With Valentine’s Day circled in red on most calendars (don’t forget!), February has long been known as the month for lovers. In the Bluff City, it’s also a time for food lovers, since the Memphis Restaurant Association will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its annual gala on February 23rd at The Peabody.
The MRA actually began back in 1947 as a chapter of the Tennessee Restaurant Association. In the late 1960s, the MRA became an independent group to support the pending liquor-by-the-drink legislation, and over the years its 400-plus members — many of them mom-and-pop eateries located in just about every neighborhood here — have supported such events and organizations as Feed the Need, Zoo Rendezvous, Youth Villages Soup Sunday, and the Memphis Food Bank.
On these pages, we offer some vintage postcard views that illustrate the wide range of dining establishments available throughout our city over the years. Happy 50th, MRA.
The first president of the Memphis Restaurant Association was Speros Zepatos, whose family has been associated with Memphis’ oldest restaurant for decades. Located at Main and G.E. Patterson, with Central Station across the street to the west and the old Arcade Hotel to the north, and used as a location in the cult classic Mystery Train, this may be the most photographed street corner in town. Although it’s famous for all sorts of great food and a truly classic interior, note that the old postcard touted only one benefit of eating here: “Air Conditioned.”
For years, Harry Glaser was one of this city’s best-known restaurateurs. Not only did he own the famous Embers Restaurant, on Park just west of Getwell, but he also installed another Embers on the top of White Station Tower, one of the first rotating restaurants in the city. The original Embers, shown here, could seat more than 340 diners in four separate dining rooms. The best place of all, of course, was the Waterfall Room, with water cascading down a back wall of rough stone. Despite the 360-degree views from atop White Station Tower, or the waterfall in the main dining room, the Embers’ slogan was “Where Fabulous Food Is the Show!”
PARK AVENUE LOUNGE AND RESTAURANT
Some of the best places to grab a bite to eat weren’t always fancy restaurants. Case in point: the popular Park Avenue Lounge, located on Union across the street from The Peabody. It’s never been clear to me why a place called Park Avenue was never, apparently, located on Park Avenue, but I guess that didn’t matter to anyone searching for (as the postcard says on the back) “Memphis’ Finest Restaurant.” Not only could you get a good lunch here, and wash it down with an ice-cold bottle of Schlitz, the postcard also promised “Entertainment,” without going into any details.
MARK TWAIN CAFETERIA
Sometimes it’s nice to just pick out your own food, and Memphis has had plenty of fine cafeterias: Piccadilly, Britling’s, and Morrison’s come to mind. But none of them had the downhome charm, if you ask me, of the Mark Twain Cafeteria on Summer, easy to locate by the bright neon sign of Tom Sawyer pulling fish from a lazy river. Inside, diners would eat inside the pilothouse of a riverboat, or just admire the nice murals showing scenes from the books of Samuel Clemens. The restaurant is long gone, but the murals were saved and moved to Mud Island’s Mississippi River Museum.
WILLIE KING’S PITCHFORK
Willie King was apparently quite a character. In the 1940s, he opened a busy liquor store at 597 Madison, and painted a sign outside reading, “Women — If you drive your husband to drink, drive them HERE.” He also opened popular eateries around town, such as Willie King’s Restaurant on South Bellevue, and the well-known Pitchfork on South Second. The postcard proclaimed that they offered “exclusively barbecue, chicken, and beans.” And look — even the china was made in Memphis. In later years, the Pitchfork became home to Erika’s German restaurant.
If you were shopping at “Memphis’ Greatest Store,” you didn’t have to leave when you got hungry. The downtown location offered a rather nice restaurant on the top floor. The postcard even proclaimed that the “beautiful restaurant is the ONE and ONLY eating place in any Memphis department store recommended by Duncan Hines.” Oh, and for the menfolk, the back of the postcard discreetly noted that “Goldsmith’s features a private Men’s Grill reserved for gentlemen only.” Ladies? Well, you’re on your own, I guess.
OWL LUNCH SERVICE
I wish I knew more about this place. Among other things, the name alone intrigues me, and I really love the huge signs. The only clues come from the old postcard, which shows it was located on “Bristol Highway No. 70,” otherwise known as Summer Avenue. Primarily a tourist court “with modern brick cabins and hot or cold showers,” the place also had a café, and a roadside sign urged travelers to “Stop, Eat, and Drink.” Squint closely at the card, and you’ll see that the Owl offered Clover Farms Ice Cream and Bottled Milk Chocolate. You could enjoy a Big Boy Cone for just 10 cents, and a malted milk for 20 cents.