Memphis' historic music room returns with soul food

Fried green tomatoes are topped with corn maque choux, sort of a Cajun take on creamed corn, and drizzled with a Cajun remoulade.(Photo: Larry Olmsted, for USA TODAY)

The scene: Memphis is renowned as one of the top cities in the world for enjoying live music, and Lafayette’s Music Room combines this with a historical trip back in time. Before the famous Beale Street Entertainment District was created as a pedestrianized cluster of bars and venues, Overton Square was the city’s beating heart spot for live music and theater. After years of decline, the neighborhood is suddenly hot again, arguably the trendiest in Memphis, with new restaurants, shops and brewpubs. Back in the '70s, the last heyday of Overton Square, Lafayette’s was the place that up-and-coming acts wanted to play and the likes of Billy Joel, KISS, Barry Manilow and Styx all took the stage here. The bar closed for 38 years before reopening in 2014 amidst the neighborhood’s resurgence. It has since become one of the city’s hot spots for live music fans again.

The new Lafayette’s is in the heart of Overton Square and spans two levels with outdoor seating and dining on both. The interior of the ground floor is one large room with the main stage on one side, a long bar on the other and floor tables across the room. Upstairs there's a horseshoe-shaped balcony with seating wrapped around and views of the stage below. The stage itself is a serious setup with state of the art sound and light systems. The entire place has exposed wooden walls, dark wooden tables and chairs, and a worn but upscale club feel. Lafayette’s’ features two live acts nightly, with a focus on promoting local talent.

Reason to visit: Live music, Pimento cheese waffle fries, po’ boys, southern pizzas

The food: Not surprisingly for Memphis, Lafayette’s Music Room serves a modern and slightly upscale version of traditional southern and soul food, with both upgraded classics and creative inventions. For an example of the latter, one of the more popular appetizers is a sort of southern spin on poutine, the classic Montreal comfort food of French fries with gravy and cheese curds, in turn a potato-based riff on nachos. Here they top crispy waffle fries with house-made pimento cheese, a southern staple, and your choice of crawfish or bacon. The crawfish was too unusual for me to pass up and the use of waffle fries, and their crispiness, helps a lot, as one of the major problems with any poutine-style dish is sogginess. Not here — this is a winner; it's really good, with the pimento cheese just spicy enough to have a kick but not so hot as to make it a challenge. The crawfish is a nice touch, as is serving it in a cast iron skillet, though I think it would be just as good with bacon. Another top starter with lots of regional flair is the fried green tomatoes, topped with corn maque choux, sort of a Cajun take on creamed corn with corn kernels cooked in lots of butter and cream along with chopped bell peppers, onions, garlic, herbs and spices, all drizzled with a Cajun remoulade — a very New Orleans spin on the classic fried green tomatoes. The tomatoes themselves were good, not the best I’ve had, but the topping was delicious and made the dish. Other notable starters include sweet corn and jalapeno hushpuppies, char broiled oysters and New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp.

The shrimp and grits is a good example of the entrees here: a haute version of the classic, a mound of dense grits in the middle of a large bowl surrounded by a ring of brothy, almost soup-like sauce brimming with shrimp, slices of andouille sausage and mushrooms. It's not the most traditional take on the dish but it's quite tasty and very moist, with a splash of sauce on every bite of grits. Even the simplest dishes seek authentic touches, like the bags of New Orleans’ beloved Zapp’s chips (Voodoo flavor) that come with the po’ boy sandwiches, served on butcher paper. One real standout in this category is the fried shrimp po’ boy — tasty shrimp perfectly breaded and cooked till crispy on very good bread. Even the extensive list of wood fired pizza has several southern takes on the genre, including a shrimp and andouille version, and my favorite, one with big cubes of barbecue pork belly, pickled red onions, cheddar cheese and a smoky chipotle barbecue sauce. The crust won’t win any pizza awards, but the creative and delicious toppings make up for it.

The menu is very large and includes something for every taste from entrée salads to basics like grilled tuna, but to me the appeal is the southern spin, such as fried chicken on a waffle, pasta Jambalaya, or a unique main course comprised of an assortment of side dishes (you choose three) such as mac and cheese, smoked cheddar grits, roasted corn risotto, Spanish rice or corn maque choux, all served with a heathy side of Abita beer-flavored bread.

The main appeal of Lafayette’s Music Room is the live music every night, and it is a big appeal, but the food, which could have been much more of an afterthought, is fun and tasty, and the setting is very pleasant. It doesn’t hurt that you can start with a choice from a very creative craft cocktail list or enjoy numerous local beers on draught, and end with tempting southern dessert specialties like a layered mason jar take on Bananas Foster or classic New Orleans beignets (fried dough fritters) with confectioners sugar and decadent caramel sauce.

Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes — for the music with good elevated southern comfort fare under one roof, it's a great place to get a feel of Memphis.

Rating: Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)

Price: $$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)

Details: 2119 Madison Ave., Memphis, TN; 901-207-5097; lafayettes.com/memphis/

Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a barbecue contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there's a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an e-mail at travel@usatoday.com. Some of the venues reviewed by this column provided complimentary services.

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