Taking care of business in Memphis, eating at Pete & Sam’s


As previously mentioned, I was in Memphis over the weekend. It was quite a trip — seven of us (all adults; the little ones either traveled separately or stayed home) packed into a minivan. All the way there Friday, all the way back Sunday. Except for a couple of brief stints while I wolfed down some lunch in the passenger seat, I was the driver the whole time.

We were there for a wedding, and being out-of-towners, were invited to the rehearsal dinner Friday night. It was at my favorite restaurant in the world, Pete & Sam’s on Park Avenue. It’s my favorite mainly because of the great memories of many dinners there with my wife’s family over the years. It was my father-in-law’s favorite place, and he took the whole crowd there whenever we were in town. Mr. Sam used to come over to the table and chat with him whenever we did.

It’s just a very, very Memphis place, for Memphians. The opposite of touristy, it doesn’t attract the kind of clientele that, say, the Rendezvous does, or even Corky’s.

It’s an Italian place, so it may seem odd that it would be a favorite of mine, since I’m allergic to almost everything on the menu (can’t have cheese, can’t have pasta, and even their famous spinach has egg in it, so I can’t have that). But they have this great item on the menu called “Beef Tender,” a steak that comes in a hot, deep metal dish, and you can’t even see the meat because it’s submerged in a wine sauce with mushrooms. It’s awesome, and it’s preceded by a salad with the best house Italian dressing anywhere.

The place was established in 1948, and if it’s been redecorated since, you can’t really tell (although the little mini-jukeboxes that were once in the booths have been gone for awhile). It’s really, really old school. For whatever reason, the place has never gotten a liquor-by-the-drink license, so everybody brown-bags. Fortunately, there has long been a liquor store nearby (in Tennessee, you can only buy wine at a liquor store, not in a grocery). When I say it’s a place for Memphians, I’m not sure all Memphians know about it. But most Italian, Irish and other Catholics seem to. It has an ethnic feel. There are always large family groups there, with multiple wine bottles crowding the table. See the picture, below, that I took of a nearby table that had not yet been cleared away; I took it late one night on a previous visit in April.

Not all customers are Catholic, though. Some, for instance, are aliens. I mean, like from outer space. I once ran into Prince Mongo of the planet Zambodia, someone well-known to Memphians although not as famous elsewhere as Elvis or Al Green, at Pete & Sam’s. Photos of better-known celebs line the wall behind the cash register. Ed McMahon appears twice.

I learned on this trip that, sadly, Mr. Sam passed away last year, just a couple of years after my father-in-law (his cousin Pete was only a partner for six months back in the ’40s, but Mr. Sam kept the name). One would have thought he was immortal. Some robbers shot him in the gut on Christmas morning in 2000, when he was 76. He was soon back behind the register, and three months later was climbing on the roof fixing the air-conditioner, according to The Commercial Appeal.

By the way, Doug Ross will back me up on Pete & Sam’s being a good place to eat. He’s been spending a lot of time in Memphis on business lately, and I’ve been trying to keep him well fed. He’s tried both Corky’s and Pete & Sam’s on my recommendation, and he’s enjoyed it.

Beyond Pete & Sam’s, we didn’t have time to do much Memphis stuff (I never got to Corky’s for barbecue, for instance), but on Saturday afternoon, while the ladies were hanging at the pool, the twins were getting ready for their roles as flower girls and my younger son was taking a nap, my older son and I played tourist for a couple of hours. We dropped by Graceland for the first time in many a year, and went by Sun Studios — where the above photo was taken.


Memphis looms large in the family legend, and I think it’s spiritually important to make contact with these touchstones now and then. Mind you, I’ve never taken the tour of Graceland. That wouldn’t seem right. Elvis himself didn’t invite me into his house. I haven’t even been on the grounds since right after he died, when the family was still living there — his uncle Vester was sitting out on a folding chair by the famous gate greeting people who came from all over the world to file by the graves. It was more of a pilgrimage then than a tourist thing.

But I do like to go by and see the place. Before my family moved to the Memphis area when I was 18, I only knew one thing about the city — that it was where Elvis lived. I don’t think I could even have told you it was on the Mississippi River.

I’m feeling kind of wistful now that we’re back in SC. I don’t know when we’re going to get back to the Bluff City. Since my parents-in-law died, we only get there for weddings, and while we’ve had a nice string of them the last couple of years (nieces and nephews), there’s not another on the horizon currently — no “save-the-date” cards on the fridge.

So Friday night’s Beef Tender is going to have to hold me awhile.

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14 thoughts on “Taking care of business in Memphis, eating at Pete & Sam’s

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      And the price tag….that was what confused me….and the fact that I expected your signature flipped-up clip- ons….

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Thank you, but I realize it’s pretty lame.

    I used to have a great Elvis sneer. Back when I was about 4 years old (that would have been 1957), I used to practice it in mirrors. Got really good at it, on one side.

    But my facial muscles have forgotten how to do it.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Yeah, I didn’t get “sneer.” I got “loose dentures” or “something caught in front teeth” ….raise just one side of your upper lip for a sneer.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Oh, let’s not jump to rash conclusions, now.

            I feel it in my bones that I was meant to be king. Or at least the king’s chancellor, the power behind the throne.

            But something went very wrong with the whole succession thing…

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            I was playing against type in “Pride and Prejudice” — demonstrating my range, as it were.

            But back in the early 80s, I played a part that felt true to type. It was in “The Lion in Winter.” I was Geoffrey, the middle son. Henry wanted youngest son John to succeed him, and their mother, Eleanor of Aquitane, was angling for Richard to get the job.

            Geoffrey was nobody’s favorite, but in my humble opinion, the best qualified.

            There’s a bit of dialogue that went something like this (sorry, it’s been too many years for me to be sure of my lines now):

            ME: Have you heard? John’s to be king, and I’m to be his chancellor.
            ELEANOR: How nice for you.
            ME: It’s not as nice as being king.

            I packed a lot into that line. I FELT it…

          3. Brad Warthen Post author

            Here’s how the transcript from the movie goes:

            ELEANOR (as John exits): And that’s to be the king.

            GEOFFREY: And I’m to be his chancellor. Has he told you? John will rule the country while I run it. That is to say, he gets to spend the taxes that I raise.

            ELEANOR: How nice for you.

            GEOFFREY: It’s not as nice as being king.

            ELEANOR: We’ve made you duke of Brittany. Is that so little?

            GEOFFREY: No one ever thinks of crown and mentions Geoff. Why is that?

            ELEANOR: Isn’t being chancellor power enough?

            GEOFFREY: It’s not the power I feel deprived of. It’s the mention I miss. There’s no affection for me here. You wouldn’t think I’d want that, would you?

            Those lines feel familiar. Maybe I spoke them. It’s been a LONG time.

            And yes, Geoff sounds a bit petulant. But hey, his parents were WAY unfair to him.

          4. Scout

            Well that just took me back to European History circa 1990. Dr. Patterson would just start talking about Peter O’Toole and Kathryn Hepburn with no segue or explanation in the middle of his lecture. I finally had to rent to movie to understand. That movie is full of people before they became people. It was very distracting. I’m trying to focus on English history and in walks Hanibal Lector, James Bond, and King Arthur.

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