One was located in an antebellum mansion near Elmwood Cemetery. Another was housed in a faux Tudor building in the heart of the Poplar Corridor. Yet another was tucked into an East Memphis shopping center. Our city has an abundance of eating establishments, offering dining selections that would please any palate, but our readers still have fond memories of several restaurants that have closed their doors. When we asked them about “The Restaurant You Miss the Most” in our annual dining poll, these were their top-ten favorites:
Born in 1913, Herb Anderton learned how to cook at an Army base in Texas. In 1945, he opened Anderton’s Oyster Bar downtown at 151 Madison. It was hugely successful; when the company celebrated its tenth anniversary, the employees baked a cake large enough to serve 2,500 customers; anybody who came in that day got a slice. During its first decade Anderton claimed he had served more than two million customers, who had gulped down six million oysters. In 1956, he purchased the old Gilmore Seafood Restaurant and named it Anderton’s East. With its pink and green terra-cotta facade and modernistic interior, including organic “blobs” that floated over diners and a blue glass panel etched with sea creatures — and who could forget the cozy bar designed to resemble a pirate ship? — well, this is the place our readers recall so fondly.
Anderton opened a third restaurant in Whitehaven, and he became wealthy enough to build a custom-designed house on East Parkway, with a swimming pool shaped like an oyster. But the downtown restaurant closed in 1975, the Whitehaven location was shuttered a few years later, and Anderton’s East closed in 2005. Various developers announced plans for the distinctive building, including possible uses as a real-estate office, but bulldozers pulled it down following damage from a summer storm. Today, the site is a vacant lot, but anyone wanting to revisit the unusual pirate-ship bar can find it at resurrected at The Cove on Broad Street.
Jim’s Place East
The history of Jim’s Place goes all the way back to 1921, when two Greek restaurateurs — Jim Katsoudes and Nick Taras — opened a grille downtown in the basement of the Wm. Len Hotel. The place proved so popular that they soon moved to larger quarters on Union, across from The Peabody. In 1976, Jim’s Place East opened outside the city limits on Shelby Oaks Drive, in a 1940s farmhouse that had once been the Taras summer home. Filled with antiques, and tucked away from the noise of nearby Summer Avenue, the restaurant became a popular place for quiet dinners and wedding parties, since the interior was divided into several small dining rooms. Although the menu — peppered with spanakopita and taramosalata — showed the obvious Greek influence, diners also had their choice of more traditional options, such as steak and seafood.
“I can see why Jim’s Place East does such good business,” wrote Tom Martin, this magazine’s dining critic, in a February 1986 review. “It is a restaurant well-suited to the tastes of many Memphis diners. The prices are reasonable, the portions ample, the atmosphere convivial, and while the menu might not offer many imaginative surprises, it also doesn’t offer any major disappointments, either.”
Over the years, however, business declined, and the Taras family closed the Shelby Oaks location, auctioning off the antiques, fixtures, and china (the Lauderdale family still dines on former Jim’s Place plates), and opened a new location, called Jim’s Place, at Poplar and Perkins. Another location, Jim’s Place Grille, is serving diners in Collierville, but readers, it seems, still hold fond memories of the old farmhouse.
In its heyday, Justine’s had no peer — it was the finest of Memphis’ fine dining establishments. The building itself was as distinctive as its food, housed in a beautiful Italianate mansion called the Anderson-Coward House, built in 1843 and owned by various families before Dayton and Justine Smith purchased the house in 1957. Frequented by a Who’s Who of Memphis’ upper crust, the restaurant also served just about any VIP who happened to be in Memphis, including Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers, Yul Brynner, and Bill Clinton.
Patrons enjoyed small dining rooms spread over two floors, surrounded by gilt mirrors, crystal chandeliers, plush carpeting, a grand staircase, and an overall sensation of elegance. Any visit to Justine’s became a special occasion, just by walking through the door.
The restaurant closed on New Year’s Day in 1996. For a while it served as a party venue, but it has stood vacant and forlorn for years, a shell of its former opulence. New owners have announced plans to restore the building; we’ll keep our fingers crossed. In the meantime, readers wanting to remember Justine’s glory years might search for a book published years ago by the Smiths’ daughter, Janet Smith, called Justine’s Memories and Recipes. Full of photos of the old restaurant, inside and out, as well as some of Janet’s original artwork, the book also includes recipes from the restaurant that served diners for more than four decades.
Readers had to search for some of their favorite restaurants, which could be tucked away in unusual locations. Richard and Barbara Farmer opened Jarrett’s in the little shopping center at Quince and Yorkshire in 1994, moving into the space originally occupied by Hemming’s, and later by La Patisserie Bistro. They named their new establishment after their son.
Born in Memphis, Rick Farmer traveled the country, working for various eateries, before returning home in 1988 to cook for acclaimed chef Jose Gutierrez, at the Peabody’s famed Chez Philippe. He became the chef at the short-lived Riverside Restaurant at Number One Beale, as well as the California Cafe on Winchester. When that place closed, he moved to the kitchen of Cafe Max, at Poplar and Ridgeway.
Jarrett’s was a success for several years, always a popular favorite with Memphis magazine readers. But in an interview with The Daily News, he admitted that the economic downturn of 2008 ultimately lead to the restaurant’s closing. Farmer served his last meal there on New Year’s Eve, 2009. “To be honest,” he told the newspaper, “it seems nothing was ever the same after 9/11. Before that, we didn’t have a care in the world. After that, things just changed. Not drastic, but it became difficult.”
These days, Rick Farmer is the executive chef for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
The Grisantis might be called the first family of Memphis restaurateurs, since in one form or another, a Grisanti eatery has been in operation in this city ever since the first Grisanti’s opened downtown on Main Street more than a century ago. All of them are related — brothers, cousins, sons, whatever they may be — so any family history gets incredibly complicated. What’s not complicated is their formula for success: high-quality, delicious, Tuscan-style food, served in relaxing environments.
Ronnie got his start working for his uncle, John (see below), at what has been called the “original” Grisanti’s on Airways. In 1979, he opened his own establishment at Union and Marshall, near Sun Studio, but in the early 1980s, he moved to the location our readers remember, at Poplar and Humes. Heaping platters of pasta in all shapes and flavors were served in an upscale setting, adorned with antiques and modern art. The restaurant had an interesting connection with Memphis magazine, by the way. When Memphis in May saluted Italy, our magazine featured a photograph of two smiling Italian women, covered with flour, just as they emerged from the bakery where they worked. Ronnie Grisanti had an artist reproduce the cover — with the women depicted almost life-size — on a back wall of the main dining room.
Grisanti closed the Poplar location and opened a new establishment in the Sheffield Antiques Mall in Collierville, still in business today.
“He’s the Memphis version of Sir John Falstaff, and his restaurant is the Boar’s Head Tavern.” That’s how Memphis magazine associate editor Mary Loveless described “Big” John Grisanti, in an October 1985 profile. Born in Memphis in 1928, Grisanti attended Christian Brothers High School and then started working at his father’s Main Street restaurant, a little place called Willie’s Grill, in the 1950s. It was there that he began to pick up his knowledge of food and wine that would make him the city’s recognized expert in both fields. In 1962, he opened his famous restaurant on Airways — moving into a building that had previously housed an eatery called the Beacon — and gradually expanded the place over the years, transforming the green-and-white structure into a local culinary landmark. It quickly became one of those places where everybody who was anybody dined, and civic groups like the Rotary Club held their monthly meetings in the large dining room upstairs.
Grisanti made the news on countless occasions, most notably for his charitable work for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. He earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records in 1978, when he paid $18,000 for an 1864 jeroboam of Chateau Lafite, and $31,000 for a smaller bottle of from the 1822 vintage, later offering special guests a taste — at $1,500 a glass — with the proceeds going to St. Jude.
In the 1985 magazine profile, Grisanti said, “What you see is what you get. At home or in public, I’m the same guy. I don’t think my personality has changed since the day I was born. I was always flamboyant and jovial. I don’t want to say I was full of bull, but I was that, too.”
“Big John,” considered the dean of Memphis restaurateurs, passed away in 1995. The site of his restaurant is now a Walgreen’s.
When Harlan Fields purchased the old Patton Mansion in 1965, he erected four white pillars out front, topped with flames. Not only did they serve as an eye-catching “signpost” to the upscale restaurant at 1085 Poplar, they represented the Four Flames’ signature flambeau desserts: Cherries Jubilee, Bananas Foster, Peach Melba, and Baked Alaska.
With brick walls 18 inches thick, the attractive two-story building was constructed around 1840 as the home of the Thomas Patton family. It changed owners over the decades, but in 1949 was home to the Heirloom Shop. Some ten years later, Lessie Gates bought the property and converted it into a restaurant called the Coach House, with an antique carriage housed in a glass enclosure in the front yard. After Gates’ death in 1965, Fields bought the place and developed it into one of our city’s top dining establishments, with 14 private dining rooms filled with antiques, oil paintings, and ornate chandeliers. A Commercial Appeal review summed up a visit this way: “The Four Flames uses its Southern setting and Southern atmosphere to provide authentic Southern hospitality.”
The menu was described as “New Orleans-style” and a special treat was “little individual French stoves, so steaks can be lifted right off the flames at the table.” Another treat — unusual in Memphis at the time — was barbecued oysters.
The restaurant began to struggle in the 1970s, and there were fears it would be demolished to make way for parking for the nearby VA hospital. The restaurant eventually closed in the mid-1980s, but luckily the historic building was rescued, and now serves as home for the Child Advocacy Center. The four columns still stand out front, but their flames have been extinguished for years.
Steak and Ale
It’s somewhat of a surprise that a chain restaurant made this list; with several locations around town (and across the country for that matter), one wonders which Steak and Ale our readers miss. At any rate, this was a national chain — part of the Legendary Restaurant Brands Company that operated Bennigan’s — and as the name suggests, the main item on the menu was steak, and diners could enjoy a glass of ale (usually beer) as they enjoyed the Olde English atmosphere of a Tudor-style mansion, complete with rough stucco walls and rustic beams.
Founded in Dallas in 1966, the company constructed more than 280 locations around the country. (In some cities, the identical establishment was called The Jolly Ox.) Perhaps the most popular locations in Memphis were on Poplar, Summer, and Shelby Drive. The parking lots were usually jammed with patrons enjoying New York strip, Kensington Club, filet mignon, and other treats.
It’s hard to say why certain places close, but Steak and Ale went through various ownership changes, at one time purchased by the Pillsbury corporation, and then by another conglomerate. At any rate, in 2008, most of the Steak and Ales around the country closed. Their distinctive buildings are hard to miss; the location on Summer now houses an Asian restaurant. But the location on Poplar has been repurposed entirely, transformed into Sharky’s Gulf Grill, with strikingly modern architecture that makes it hard to recognize as the original structure.
In 1991, owners Leigh and Don McLean transformed a former La Baguette bakery into one of our readers’ most-lamented lost restaurants. Naming it after one of their daughters, they called the little establishment Lulu Grille. (Another daughter was remembered with the Amanda Veranda.) It wasn’t easy to find — patrons had to look for Memphis Photo Supply in the little retail center at Poplar and Erin, and then take the walkway back to the place — but it was worth the journey.
Dining critic Tom Martin, normally not so effusive, opened his July 1991 review with, “Oh, what a delightful surprise!” And it was a place of delight and surprises. After all, how many restaurants offer an egg and olive sandwich on their regular dinner menu (perhaps the city’s best egg and olive sandwich, as the Lauderdales can attest). Diners could take their pick of an outside patio, several cozy dining rooms that featured a rustic, country interior with exposed bricks and stucco walls, or rows of high-backed booths if they needed complete privacy. And in the bathrooms, regular visitors may remember the pair of jeans painted onto the walls of the cubicle, just as a lark. But, as Martin noted, “the real stars of the show at Lulu Grille are the desserts — they make the end of the meal seem like the world’s greatest birthday party.” Anyone who ever enjoyed the establishment’s scrumptious carrot cake would agree wholeheartedly.
Lulu Grille closed in 2008. The space currently houses Ciao Bella.
When the Belz family renovated The Peabody in 1981, they did more than re-open the doors to “The South’s Grand Hotel.” That project served as the catalyst that brought new life to a long-dormant downtown, and today it still serves as the heart of a thriving commercial and residential district. But from the start, it was known for more than its luxury rooms, or even its famous lobby fountain, complete with ducks. The Peabody quickly established a reputation for its enticing food, and its restaurants were standouts: Chez Philippe, still regarded as one this city’s premier dining experiences, and complementary establishments such as Dux, Mallards, and Cafe Expresso.
Anyone who dined at Cafe Expresso, designed to resemble a French bistro with its gleaming white countertops and black-and-white checkerboard floor, remembers the tasty soups, sandwiches, and salads. But the heart of the menu was the dessert list — more than 25 cakes, pies, cookies, ice cream, malts, milkshakes and other delicacies, including eight different kinds of cheesecake. The Lauderdale family’s favorite was the Worldly White Chocolate Charlotte, and this is how it’s described on the menu: “Luscious white chocolate mousse hand-held by fresh-baked ladyfingers, white chocolate, and served with raspberry sauce.” It’s hard to forget a taste treat like that, so it’s no wonder that Cafe Expresso, which has been closed since 2002, is still fondly remembered by our readers.