Memphis, as we all know, is the largest city in Mississippi, despite the technicality of it actually being located across the Tennessee line. For most folks who live north of Grenada, this is our metropolis and the place we go for a taste of big city life, even if these days Oxford can give Memphis more than a run for its money in just about any category of culture, food, or fun.
But as a big river town, Memphis has always had a bit more cosmopolitan feel, especially in the years when there were more hardware and drugstores on Oxford’s Square than bars or restaurants. And one place that seemingly was always there was Arcade, said to be the oldest restaurant in Memphis.
Arcade opened its doors in 1919. As a point of comparison, Oxford’s oldest restaurant, the Beacon, would not be around for another 40 years. By that time, Arcade had already gone through its latest remodeling – the one that characterizes it to this day, with 1950s-style booths and tables, counter stools, and plenty of neon. Despite the changes in interior design, one thing remained constant, and that was the simple, hearty diner food, which is best exemplified by the huge breakfasts on offer – country-fried steaks and gravy, biscuits, eggs, grits, and pancakes of all varieties.
A trip to Arcade is always a special one. We no longer have to go to Memphis for fine dining, as the selections in Oxford are quite numerous (so good in fact that people from Memphis even come to Oxford for what we have to offer). We don’t have to go to Memphis for ethnic cuisine, because in Oxford we can find Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Indian, and more. We don’t even have to go to Memphis to get good ribs, because we can even find those in Oxford. But we can’t find the kind of history in Oxford that we can enjoy just by saddling up to the counter at Arcade.
At Arcade we can imagine our country ancestors being both thrilled and a little frightened by the sights of the big city, and then being comforted by a fulfilling meal at an Arcade table. We can picture Ole Miss students of years gone by up for dancing at the Peabody or a night out on the town coming in for an early morning breakfast after a late night out. We can visualize flappers and farmers, singers and sanitation workers, attorneys and artists, towboat pilots and tourists. We can even see Elvis slipping in for a banana and peanut butter sandwich (still on the menu, by the way).
We don’t need Memphis like we used to, but it’s still fun to take a road trip up there from time to time. And when you need a place that feels familiar, even if you’ve never been there, the Arcade is waiting for you, just as it has been for more than 95 years.
Arcade is located at 540 S. Main Street in Memphis and is open seven days a week from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
About Danny Toma:
After spending time exploring Italy, Ireland, Poland, Israel, Iraq, Germany, and, perhaps most exotically, Washington, Danny Toma is now back in Oxford to stay after a 22-year career with the U.S. Department of State. He enjoys dining out, as well as cooking in, and contributes to EatingOxford.com on a regular basis.