Dining on the Down Low at Itta Bena on Beale Street
Let’s play a little word association game. When I say “Beale Street”, you think…
Bold, maybe. Loud, perhaps. You might also say bright, fun, crowded or funky.
The word you probably wouldn’t come up with is “discrete”. But that’s exactly what Itta Bena – easily the classiest restaurant on the block – is. It’s located on the third floor of B.B. King’s Blues Club, accessible by a set of unmarked stairs on the side of the building.
Walking up the stairs last night felt deliciously sketchy, and opening the knotty wooden door was like breaking a trespassing ordinance. When I got inside, I was completely surprised: there’s a restaurant on Beale Street that’s warm, classy, romantic, and doesn’t serve frothy mixed drinks in super-sized go cups. The windows are tinted blue, which makes looking over Beale Street kind of like wearing 3D glasses.
The menu is fairly extensive, and most of the food seems to have a Southern twist (there are entrees like duck and waffles and drinks like the sweet tea mojito). I ordered a few things from the “small plates” section – the highly-recommended she crab soup, a fried avocado and crabmeat salad, and scallops and grits.
All of the food was intense. I can understand why everyone on Twitter was raving about the soup. It’s got chunks of real lump crab meat in a sweet cream-based broth. The salad had two avocado halves stuffed with crabmeat and deep fried next to a bed of baby spinach in dressing. Fried avocados are amazing – they’re crispy and buttery at the same time.
The scallops and grits had two seared scallops nestled next two a heaping pile of mascarpone cheese grits. I’m not usually a big fan of grits, but these made me want to go back in time and apologize for every time I avoided them.
Sidenote: I love that more restaurants are doing small plates. It’s an easy and affordable way to try fine dining. Most of Itta Bena’s small plates were in the $9 -$15 range and had more than enough food on them. (By contrast, the majority of the entrees at Itta Bena are in the $20 – $30 range.)
The service was impeccable, if a little bit overly attentive at times. When I was there around 7 p.m. last night, the restaurant was almost empty, but started filling up when DiAnne Price started playing the piano. If you want to try Itta Bena on a weekend, I would recommend making reservations in advance.
145 Beale Street
Memphis, TN 38103-3713
(Editor’s Note: Itta Bena sent me a gift certificate for dinner. I used it – it covered about two-thirds of the total cost – but it in no way influenced my review. All of the opinions stated here are my own.)