For an offbeat experience, head to the birthplace of the blues
Photography by Richard Lawrence & Stacey Greenberg
“Have you been to Clarksdale?” It’s the question I’ve been asking everyone since visiting for the first time in January. The answer has been mostly, “No.” Surprising, considering the proximity, I thought. But their next response shed a little more light: “What is there to even do in Clarksdale?”
In moments like these, as much as I adore Memphis, I have to shake my head. Memphians can sometimes get a little too comfortable with our own city, missing out on what’s quite literally next door.
A quick hour-and-a-half drive, and you’ll land squarely in the Mississippi Delta, a place that is dripping with unique history and culture.
Historically, Clarksdale has drawn visitors due to its fame as the birthplace of the blues. And it’s still a music destination today. With live music every day of the year, multiple music festivals, and the Delta Blues Museum, Clarksdale has drawn a significant national and international guest list. I was also surprised to find a thriving arts scene, with gorgeous urban artwork and multiple local galleries. And let’s be clear that the food is good—really, really good.
Unlike most weekend trips, you don’t have to plan too far in advance for a visit to Clarksdale.
This small town is made up of a genuinely close-knit community who are ready to welcome you for a day (like me) or a weekend (like I’m planning soon) to enjoy the sights, sounds, adventures, and, of course, eats.
Head straight to Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art on Delta Avenue. Think of this as a tourist and music shop with the most knowledgeable host. Roger Stolle is the commissioner of the tourism board and author of two books (Hidden History of Mississippi Blues and Mississippi Juke Joint Confidential). He has a wealth of Clarksdalian knowledge. His love of the blues led him to the area almost 20 years ago; since then he’s been helping keep the musical heritage of the town alive. “We have live blues playing 365 days a year, and I can tell you where it’s playing today,” he assured me. Plus, he’ll hand over two free audio walking tours for tourist spots and an African American heritage map. (The music listings are published online, but chances are Roger has handwritten in a few on his printed list, so always check in at the store.) Cat Head is also a great place to learn about local festivals, including the annual Juke Joint Festival (jukejointfestival.com), which Roger co-founded, taking place on April 23 this year.
Meraki Roasting Company, down the road a bit, is more than just a coffee shop. Run by Ben Lewis, Meraki’s goal is to be a place of community support, especially for young adults entering the workforce.
Meraki provides work development training for young people, ranging from barista service to roasting the fresh coffee beans.
And—I can confirm—they make a delicious brew. Meraki is also linked with Griot Arts program, a nonprofit focused on providing arts education to youth in Clarksdale.
If tea is more your thing, grab a cup (or a bag!) of Yazoo Yaupon tea. Yaupon is native to Mississippi and has been consumed by indigenous people for thousands of years. Yaupon, a cousin of yerba mate, comes from the naturally caffeinated leaves of the yaupon holly tree, and is the only naturally caffeinated plant species that grows in the U.S. The Yaupon Brothers American Tea Company recently partnered with Meraki students to grow yaupon trees and produce the tea in Clarksdale.
Our Grandma’s House of Pancakes is an unassuming spot in the heart of downtown with fast and friendly service. The food is affordable and delicious. Stop in for an omelet, grits, eggs, bacon, hash browns, toast, and most definitely some pancakes—which are absolutely perfect. You won’t find any “hair of the dog” here, but the coffee is hot and the orange juice is cold. They open every day at 7 a.m.
If you’ve never had Southern-style Lebanese food (to be fair, I’m not sure if it exists anywhere else), you must stop at Rest Haven for a kibbie.
This restaurant has been in the Chamoun family since 1947. Today it’s operated by Paula Chamoun Jackson and her son Matthew. Paula said, “In 1969, people at the restaurant would see my dad eating kibbie wrapped in Lebanese bread, and they wanted a sandwich. That’s how we started selling Lebanese food.” The now-famous kibbie—a Lebanese spiced meat patty—is served in almost any form, including omelets. But don’t miss out on the rest of the menu: They offer big Southern breakfasts of hotcakes, hashbrowns, eggs, bacon, and all the fixings; a daily meat-and-three in addition to burgers, sandwiches, and Lebanese platters; and homemade pies. Pro tip: Call a day ahead and get a whole coconut meringue pie to bring home with you.
Hicks World Famous Hot Tamales & More is the soul food and barbecue shop that’s been run by Eugene Hicks, Sr., for almost 50 years. First a grocery store, Hicks is now a full restaurant and banquet hall, though everything is currently takeout only. Drive up to the window on the side of the building and place your order with Eugene himself. He loves to chat and will happily show you what’s on the grill if you like. Get a dozen tamales to take home, to snack on as you explore, or to store in the hotel fridge for late-night consumption. Eugene is also happy to ship tamales to your front door as long as you reside in the United States!
Hooker Grocer + Eatery is a relatively new—and welcome—addition to the Clarksdale dining scene. This is a Southern restaurant with an upscale casual twist. It’s also one of the few places to find gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan options. There’s often live music, and the large patio is great for outdoor dining when the weather allows. Service is incredibly friendly, there’s a full bar, and I had some of the best pimento cheese I’ve ever tasted. (Bacon is the secret ingredient!) They are open Wednesday to Sunday for dinner only. You’ll find the tables full of locals most nights, so definitely make a reservation.
Red’s Lounge is the real deal when it comes to juke joints in Clarksdale.
Don’t expect fancy amenities or atmosphere, but do expect beer and blues galore. All of Clarksdale’s most famous blues musicians are on rotation at Red’s, and, yes, owner Red Paden can be found behind the bar. There’s typically a $10 cover charge. Beer, water, and sodas are available for purchase (cash only), and they don’t mind if you BYOB. Depending on what’s happening that day, the grill outside may or may not be fired up. The space is intimate, and there’s not a bad seat in the house. Be prepared to dance!
Another fun place to hear the blues (and to grab a bite and play pool) is Ground Zero Blues Club. Part restaurant, part bar, part juke joint (and partially owned by Morgan Freeman!), this club is a great place to while away an evening in Clarksdale, beverage in hand. It’s more commercial than Red’s, but fun nonetheless.
John Ruskey is a local legend in Clarksdale for good reason. After landing in the Delta following his love of the blues, he soon found another love: the Mississippi River. He says, “There wasn’t anyone providing canoeing excursions for the last 1,100 miles of the river back then, from St. Louis down, so in 1998 I decided to start a canoe company.” And that’s how Quapaw Canoe Company was born. In that time, John has become an expert naturalist with a deep understanding of the river; he shares his knowledge generously. His guide name is Driftwood Johnny, and he and his team can take reservations from day- to week- to month-long trips, depending on the type of excursion his guests want. Plus, he’s famous for his open-fire camping meals (he cooked with Anthony Bourdain!) and watercolor artwork available at his home studio. He is a man of many talents and fascinating stories.
If you can’t make it down to Clarksdale just yet, Quapaw Canoe Company opened a Memphis outpost on March 1! Matthew “Mississippi” Bodine is the river guide in Memphis, and you can get in touch with him to schedule your own custom day- or multi-day trip at canoememphis.com.
“I just love this town. It’s weird in just the right way,” says Ann Williams, part owner of the Travelers Hotel as well as the Coahoma Collective artist residency.
Along with her partner, Chuck Rutledge, Ann opened Travelers with support from the artist residents who are invited to work at the hotel in exchange for living and art studio space. A stay at the hotel is as modern as it gets in Clarksdale. It boasts artistically designed rooms, a large common area for lounging, a lobby bar that operates on the honor system, and a fully stocked shared kitchen with free gourmet coffee, a large fridge for storing your emergency snacks, and a community dining table.
There’s a sister hotel that recently opened up in New Orleans, keeping the Delta connected. Ann and Chuck’s other Clarksdale business, Collective Seed & Supply Co., is a heritage store that helps provide locally sourced food and outdoor supplies for the Clarksdale community.
For something, well, completely different, Shack Up Inn offers a most delightfully eccentric stay.
Embodying redneck chic, Shack Up is a collection of literal shacks arranged together on a property just a short drive from the heart of Clarksdale.
Surprisingly cozy and comfortable inside, each one is filled with historic memorabilia and interesting decor. Run by Bill Talbot, this is a treasure trove of an overnight experience, with a bar and music venue next door.
The Lofts at the Five & Dime—in the former Woolworth building—offers apartment-style accommodations. The award-winning Auberge Hostel, which also has a sister hostel in New Orleans, offers bunk-style rooms with shared bathrooms. On VRBO you’ll find funky two-bedroom accommodations in the heart of downtown—including the Hooker Hotel, The Squeeze Box, and Delta Digs. Airbnb offers apartments for rent above Ground Zero.
With additional reporting and photos by Stacey Greenberg.
EAT & DRINK
Hicks World Famous Hot Tamales & More
305 South State Street
Tuesday – Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Hooker Grocer + Eatery
316 John Lee Hooker Lane
Wednesday – Saturday 5 to 9 p.m., Sunday 4 to 8 p.m.
Meraki Roasting Company
282 Sunflower Avenue
Daily 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Our Grandma’s House of Pancakes
115 3rd Street #117
Daily 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.
419 South State Street
Monday – Tuesday 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., Wednesday – Saturday 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Ground Zero Blues Club
387 Delta Avenue
Wednesday – Thursday 5 to 11 p.m., Friday – Saturday 11 a.m. to 12 a.m.
398 Sunflower Avenue
Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art
252 Delta Avenue
Monday – Friday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Collective Seed & Supply Co.
145 Delta Avenue
Tuesday-Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Delta Blues Museum
1 Blues Alley
Monday – Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Quapaw Canoe Company
291 Sunflower Avenue
164 Delta Avenue
The Lofts at the Five & Dime
211 Yazoo Avenue
Shack Up Inn
1 Commissary Circle
212 Third Street
Jordan Arellano is a freelance writer, dog mom, and Memphis transplant who has called the 901 home for over five years. Her background is in nonprofit and marketing. When she isn’t reading, writing, or stress-baking, she travels as often as possible and eats all the vegetarian fare Memphis has to offer. @are.jordan
Richard Lawrence takes pictures in and around the city of Memphis and the Mid-South. @sundayinmemphis