When I came to Memphis in 1960 to go to work for Holiday Inns of America, there were not many fine-dining restaurants here, or even upscale bistros. But there was one — and it was very special. It was called Justine’s.
Because my job at Holiday Inns involved a lot of travel, I was able to experience many of the best restaurants in the U.S. and around the world, and I can tell you that beyond a doubt there was not a better fine-dining restaurant anywhere than Justine’s. Justine Smith made sure that she served consistently great food; just consider that 17 of her recipes called for crabmeat! There was unsurpassed ambience, excellent service, and a classy, unforgettable maitre d’ by the name of Ervin McDonald. Everyone seemed to agree that in the 1960s and 1970s Memphis was very fortunate to have such a renowned establishment.
Other “nice” establishments we enjoyed back then were The Embers, Anderton’s, The Luau, the Bell Tavern, Jim’s Place, “Big John” Grisanti’s, and the Knickerbocker. Remember, these all operated before liquor-by-the-drink. At that time, you brought your wine or whatever in a brown paper bag. Restaurants that served alcohol were technically private clubs.
Liquor-by-the-drink was the result of a referendum in 1971. After it was voted in, the restaurant scene here changed dramatically, starting first with the opening of T.G.I. Friday’s (the first one outside of New York) in Overton Square. What a success the Square was for the late visionary Ben Woodson and his associates, including my old pal, George Saig.
In the Seventies and Eighties, there was a dining explosion in Memphis, as all kinds of restaurants came into existence. There were locals and chains, fine dining and casual, cheap and expensive. Count me as one of those who jumped into the fray in the early 1970s. I invited Paulette Fono, a native Hungarian, who had created the Magic Pan Restaurant concept in San Francisco, to come to Memphis and establish a restaurant in Overton Square. We became partners, and Paulette’s opened in April of 1974.
In late 1979, with friends and Holiday Inn associates, Frank Flautt and Jeff Mann, we bought Paulette out. I became the sole owner in 1984, and Don Eschelweck, a master organizer and “back of the house” expert, came along about that time to help move Paulette’s forward. We are still working together every day.
Before that, in 1973, there was a very significant “opening” that took place; only a few may recall it. Martha and Glenn Hays began serving Sunday brunch at Zinnie’s on Madison and Evergreen. Zinnie’s was closed on Sundays, so Glenn (he was then the track coach at Memphis State) and Martha took advantage of it. They prepared the food at their Midtown home, brought it over, and served it to a delighted crowd for $10 a person. At the time there was nothing like it in Memphis. Then in July 1977, the Hays made a permanent name for themselves by opening the incomparable LaTourelle. Today they run Café 1912.
Over these past 57 years in Memphis, I have seen this industry of ours grow, become stronger, more diversified, and quite successful. To me, the most notable expansion in the past 40 years has been Downtown, a revitalization that was sparked by the re-opening of The Peabody and the emergence of the Beale Street bars and eateries. Before that, as John Vergos puts it, “If you went downtown, you were either going to the Rendezvous, or you were lost.”
Beginning in 1989, Henry Turley and Jack Belz developed the now-extraordinary planned community of Harbor Town. In 2007, the River Inn opened there, and in March 2011, we moved Paulette’s to the Inn, after operating in Overton Square for 37 years. It’s been a very positive move.
Every year, there is a category in the Memphis magazine poll for “the restaurant you miss the most.” My favorite never wins, but I always write-in “Burkle’s Bakery.” Wow, what a great place! It was located in the building where Bar Louie is now in Overton Square. Herman Burkle and his sister Ruth made it great, along with unforgettable server Madge Logan; the pastries and baked goods were the freshest and best ever. They served lunch and dinner daily, but breakfast there was just “over the top.” Herman set the standard for wonderful comfort fare and hospitality. It closed on July 4, 1976, with long-time customer, Sam the Sham, surprising everyone with a memorable performance on his guitar at breakfast time.
Speaking of hospitality: Here’s how renowned New York restaurateur, Danny Meyer, in his book Setting the Table, explains the difference between service and hospitality. “Hospitality is how you make someone feel. Hospitality is present when something happens for you. It is absent when something happens to you.” To me, good hospitality has always been an integral part of the Memphis dining scene. It’s “on the menu” here, so to speak.
Whenever James Beard, the famous chef and food writer, was asked what his favorite restaurant was, he always used to say, “Why, it’s the one who knows me the best, and loves me the most.” Fortunately, our own town has more than its share of very “loving” restaurants!
Since 1974, George Falls has owned and operated Paulette’s, originally in Overton Square and now at the River Inn at Harbor Town.