Just for Lunch, once queen of the Memphis lunch circuit, has reopened after more than a decade's absence. The original operated from 1981 to 1997 in East Memphis, where it developed a loyal following of customers with its chicken salad and other Southern tea room fare. Owner Ann Barnes, who in the interim operated Just Catering, chose Chickasaw Oaks shopping center for the revived Just for Lunch. She has brought her son and daughter-in-law John and Joy Barnes to help manage, and hired chef Jason McElvaney to oversee the kitchen.
The space, which over the years has housed Elfo's, Blue Moon, Windsor's, and Ruby Tuesday, this time is done up in soft pastel peach, with artwork from neighboring galleries and white tablecloths. Its feminine style is a far cry from the meat-and-cigar days of Windsor's. The restaurant has two dining rooms, a porch, and more tables that stretch along the walkway of this enclosed shopping center. As always, it's a matter of opinion whether you like the "village" feel of sitting out there, or whether you dislike being relegated to eat your lunch at a table in the mall.
Most of the menu offerings will be familiar to customers of the original Just for Lunch. A few new items have been added, a few standards jazzed up, and daily specials sometimes showcase creations of chef Jason McElvaney.
In our two meals there, we tried several of the "classic" dishes from the original restaurant that have not lost their charms. First was the popular, freshly-made, old-fashioned chicken salad: Plenty of cubed chicken with accents of celery, scallion, and green pepper, all of it tossed with a seasoned homemade mayonnaise sauce. The olive and egg salad had a lively flavor, the mild flavor of hard-boiled egg balanced with the tart, robust flavor of green olives. The white gazpacho, actually a cold sour-cream-enhanced cucumber soup, had the refreshing quality of a tomato-based gazpacho.
The shrimp ravigote on two ripe avocado halves consisted of tenderly cooked shrimp in the light horseradish-infused dressing. Our only quibble was that the shrimp were undersalted, which created a hollow flavor to the whole.
Most of the greens-based salads we tried were quite plain. The pasta and brie version was literally a bowl of cold fettuccine tossed with some cubes of brie and a few chunks of ripe tomato. The black and blue salad consisted of romaine with only a few bits of blue cheese and tomato. It held a good amount of the sliced tenderloin, but no marinade boosted the flavor, which made for a forgettable salad. Livelier was the Mediterranean salad: Marinated artichokes, small fresh mozzarella balls, kalamata olives, and beautiful, flavorful roasted tomatoes. The somewhat tart balsamic vinaigrette was a good match for this salad. (All dressings are homemade, and include Meyer lemon vinaigrette and parmesan peppercorn as well.)
On the salad menu is a selection of add-ons, including grilled salmon or grilled chicken, but we chose the oysters. Described as cornmeal-dusted, they were in fact thickly coated with a crunchy chicken-fried crust. When combined with the zesty homemade remoulade, the oysters were among the best things we had.
The other best thing was the portabella sandwich. The juicy, slightly marinated mushroom cap with ripe tomato and Caesar dressing on a Kaiser roll made for a messy but fantastic meal.
Several blackboard specials were available as well. The tomato dill soup was tangy, and you could see, more than taste, the dill. The plate lunch included classic Southern home-cooked vegetables: Thoroughly cooked green beans and tiny fresh lady peas, both seasoned with bacon, and squash casserole consisting of soft squash slices baked with cheese and a buttered-crumb topping. Instead of meat being served with the three, this plate lunch featured tomato pie with basil, made with cheddar and slices of beautiful ripe Ripley tomatoes, but was sadly bogged down by a thick, gluey bottom crust.
Lovely house-baked breads and sweets are one of the most memorable offerings at this restaurant — from the tiny yeast rolls and fruit muffins and the homemade wheat bread to the fudge pie and dessert cookies. With the plate lunch came a delicious blue-cheese biscuit, al dente yet light in texture with tangy bits of the cheese throughout, outshining the accompanying corn muffin. With the soups came a lusciously crisp and buttery cheese cracker (unlikely ingredient: Rice Krispies) seasoned with a jolt of cayenne pepper. The little melt-in-your-mouth shortbread cookies were a welcome accompaniment to the parfait.
Fudge pie was dessert comfort food, plain and simple: A wedge of freshly baked brownie, al dente texture on the outside, fudgy on the inside, topped with a scoop of French vanilla ice cream. As for other desserts, the lemon parfait consisted of wake-you-up tart lemon filling laced with whipped cream, served partially frozen. Less successful was the bread pudding, made with the house wheat bread. True, it was hot out of the oven, nicely sweetened with plenty of whipped cream, but it had an unappealing mushy-cereal texture.
The service was friendly, well-informed, and enthusiastic, fine early in the meal but a bit spotty later on. The first visit a silverware request was forgotten, then we got the wrong check. But the food arrived promptly, and for a while the server seemed attentive to the limitations of a lunch hour. The second visit the check arrived before anyone asked us about dessert, and our server was a bit on the slow side. But the server may also have surmised that we were not in much of a hurry that time. The place was packed on both occasions.
It's no surprise so many people are glad to see the return of Just for Lunch. True, some of the food is old-fashioned, and a bit predictable (yes, quiche is a top seller). And a few of the greens-based salads were boring and skimpy on the added ingredients.
Mainly, though, for this type of Southern tea room fare, the quality is excellent and consistent. The breads, the portabella sandwich, Mediterranean salad, and the oysters were standouts, and the egg and olive salad proved even a grandmotherly classic can still be striking in the right hands.