouting pink shoots in early spring; then come the cherry trees, the pear trees and the dogwoods. The ginkgo trees and century-old oaks provide a dense and rustling canopy. If you visit Memphis in the summer, you’ll appreciate this shade.

On the corner of Cooper and Peabody, Lucky Cat Ramen chefs Zach Nicholson and Sarah Pardee have also taken tradition and twisted it. The result is some of the best ramen in the South. Ingredients are locally sourced, though their charcoal comes from Japan. “It’s aged oak,” says Zach. “It stays white-hot for hours.” Which is what you need to finish the sous-vide chashu (marinated, braised pork belly), which is served in a broth that’s been simmering for three days. “Every little component has time and attention put into it,” he says. “Four days of labor go into a $12 bowl.” This summer, Lucky Cat will relocate to a larger location in the neighborhood, where they’ll add yakitori and small bites to their menu. And though the flavor is rapturous, chances are sous-vide chashu isn’t the only pork dish you’ve been meaning to eat in Memphis.

The Bar-B-Q Shop owners Eric and Frank Vernon

To the north of Cooper-Young is The Bar-B-Q Shop, which is identifiable by the dancing pigs on the windows. The first thing that hits you when you enter is the aroma of spiced hickory—smokiness that is part of the Memphis barbeque trinity. You need it, says co-owner Eric Vernon, to deepen the sweetness and balance the vinegary twang. Frank Vernon, Eric’s father, has been here for over 30 years, making the peppery, deep-red sauce, manning the pit. “We make 40 gallons of sauce a week,” says Eric, who works to the sound of Isaac Hayes and The Bar-Kays. It’s a Memphis mix, but also a nod to the restaurant’s history. Originally located on South Parkway East and nearby Stax Records, it was a popular lunch spot for visiting and local musicians.

“To this day, James Alexander comes in all the time,” Eric says, referring to The Bar-Kays founder and bass player. “Sometimes, he even takes me out to his car and says, ‘Hey, listen to this.’”

Back in the day, the restaurant was called Brady & Lil’s. Brady Vincent (a.k.a. Mr. Brady) taught Frank Vernon everything he knows about barbecue. Simple lessons that are easy to screw up: Cook your product slow; make hickory wood your friend, but don’t let it overpower the meat. Then, Mr. Brady retired and Frank took over. Eric grew up working alongside his dad. Talk to them together, and they’ll say how great a bonding experience that was, father and son toiling around a barbecue pit. Get them alone, and it’s basically the same story, but with a bit more head-shaking. Frank was looking to retire when Eric finished his marketing MBA at the University of Memphis. Eric said he’d give the shop a year. That was back in 2001.

"Like most of the South, Memphis is changing but pulled pork, ribs—they’re not going anywhere." 

A celebrity clientele is a bellwether for the success of a restaurant. The Bar-B-Q Shop has slung ribs to Justin Timberlake, Seth Green, Darius Rucker and ZZ Top, but it’s the story of a star not being served that reveals Memphis’ charm. Late one night, Eric was working the register when Sean Penn came in and asked to be seated. The kitchen was about to close, and by the time Eric recognized the actor, he’d already told him to come back in the morning. Which, realizing this was a place where he could coat-check celebrity and just eat, he did. “At the end of the day, people just want to feel normal,” Eric says.

Glazed ribs, beans, slaw, and pulled-pork spaghetti at The Bar-B-Q Shop

That’s not to say I feel normal staring down a trio of barbecue—the ribs, the sandwich and the outlier: the spaghetti. Dumbstruck is more like it. The ribs, ranked by Food Network as the best in the country, just came off the smoker. They’re dusted with the house Dancing Pigs dry rub, which you should pick up at the grocery store on your way out of town. For the sandwich, Frank and Eric ditch the flimsy white slices found in roadside joints for thick Texas toast, crisped to add a layer of texture: And, this being Memphis, the coleslaw comes on the sandwich rather than on the side. It’s a lesson out of Mr. Brady’s book, or Zach Nicholson at Lucky Cat: Pay attention to every detail. The same can be said for the barbecue pulled-pork spaghetti, a very local twist on tradition, and Elvis’ favorite. Frank and Eric start theirs by smoking a base in the pit for 12 hours. The dish is an inspired mismatch, something Memphis does so well: peanut butter and banana, barbecue and pasta, gospel and blues.

Like most of the South, Memphis is changing but pulled pork, ribs—they’re not going anywhere. “Barbecue is the anchor,” Eric says. “Once we get you in with the barbecue, we say, ‘Hey, there’s a nice little place down the street where this guy does this amazing dish,’ and then we send you out.” He’ll likely send you to some place in Cooper-Young.

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Hang Your Hat

Cooper-Young lacks hotels, but these nearby gems are a hop away

The Peabody Memphis

Since the 1930s, resident ducks have waddled into this luxe hotel’s lobby twice a day (11 a.m., 5 p.m.) for a splash in the fountain. The ritual is one of the biggest draws in town. Arrive early, or expect to view from the mezzanine.

Hotel Napoleon

Recently opened in the old Scimitar newspaper building, the Napoleon offers an ultra-modern boutique hotel experience set in a beaux arts/Romanesque masterpiece.

The James  Lee House

Purchased for $1 and renovated by a husband-and-wife team, this 1848 farmhouse is now a jaw-dropping bed-and- breakfast with five room types.

A Passing Interest

You know you’re in Cooper-Young when you drive under Jill Turman’s Trestle, a sculpture of local buildings on a railway bridge. Don’t miss the walking tour of the depicted buildings

Captain Harris House

A Queen Anne-style house built in 1898. The largest house in Cooper-Young, now an AirBnB. 2106 Young Ave.

Cheatham-Barron House

Built from 1883-1885, this is one of Cooper-Young’s oldest homes. Its porch features turns and spindles, giving it a welcoming, whimsical feel. 1064 Blythe St.

Divine Temple Church of God in Christ

This church from 1914, originally called Lamar Heights Presbyterian, blends colonial revival with a modernist steeple. 1915 Young Ave.

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