On a recent rainy morning, everyone who stepped into the Country Skillet shed a jacket, then smiled to greet an old friend. This is your classic small-town diner: old Coke memorabilia on every wall, a familiar face in every booth, a coffee pot tucked in each spare corner—used to refill, again and again, the mugs of customers whose heads are bent together as they talk and eat. Maybe they are solving the world’s problems.
“Well, we have a table just for that,” owner Shirley Looney says. She estimates ninety percent of her customers are regulars—including some of Southaven’s first politicians. Looney has been serving breakfast to people since before Southaven was even a town.
Diners recalled what was here when they were kids: just an auto-body shop and then endless fields (not to mention the largest hog barn in the nation). But today, there are only two cities in the state are larger than Southaven. That kind of growth can make the local geography hard to comprehend: there is no real downtown, just a lattice of four-lane roads with winding rows of houses in between. Everywhere you look, a Realtor sign is offering another chance to build.
But there are certainly many reasons to visit this town. The BankPlus Amphitheater and the Landers Center host many of the nation’s top concert tours; the 17-field baseball park at Snowden Grove rings every July with the shouts of players participating in the Dizzy Dean World Series; the Southaven Towne Center and the brand-new Tanger Outlets—built around the theme of the Mississippi Blues Trail, that serves as a launching point for music fans wandering south. Even as a connoisseur of country roads and quirky neighborhoods, this is not my typical destination.
I came, though, to find Southaven’s small-town story. On my first evening in town, sliding up and down those big roads—a summer sunset in my rearview mirror—I recalled my childhood in a suburb like this. I remembered how inside every house, atop every grand lawn, are vibrant dreams. This, after all, is a truly American place: a landscape of strivers, of folks done good—arrived here from the city, or from some distant shore, to buy a house, to launch a business, and to secure a future for the kids.
Now many can’t imagine living anywhere else. Lauren McKenzie told me that her first job at Ultimate Gifts, which once stood beside a car wash. The store has since moved, and McKenzie returned from college and bought the store.
This, after all, is a truly American place: a landscape of strivers, of folks done good—arrived here from the city, or from some distant shore, to buy a house, to launch a business, and to secure a future for the kids.
As this city has grown, it has been filled with many versions of the American dream. Motorcycles gather for Wednesday Bike Night at the Fillin’ Station West, which is next to Southern Thunder Harley-Davidson, one of the nation’s premier motorcycle dealers. If you are interested in zooming the state’s back roads, licensed riders can rent a bike, even for one day. At Maria’s Cantina, people enjoy nachos and Mexican classics, prepared “with a twist.” Find chic stylings at boutiques like Janie Rose and the Western leather of Cowboy Corner and plenty of Mississippi-style antiques. Sushi is available at Naru Japanese Restaurant, and chicken is buzzed about at Tiger Hot Wings, and classic family-style scratch-made Italian is found at Lonnie Tant’s Italia Pizza Cafe. Avellino’s, another Italian favorite, is celebrating its 30th year and is the second-oldest restaurant in town.
My first stop for dinner was the Mesquite Chop House, all dark wood and leather elegance, the kind of place where guests are celebrated by having their ties hung on the walls—and which, after launching here 10 years ago, has opened three more locations across the Memphis region. Sweet-and-spicy bacon-wrapped shrimp and a double-stuffed pork chop: that’s not a bad way to celebrate this city’s many dreams.
Southaven’s modern era began in 1959 when investors bought 2,700 acres just south of the Tennessee border. Two years later, when the ribbon was cut on the model homes at “Southaven Gardens,” all 12 were sold within two months—launching a growth spurt that never really stopped. Through the 1950s and ’60s, the sign that tracked the local population was updated daily; by 1980, when Southaven officially incorporated, the count was above 16,000. One early resident and member of the high school’s first graduating class: John Grisham, began and ended his full-time legal career in different offices in town.
Across a territory that once provided Memphis with the bulk of its dairy goods, not a single dairy farm remains, although the rural past can still be felt. Edmondson Cemetery, first plotted in 1844, hosts the graves of Desoto County’s earliest pioneers and twice a year is repopulated by re-enactors. Snowden House, an old family hunting lodge now serves as the catering house for the BankPlus Amphitheater. A quick drive in any direction leads to the still-verdant fields of Desoto County. I stayed at the Bonne Terre Country Inn & Cafe, a Colonial-style inn on 23 wooded acres in Nesbit, where after a quiet breakfast spent reading and watching the birds flit across the lawn, I found I was a quick and easy drive from the city’s bustle and charm.
Southaven’s development means some of the newest places are on the city’s edges. But it all began along Stateline Road, known as Main Street—and it’s here that the city’s small-town origins are still most palpable. The Country Skillet is here, tucked into a shopping plaza. And across the street in its original location for 50 years, Dale’s Restaurant, first known as Dairy Haven where Elvis was a frequent customer, still draws a crowd. Once a simple hamburger- and milkshake-stand on a gravel road, as the city grew, the restaurant did, too, adding indoor seating. Though it never abandoned its country roots, the menu is a perfection of meat-and-three cooking. I was happy to visit on a Thursday, when the famous turnip greens are served—though the sirloin steak on Saturday nights sure sounds tempting, too.
In the end, there was too much food scattered across the highways for me to enjoy it all—though zooming up and down the four-laned hills, I sure tried. My final night, just before another perfect sunset, I found myself searching a rumor: perfectly creamy homemade Mexican-style ice cream, served up by a woman newly arrived in the United States. I drove in circles around the spot where my phone sent me, but all I found was a big-box parking lot. She was out there somewhere, I’m sure, or someone like her—this small town growing just one bit larger, offering one more taste of its many dreams.
(For more photos and the complete article, see the July/August issue of Mississippi Magazine.)
AC’s Steakhouse Pub
Adam’s Grill and Meat Market
Area 55 Grill & Bar
The Boiling Point Seafood & Oyster Restaurant
Brown Baguette Bakery & Café
The Cake Lady Bakery
Fillin’ Station Grille East
Fillin’ Station Grille West
Fuji Japanese Express
The Haystack Indoor Market
J3 Cajun Seafood
Jim Neely’s Interstate BBQ
Lonnie Tant’s Italia Pizza Café
Main Street Doughnuts
Mesquite Chop House
Milano’s N.Y. Pizza
Mom’s Killer Cakes & Cookies
Mr. P’s Buffalo Wings
Nagoya Japanese Cuisine
Naru Japanese Restaurant
Sensational Wings & Things 2
Supreme Hot Wings
The Sweet Boutique
Tiger Hot Wings
Wimpy’s Burgers & Fries
Yum Yum’s Gourmet Popcorn
Busy Bee Flowers & Gifts
The Butcher’s Block
Got Junk in Our Trunk
North Mississippi Coin
The Sensory Store
Southaven Antiques and Gifts
North Creek Golf Course
Snowden Grove Park
Southaven Towne Center
Southern Thunder Harley-Davidson