In the NBA, restaurants aren't just places to refuel -- they're vital to team-building. Restaurants are where players and coaches celebrate big wins and commiserate in defeat. They're where teammates go to make peace, rivals explore joining forces and the smartest basketball minds in the world exchange impressions about the game and life beyond it. The San Antonio Spurs call these outings over food, wine and ideas "breaking bread," and they almost always occur at restaurants.
Among the countless ways COVID-19 has upended the NBA, the team dinner at the local eatery has been put in jeopardy this season. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that those dining at restaurants during the pandemic eat outside at least 6 feet apart from other patrons, and wear masks as much as possible. Eating inside a restaurant introduces greater risk.
To account for that risk, the NBA and the players' association drew up a short list of approved restaurants that agreed to conform to specific rules and regulations. The restaurant must have outdoor space or a secure private room that doesn't share air space with the rest of the establishment. Servers must wear masks and faceguards, maintain a distance of 6 feet and be in the same room with players and coaches only when absolutely necessary. There must be a secure entrance and exit path to limit exposure to the restaurant staff and other diners.
The Memphis Grizzlies reached out to nine-time James Beard-nominated chefs Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman to see whether they'd be interested in having their restaurants go through the vetting process. The Memphis natives and Grizzlies fanatics -- who have been shuttling caprese salads curbside to Grizzlies players on their way home for years, and count cooking for Gregg Popovich a career achievement -- jumped at the opportunity.
"Being on that list was important to us," Hudman told ESPN. "Our whole goal was to make Memphis great. When these guys come to town to have a great place to eat. We'll have the ability to do just about anything they ask."
Among those things was a strict testing regimen every 10 days of the entire staffs of their three participating restaurants -- their flagship Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen in East Memphis, as well as Bishop and Catherine & Mary's close to FedEx Forum. They were also a bit lucky: Hudman said the private rooms at each of the three venues each have their own ventilation system.
The other Memphis entry on the list is Chef Tam's Underground Cafe, a Black-owned soul food restaurant spearheaded by Tamra Patterson. It has Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant's gold seal of approval. Another notable Black-owned restaurant on the list is Miami's Red Rooster Overtown from chef Marcus Samuelsson, just six blocks west of AmericanAirlines Arena.
Many of the restaurants on the list are old downtown standbys -- lots of steakhouses and classic Italian joints, and a few Italian steakhouses -- some in team hotels and/or in close proximity to the arena. Rockets owner and restaurateur Tilman Fertitta occupies two of the four spots in foodie-hotbed Houston. Other Fertitta holdings, Morton's Steakhouse and Del Frisco's Grille, have multiple locations in the catalog.
Here are some notable inclusions on the list, which can be found in its entirety below.