Davis White Spot
By no means a fancy restaurant, the White Spot was a popular East Memphis eatery. Photograph Courtesy of Robert Wire
What can you tell me about a restaurant in East Memphis where my parents dined often, called the Davis White Spot?
— t.f., memphis.
Since the dining hall of the Lauderdale Mansion was larger than a regulation tennis court, we had no reason to join the common folk at restaurants for our meals; our complement of chefs delivered us wondrous fare, and the danger of kidnapping was simply too great if we dined in public. But when our fortunes dwindled (as recounted so many times by the world newspapers), we changed our reclusive ways, and began to enjoy the bounty offered by establishments throughout the city. Even so, I had no clear memory of the White Spot.
As well-known as it appeared to be (yours isn’t the first query I’ve received about this place, T.F.), the only information I gleaned about it for years came in the form of small ads in the back of White Station High School yearbooks, which invariably told me nothing more than the name, accompanied by a large black circle. I suppose this was their way of conveying “White Spot,” but it wasn’t much help.
Nevertheless, I slowly began to accumulate bits and pieces of its history, and that’s when I ran into a nice fellow named Robert Wire, who as it turns out was related to the owners of the restaurant and — this was a red-letter day — sent me the photo of the place that you see here. I should mention that Gene Gill, who until recently hosted the fine historic-memphis.com website, also provided lots of helpful information. So finally, I can tell you what you need to know, T.F.
In the 1940s, Robert and Pearl Winfield opened a restaurant in a rambling wooden building on Poplar, just east of present-day Estate. They lived in a small house attached to the back of the place, and Robert Wire recalls: “Pearl was my mother’s older sister. I grew up in Indianapolis, and in the 1950s and 1960s we would visit them every year. I have a lot of fond memories of the place, because it was a kid’s paradise. I would play in the semi-formal gardens in the daytime, and in the evenings I would get to help out in the kitchen.”
The building itself “was nothing special,” says Robert. “It was just white wood siding, and the two main dining rooms had knotty-pine paneling. The ambience on the whole was not classy, but very warm and inviting. The parking lot was gravel with a large tree in the center, and the gardens were pretty, with rose bushes and swings and a little artificial pond. One year, when we came down, Robert [Winfield] insisted that we admire his new large neon sign that had replaced an old original sign.”
Oh, what I would give for a photo of that sign. And even more for the sign itself. Where did these things end up — in a landfill, somewhere?
But if you’ve been paying attention, you would have noticed that the owners’ names were Winfield. So who was the Davis of Davis’ White Spot? Well, that’s when Gene Gill stepped in. “I do know that the restaurant was originally listed as a ‘tavern’ in a house in the county,” Gill told me, “owned by Robert Winfield’s widowed sister, Ruby Davis. Robert managed the tavern. Ruby died in 1944, and Robert inherited the house. He and his wife, Pearl, turned it into the restaurant.”
Did you catch that? The original owner of the house — and hence the origin of the restaurant’s name — was Ruby Davis.
According to Gill, the White Spot was listed in city directories until 1960, which indicates that’s the year it closed. The menu in his possession — a rather plain thing printed on grey paper — offered basic fare, with a few oddities. Appetizers included plain celery (35 cents) or stuffed celery (50 cents). Entrees featured steaks, ravioli, and what must have been the White Spot specialty: chicken livers on toast. For breakfast, diners could even order a chicken-liver omelet. Yum!
While I was doing all this research — well, okay, while I was sitting back and letting Robert Wire and Gene Gill do it for me — I did turn up something intriguing. Most Memphians, I hope, know about the Crystal Shrine Grotto inside Memphis Memorial Park. In addition to the grotto itself (a cave burrowed into a hillside) bridges and trees and benches were cast from concrete treated to look like wood — the work of a skilled Mexican artist named Dionicio Rodriguez, who traveled around the South, creating art for anybody who wanted it. Well, apparently he got in touch with the Winfields, because one listing of his sculptures in Memphis mentions a “seal-shaped fountain” for the White Spot restaurant. Robert Wire doesn’t recall such a thing, and I’ve never seen a photo of it, but I hope that didn’t end up in the same landfill as the neon sign.
Okay, so we’ve determined when the White Spot was in business and who owned it. A persistent mystery has always been: Where was it, exactly? Those old telephone directories list the address as 5341 Poplar, which would place it at the southeast corner of Poplar and Estate (Estate didn’t extend to Poplar in the 1950s). But various people recall it being farther east, where the Mercedes-Benz dealership is today. A few people even remember turning off the street onto a winding gravel drive and crossing the Southern railroad tracks, which would have placed it rather far back from Poplar. Others recall the building sitting right beside the road.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to answer every question about the White Spot. I’m just glad — thanks to Robert Wire — that I was able to share a nice photo of the place that so many readers remember.
Building The Peabody
What stood on the site of The Peabody before “The South’s Grand Hotel” was built there?
— r.k., memphis.
Dear R.K.: That’s an intriguing question. The Peabody is such a Memphis landmark — and when it reopened in 1981 deserves all the credit for the downtown renaissance we are still enjoying today — that we tend to think it’s been there forever. But with a construction date of 1924-1925, it might be considered a relatively new building compared to other structures in the area.
From what I’ve been able to determine, the builders of The Peabody didn’t demolish just one building to make room for their new hotel. They took out a whole row of two- and -three story buildings along Union, as well as a few that stretched southward down Second and Third Streets. Considering the size of the property involved, it didn’t involve as many businesses as you might think. Leafing through old city directories, it seems that on Union, the largest structure was Bender’s Garage, along with Tri-State Barber Supply, Greener & Sons dry goods, Shelby Electric Company, and an Arrow Food Store. On Third Street was a small business called the Interchangeable Unit Battery Company, and an auto repair company with the wonderful name of Mississippi & Louie.
Perhaps the most impressive building to fall to the wrecking ball — the only one that might be considered a landmark — was the Fransioli Hotel, which had stood at the southeast corner of Second and Union since the 1880s. Next door along Second was Gayoso Catering Company, Southern Knitting and Hosiery, Wear Well Clothing, Alperin & Sons dry goods, and the J.P. Jordan lumber company.
The Lauderdale Library has somehow preserved this little snapshot showing The Peabody under construction. The view is looking northeast, with the Wm. R. Moore dry goods building in the background. Downtown looks quite a bit different today, don’t you think?
Got a question for Vance?
Mail: Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine,
460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103