Blue plate specials at Southern Belle; a new spot for Tops.

Pork loin and grits

Justin Fox Burks

Pork loin and grits

Southern Belle, now open in the former Makeda's Homemade Cookies at 1329 Madison, is bringing back the blue plate special.

Owner David Johnson started Belle Catering while working as the executive chef at McEwen's on Monroe, catering for the Redbirds and various office gatherings. When he eventually decided to step out on his own, he expanded his catering business to a small workweek lunch operation and changed the name to Southern Belle.

Maintaining a pared-down menu is key to Johnson's catering and lunch business. "Simple always does well," he says, pointing to the small chalkboards that list the daily special and the six available side items. Drinks are limited to Coke, Diet Coke, water, and iced tea.

Lunch is served up hot from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday. Daily specials are subject to change seasonally, but right now you can get red beans and rice with andouille sausage on Monday, beef tips and garlic mashed potatoes on Tuesday, crawfish étouffée on Wednesday, bourbon peach-glazed pork loin and grits on Thursday, and blackened chicken pasta in Creole tomato sauce on Friday.

Side items currently include a rich, baked macaroni and cheese, braised purple hull peas, Mississippi cheddar grits, squash casserole, and collard greens. Johnson admits that collards aren't his favorite, but you would never know by tasting them that the tangy, spicy, and smoky greens aren't a labor of love.

"You gotta make some stuff you don't like," he says with a laugh.

The hot lunch rings in at a reasonable $7.50 and is available for delivery in downtown and Midtown or eat in, though the dining room has space for only about 10 people.

Southern Belle, 1329 Madison (272-8680)

The Tops BBQ location on North Watkins is in the midst of a renaissance: The 1960s structure that housed the restaurant for nearly 50 years is being torn down in favor of an impressive new building next door.

"If the Millington location is the Cadillac, then we're the Rolls-Royce," manager Frankie LeMay says.

She shows off the new Tops BBQ with pride, running her hands along the retro-style bar and beaming at the new, and evidently much larger, walk-in freezer.

But it's the pit room, where the magic really happens, that gets her talking. The smoker is a wall-to-wall beast with space for more than 30 shoulders at a time. A new ribs and brisket cooker will sit under an enormous Vent-A-Hood.

That's right, I said ribs and brisket.

Tops fans may have noticed that the traditionally modest menu of pork sandwiches and burgers has expanded, as Tops locations across the Mid-South have added ribs and brisket to their offerings. Will this change Memphians' love affair with the Tops burger? Not likely.

"At this location, I sell way more burgers than barbecue sandwiches," LeMay says.

The old restaurant will be torn down to make room for more parking and drive-thru exits that lead out to both Jackson and Watkins.

The new Tops opened for business last Friday and held its grand opening on Monday. Patrons will be happy with the new hours: The old store closed at 9:45 p.m. on weekdays and 10:45 p.m. on weekends, but the new restaurant stays open until 11:45 p.m. every day, and the drive-thru will be open until 2 a.m.

Tops BBQ, 697 N. Watkins (274-8600)

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Speaking of Southern Belle, Tops Bar-b-q


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