Photo by Jonathan Postal
Willie Earl Bates has owned the Four Way Grill since 2001.
Nine times out of 10 when my wife asks what I’m in the mood for as we head out on the town for a meal, all I can think to say is, “I don’t know, a sandwich?”
A foodie, I am not.
But I am a Memphian and sometimes I just want a taste of Memphis. And when that happens, there are a number of options from which to choose: Tops Bar-B-Q, Coletta’s Pizza, a Huey’s burger, Pancho’s cheese dip. Last week, though, it was a very particular taste of the town that I wanted, and it led me to The Four Way Grill at the corner of Mississippi Boulevard and Walker Avenue. I was glad I did. I’m always glad I do when the turkey and dressing is “rightly seasoned,” the mashed potatoes are drowned in gravy, and the turnip greens are as tangy as you’d want.
And the history I wanted was there as well. In a year of so many local icons celebrating milestones — Memphis magazine turns 40, as does the Dixon Gallery & Gardens, while the Brooks Museum of Art hits the century mark —the Four Way turns an impressive 70 years old. Founded in 1946 as little more than a pool hall with a couple of tables for food service, it was purchased not long after by Clint and Irene Cleaves, “Boss” E.H. Crump’s chauffeur and his wife. From the earliest days, it was a place that blacks and whites could eat together in Memphis, and one of the only places in town where blacks could get a good meal every day of the week. Over the years, those who have graced the door include the rosters of Stax and Royal recording studios, politicians, activists, dignitaries, and curious travelers from the world over.
Last Wednesday, though, it was my wife and I, and more than a dozen others on their mid-day lunch break. There were men and women, black and white — you know, Memphians, enjoying the taste of their city. Maybe I’m a foodie after all.
For a complete history of The Four Way, read this 2014 story by Tim Sampson, founding editor of The Memphis Flyer, former editor of Memphis magazine, and the current communications director for the Soulsville Foundation.