One pizzeria has become a home to artists, performers, and even other businesses in the Crosstown neighborhood.
A Home To…
When Octavia Young opened Midtown Crossing Grill in December 2014, her mission was larger than just to create pizzeria. She wanted the restaurant to serve as a community engagement center. She wanted a place people could come together — be it for food, music, art or comedy — and strengthen the bonds between neighbors in our city. It helps that the food is great, too.
At the corner of Overton Park Avenue and N Watkins, Midtown Crossing is hard to miss. The southern face of the restaurant is emblazoned with colorful squares that follow the grid of its bubble glass windows. At first glance it may seem like an abstract art piece, but in fact it mimics the waveform of the word “welcome” when its spoken. This subtle imagery has lived up to its purpose as Midtown Crossing has become a home to so many.
It wouldn’t be a Memphis establishment without live music. Sometimes that music comes from staples of the vibrant Midtown music scene, such as HEELS. On Sundays, it manifests as a jazz brunch. Even the Memphis Ukulele Flash Mob, now boasting nearly 1,400 members in its Facebook group, saw its humble beginnings as just a handful of ukulele enthusiasts meeting and engaging at Midtown Crossing.
But music isn’t all that brings us together. MCG hosts comedy on its stage. In fact, it’s home to Don’t Be Afraid, the city’s longest-running stand up comedy showcase. The humble stage in the main dining area has fielded multiple improv comedy troupes, a comedy variety show, and has even acted as a venue for the Memphis Comedy Festival.
“There’s comedy here every weekend, just about, so it’s almost like a second [comedy] club in Memphis,” says Hunter Sandlin, fourth and current host of Don’t Be Afraid. “People who have been on Kimmel and Comedy Central have been up on this stage, and they know this place by name. They always get excited about coming back.”
The red walls of the dining room do more than just create an intimate atmosphere for the stage. They also typically display canvases or other pieces of art from local artists, all curated by Young.
“Art speaks to people in a different way,” she explains. “So when you see in art what someone in your community is going through, it helps you to connect and understand.”
Some of the exhibit pieces are for sale, while others are purely for show. You may even find the walls lined with drawn-upon pizza boxes from an event called Scribble. The recurring drink-and-draw gathering puts creatives from all over the city in one room, laughing and creating together.
Crosstown Brewing Company is just a few blocks’ walk from the front door of Young’s eatery-turned-art-incubator. While proximity may explain why the restaurant has the predominantly CBC brews, the truth shows the two businesses are more intertwined.
“When we first started talking about the brewery,” recalls Clark Ortkiese, co-founder of Crosstown Brewing Co, “we needed a place that we could come and meet potential investors, architects, all the artists that did all the work.”
Midtown Crossing Grill became the de facto home office for CBC before the brewery had an address to call it’s own. Ortkiese says Young’s gracious stewardship was vital in getting his own business off the ground. Young and former employee Sarrah Camp were later honored for their efforts with Sarratavia, CBC’s special brew of blackberry wheat wine featuring Midtown Crossing on the label.
If you’re an artist hoping to find a spot that will host your works, performance, or vision; or if you’re just a hungry restaurant go-er looking for quality pizza, your reception will be the same. Midtown Crossing will always say – metaphorically with its spirit and physically on its south wall – “welcome.”