Monday, April 11, 2011

Restaurant Review: Kings Palace Cafe

Kings Palace Cafe
162 Beale Street
Memphis, TN 38103
901-521-1851 phone

I'm in Memphis, Tenneesee right now and have been for about a week. I was overdue for a night on Beal Street, so last Saturday I decided to brave the tourist crowd and get some good food, liquor and a double helping of down and dirty blues music. As usual, Beal Street satisfied almost every craving.

Beal Street on Saturday Night
This is typical of Beal Street on a Saturday night. The crowd tends to keep moving, mainly because there aren't any naked women stopping traffic in the name of drunken fun and beads - like on Bourbon Street. Beal is what Bourbon Street used to be: live music inside and out, great food and an ample supply of atmosphere. Although I hadn't really planned to, I stopped at The King's Palace for dinner and music.

King's Palace
How to best rate The Palace? The ambiance succeeds at what the proprietors are trying to achieve. They have two dining areas and a live band. The music is not over amplified, which is a huge relief to everyone, and the house band is better than most. The place is busy, and while you are welcome to stay as long as you like the rest of Beal Street is waiting outside, so a steady stream of people are always arriving and departing. It isn't quiet and refined, but it's clean. On Beal Street, I give The Palace a 7 out of 10. You can get better ambiance, but it'll be rare.

I ordered the shrimp and crawfish etouffee and a Sam Adams, which is on tap. Now you would think that a beer from the tap should arrive right away. Mine didn't. Let me tell you up front that your service experience is guaranteed to be better than mine, because the service I got sucked pond scum. I give the service a solid 2 out of 10, and if I hadn't seen other people being waited on promptly I'd cross The Palace off my list of places to go on Beal, no matter how much I liked the food. The food does sort of make up for the service, though. The etouffee is some of the best you'll have on Beal Street. It's spicy but not too overbearing. Keep in mind that I enjoy spicy food, and food that Main Lady thinks is too hot is mild by my standards. So if you burn easily, take my word for it and order something a little tamer.

This isn't the first time I've eaten here, and it isn't the first etoufee I've enjoyed at The Palace. I give the food eight out of ten stars, and I'd rate it a little higher if the place would add more shrimp and crayfish to the etoufee.

House Band with a Guest
Halfway through dinner the guitar player announced that they had an audience member who wanted to sit in with the band. Every professional musician has come across this phenomena, and it's why karaoke was invented and subsequently banned in 30 out of the 50 States as being an immoral act against nature. I'm told that in some parts of Texas you can get jail time for even asking if there is a karaoke club around town. But a drunk is a drunk, and money is money, and we all know how this goes. Usually this is a hack that, in his own home and stone cold sober, is able to play back up to a few jazz and blues standards without too many glaring errors.

But this is Memphis, Tennessee and we're on Beal Street.

The guy was introduced as Denny from Moscow, and he blew the room away. The man played so well and so clean that the drummer had and ear to ear smile and the bass player was helping adjust the sound on the piano - turning it up a little. Denny's playing was so clean that I think it's likely he is actually a formally trained concert pianist who likes solid jazz and plays it as a hobby. Denny played a jazz standard (the title escapes me as I write) and he played it up tempo, in an almost rag-time style with very clean notes. Best of all, he was so tight with the other two musicians that you couldn't tell he'd never sat in with them before.

Denny from Moscow
The band asked Denny to play an encore, which he rendered with the same clean, vigorous up-tempo performance. This is the kind of thing that happens on Beal Street, and used to happen on Bourbon in New Orleans. Bourbon Street is gone, and more's the pity, but Beal Street is alive and well.

Alley Club
The nice thing about Beal Street is that if you don't care for the music in one spot all you need to do is walk 20 feet or so to another spot. Street musicians work in shifts so as not to interfere too much with each other. One of my favorite stops is this place. This is an alley that got turned into a club, complete with a bar that is just out of sight on the right and a band stand in back. The band was entirely pick up, meaning that anyone who knew someone could get up and play a while. Next to the sidewalk in front a chess board is set up - you can play a game if you have the skill, but Lord help you if you lose badly; the winner will trash talk you. I declined an offer to play an older black fellow there, who said he just knew I could beat him.

And that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

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