Chef Octavia Young was preparing fine dining fare in Tunica, Mississippi for casino patrons when she considered opening her own restaurant where she could serve quality food and bring people together in a welcoming environment.
“I wanted to have my efforts go toward my community and my family and not towards a corporation,” said Young, whose mother ran a business and whose grandfather owned his own farm and shop.
That entrepreneurial spirit drove her to open Midtown Crossing and Grill in the heart of the Crosstown neighborhood.
In 2014, and Young felt prepared to take a leap. Her employer, Harrah’s Casino, was closing, and Memphis’ Crosstown neighborhood was burgeoning with the transformation of the long-abandoned Sears, Roebuck & Co. distribution center into Crosstown Concourse, a 1.5 million-square-foot mixed-use facility.
Young already held an affinity for the Crosstown community unattached to its status as an up-and-coming Memphis neighborhood, and she felt the existing residents deserved a down-home neighborhood anchor restaurant that catered to them.
“I loved the neighborhood, from the architecture to the history,” she said. “I wanted a place that would be welcoming and have art shows and highlight craftspeople in the neighborhood – a place where people could bring their entire family. And I wanted to serve really good food.”
Located at 394 North Watkins Street at the corner of Overton Park Avenue stands a 2,400-square foot building that was built in 1940 and had, over the years, housed numerous businesses, including a sports café, Cuban restaurant, vegan eatery and coffee shop.
But those businesses never lasted long. Believing she could build something sustainable, Young opened Midtown Crossing Grill in December 2014.
But there was one formidable hurdle for the chef. She inherited a kitchen that did not meet standards and regulations, which prevented Young from furnishing a full kitchen and limited her menu.
Young, however, was able to build in a pizza oven and designed a menu based around artisan pizzas.
She created a bill of fare consisting of gourmet pizzas, made from scratch and using fresh ingredients, with names like “The Artist,” “The Jedi,” “Heartburn” and “Sears” -- a nod to the neighborhood’s history.
She later added sandwiches, stromboli, salads, desserts such as cannoli and vegetarian and vegan dishes, such as spring rolls and bahn mi.
The restaurant, which seats about 40 people, also offers a full bar and a popular Saturday brunch featuring “hangover pizza” and mimosas.
Local artwork on display at Midtown Crossing Grill.
Young said business has slowed slightly since the opening of nearby Crosstown Concourse in late August, but she’s not too concerned about it because she said people it’s expected that people want to check out the new building, and she’s got a great base of loyal customers.
Less than a mile away from her restaurant are the eateries at Crosstown Concourse, including French Truck Coffee, Area 51 Ice Cream, Curb Market and Next Door.
“Octavia has created a warm, welcoming space that has the best pizza in Memphis,” said Jennifer Logan, who frequently dines at Midtown Crossing Grill with her five-year-old daughter.
“She’s one of the city’s most creative chefs and business women. Midtown Crossing Grill has neighborhood flavor with really good food and local tasty beers.”
Logan said she also patronizes the restaurant for its welcoming staff, musical performances and exhibitions by local painters and photographers.
Young sees her restaurant as a nucleus for community gatherings, providing space for neighborhood watch meetings and musical meetups such as the Memphis Ukulele Flash Mob and Beer and Hymns, an outreach of Evergreen Presbyterian Church. The restaurant also hosts comedy shows and the Black Nerd Power Comedy Hour.
Young also supports local artists, artisans and craftspeople by sponsoring the Seasonal Crosstown Markets, popup markets for microenterprises that sell items such paintings, jewelry and homemade skincare.
“It helps give other entrepreneurs a push in getting their stuff out there,” said Young, who worked alongside farm-to-table pioneer Sharon Hague and influential French chef Jean LaFont during her 15-year culinary career.
One of those small businesses owners is Renee Hodges, vendor coordinator for the Seasonal Crosstown Markets. She owns Sundry Blossoms, which manufactures colorful leather earrings, wallets and hand-bound books.
She also attends neighborhood watch meetings, the ukulele flash mob and open mic night at Midtown Crossing Grill.
“She’s got great culinary vision and is very engaged and supportive of the people, organizations and businesses in the neighborhood,” Hodges said. “We’re lucky to have Octavia in Crosstown.”