Twenty years ago, Tom Cruise sat in the window of the Front Street Deli as Mitch McDeere, plotting his escape from Memphis in the hit film The Firm. Today, Lance Silkes stands behind the counter as the new owner of the deli, recounting his decision to save this Memphis institution from slipping away.
"I knew about the history of the deli and recognized that in a lot of ways this was one of the first restaurants to come back to downtown after the exodus," Silkes said. "After reading a little more about the situation, I realized it was really threatened with extinction."
This "situation" was the passing earlier this year of Lee Busby, Front Street Deli's owner and operator for 37 years and a fixture of the downtown lunch scene. Coupled with the need for repairs and updates to the restaurant space, Busby's passing seemed to signal the end of the deli altogether. But Silkes, who runs Tastin' Round Town culinary tours, was determined to keep this quirky, 350-square-foot eatery in business. "It's an odd little store," Silkes said. "It really took someone with experience working in a nontraditional kitchen space. I refer to this thing as a food truck without wheels."
From his tiny kitchen, Silkes is cranking out many of the same menu items Busby did. "The idea is, if someone hadn't been here in 10 years, they'd walk in and recognize the place and they'd recognize the menu," he said. But Silkes has also added some new touches from his experience running a New York-style deli in Lafayette, Indiana, such as Italian sausage with peppers and onions, as well as some more adventurous items, like the Maui Burger with a sausage and beef patty, panko bread crumbs, Vidalia onion, lettuce, and pickled ginger, served on a King's Hawaiian bun.
Front Street Deli, which is now officially open once more, will maintain the same hours, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, which fits in well with Silkes' food tour business. The prices will also stay fairly close to what they were before, with sandwiches starting at $5.50 and a complete lunch ringing in around $7.
Front Street Deli, 77 S. Front (522-8943)
The Office@Uptown is a shared office space in the heart of the recently revitalized Uptown community. But don't let the business facade fool you: There is a palate party in the back, where The Office@Uptown Cafe is crafting some serious sandwiches for your midday meal.
Owner Valerie Peavy says the cafe was not in their original plans, but after looking around the neighborhood, she and her husband Jeff Harrison saw that the area could accommodate another food spot. "It was a natural fit," she said. "We want to be a resource for the community."
If simple, tasty sandwiches count as a resource, and we are of the opinion they do, the cafe is a veritable wellspring for Uptowners. Chefs Rodney Shelton and Yvos Warren have laid out a small selection of paninis, sandwiches, and salads based on "the things we like," Peavy said.
"We figured, let's don't complicate things," she added. "I've been places where they take a basic roast beef sandwich or a basic ham sandwich and fancy-shmancy it up to the point where you think, I just wanted a ham sandwich."
To that end, a ham sandwich at the Office@Uptown Cafe is a ham sandwich.
The turkey panini on ciabatta is exactly what it purports to be — the right proportions of sliced turkey breast and smoked cheddar cheese layered with fresh spinach, tomato, and chipotle mayo.
The Smokey City Melt is a ramped-up grilled cheese with both smoked and plain cheddar, topped with tomato and served on a hearty sourdough bread.
All of the sandwiches are a good size for lunch and cost under $7. The dining area seats eight comfortably, but service is fast enough for to-go orders if dining in is not an option.
The kitchen is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. "We're looking to expand eventually and be open Monday through Friday 7 to 7 and Saturday 8 to 4," Peavy said.
"But we're taking it slow for now. We're working on our breakfast menu and our coffee drinks. We're looking forward to where this ride takes us."
The Office@Uptown Cafe, 594 N. Second (522-1905)