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Penny McGraw, who headed the kitchen at the Brooks Museum's Brushmark for several years, has recently taken a position with Starwood Hotels & Resorts to be the executive chef at the Westin Hotel downtown, which is scheduled to open in May.

After leaving the Brushmark last year, McGraw briefly took charge of the kitchen at McEwen's on Monroe before she decided to pursue her dream of owning her own restaurant.

What McGraw had envisioned was a small neighborhood restaurant with a great wine bar and simple, affordable food -- a place where lasting relationships with customers can be built. "I've been to so many great neighborhood restaurants like that in Chicago," McGraw says. "I always thought of the concept as affordable fine dining."

McGraw was close to taking over an already-established restaurant in Midtown, but the deal fell through. And though she's taken the position at Westin, McGraw hasn't given up owning a restaurant so much as postponed it. "It's just not going to happen now, and I'm really lucky to have gotten this opportunity with Westin," McGraw says. At the hotel, she will oversee the food for banquets, meetings, weddings, and special events.

Westin Hotels and Resorts was founded in 1930 as Western Hotels, an alliance between two hotel competitors who happened to have breakfast at the same diner one morning and decided, over coffee, to work together. As the hotel group began to grow from a hotel chain with 17 properties in the Northwest to a world leader with more than 120 properties in 24 countries, it began to set standards for the hotel industry. It was the first to offer 24-hour room service, develop in-house training for executive chefs, and implement comprehensive credit-card reservation and checkout systems.

The Westin Memphis offers rooms for guests with special needs, and almost an entire floor is designed for the extra-tall, so that NBA players staying there don't have to feel like they've entered a dollhouse. "It's really amazing," McGraw says. "The standard that most people are used to gets taken to a completely other level. I have a state-of-the art kitchen and full creative freedom, and the NBA players who choose to stay here have larger beds, bathrooms, and door frames."

The hotel's restaurant is the Daily Grill. Spence McMillan, who most recently cooked at Grill 901 in Collierville, will be the chef, and Neil Heaslett, a New Orleans native who most recently worked for Brinker International Restaurant Chain (Chili's, On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina, Romano's Macaroni Grill, and others), will be the restaurant's general manager.

The Daily Grill -- which will feature popcorn shrimp, spinach-artichoke dip, charbroiled steaks and chops, braised short ribs, cedar-plank salmon, chicken potpie, and meatloaf -- has its roots in a Beverly Hills restaurant opened in the '80s called the Grill on the Alley, which prided itself on being a "bastion of straightforward classic American cuisine."

The Grill on the Alley became one of the L.A. area's hot spots, and its founders decided to make their concept available to a larger crowd and thus developed the Daily Grill. It opened in Brentwood (a fashionable L.A. neighborhood) and spread through California and, after merging with Magellan Restaurant Systems in 1995, throughout the United States. The Grill's trademark is big portions of classic American cuisine for affordable prices.

In addition to the Daily Grill and special-events catering, the Westin will offer its guests the option of dining at a lobby bar, which will serve lighter fare. There will be a Starbucks as well.

The Daily Grill is scheduled to open on April 9th, with the hotel ready to accommodate guests on May 1st.

The Westin Memphis, 170 Lt. George W. Lee (334-5900)

Wendell Price of Wendell's World Beat Grill has opened Wendell's 24/7 Nouvelle Soul Bar & Grill in the space that used to be Las Magaritas Mexican Bar and Grill inside the Artisan Hotel at Union and McLean in Midtown.

Price, a native of Texas, inherited his love of cooking from generations of passionate cooks in his family. After serving in the Navy, Price settled in Los Angeles, where he was a sought-after caterer and where he eventually opened a soul-food restaurant called Ya Mama's. He opened Wendell's World Beat Grill in Memphis' South Main Historic Arts District in the summer of 2002.

Wendell's 24/7 offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well as a buffet and room service. It's open from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m.

Wendell's 24/7 Nouvelle Soul Bar & Grill, 1837 Union (729-2442)

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