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Opening in the 1890s, the Bon Ton Cafe has been operating in some form or fashion in downtown Memphis. Apparently the cafe was originally a saloon in the late 1800s, but was then turned into a restaurant in 1904. Tony Angleos and Charlie Skinner, two cousins who immigrated from Greece, opened the first manifestation of the Bon Ton Cafe, called The Hole in the Wall. This eatery was located behind the original location of the Peabody Hotel on Monroe. In 1923, the cousins renamed and reopened the Bon Ton Cafe, as it is known today. Apparently Elvis really liked to visit and perform in the basement. The cousins owned the restaurant for 41 years before selling in 1945.
Now, you’ll notice on the plaque, which will be posted on the website, that it says The Hole in the Wall opened in 1911. But like any good history retelling, dates are going to be a bit dodgy.
The Bon Ton Cafe was purchased and reopened in 1950 (or 1945 as I have also read) by the Zambelis family. Mike Zambelis, also a Greek immigrant, took over the cafe and their breakfast and lunch specials have been staples in the downtown community ever since. When Mike passed away in 1998, his son Sam took over the business. Sam kept his father’s legacy alive by running the restaurant exactly like his father did, like a family dining room. Bon Ton was a place where you could get good food and have good conversation, and according to one member of the “Breakfast Club”, a group of people that had been eating breakfast there for decades, it’s a place where they figured out how to “solve the world’s problems, if only anyone would listen”.
Sam Zambelis suddenly passed away in 2008 and the restaurant closed for a few years.
In 2011, the Bon Ton Cafe was reopened by Mac Edwards, the previous owner of McEwans.
This time, Ewards added dinner to the menu. According to Edwards, breakfast will be nice and sunny, lunch is all business, and dinner will have the lights turned down low for a sexy vibe. You can get a nice, inexpensive dinner, but also high quality spirits. He also wanted to support the local community by providing a farm to table philosophy, buying as much as he could from local vendors.
Currently the Bon Ton Cafe is doing private events and catering.
Next up is the actual oldest still operating restaurant in Memphis. This also surprised me because I had always heard it was another restaurant, but we’ll get to that later.
The Little Tea Shop is located at 69 Monroe Ave and is open Monday through Friday, 11am to 2pm. This lunch only cafe is another staple in downtown Memphis.
The Little Tea Shop was opened in 1918 by Lillie Parham and Emily Carpenter. They wanted to have a place where their friends could come get lunch while they were having an outing downtown. The ladies served finger sandwiches and made change out of a shoebox at the front of the shop. Obviously at the time, two women owning and running a business wasn’t terribly common.
Originally, the shop was located in the basement of the Memphis Cotton Exchange Building. While the men were upstairs conducting business, their wives could shop downtown and then come in for a light snack and socializing before heading home to do whatever wives of wealthy cotton traders did.
In 1935, the shop was relocated to its current location. It’s said there was no disruption to the service either. After closing time one day, the employees packed everything up and moved it down the street. They were serving lunch the next day like nothing had ever happened.
The ladies sold their shop in 1946 to an amatuer golfer named Vernon Mortimer Bell. Bell had quite the legacy in Memphis. After purchasing the Little Tea Shop, he opened up The Knickerbocker restaurant in East Memphis. He also started the Danver’s food chains. Years later, his daughter Sara opened Mortimer’s on Perkins off Sam Cooper. He, along with Danny Thomas, helped found what was to become the FedEx/ St. Jude Golf Classic. And just to throw in some other trivia, his son, Chris, was a founding member of the band Big Star.
During the years that Bell owned it, the restaurant turned into a place where the business people went to dine. It’s where probably every city changing idea was hashed out over lunch. The Little Tea Shop was another eatery where everyone felt welcome, like they were coming home for dinner. Former Mayor Wharton once said it was a level playing field, everyone had respect for one another. You hung up your differences at the door and when you came in, everyone was the same.
Eventually Bell sold the restaurant to his daughter Sara, who ran it for a few years before selling it to the Laucks in 1982. The story of the Laucks is really the story of the American dream. Suhair Maher, a Palestinian immigrant, was working at La Baguette when she met James Laucks, a local businessman. Apparently impressed by her restaurant business skills, he asked her to run the new cafe he had just purchased And he subsequently asked her to be his wife. Together they ran the Tea Shop until he passed away in 2012.
Suhair created a welcoming, inclusive environment with amazing Southern comfort foods. To this day, you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t eaten at the Little Tea Shop. From judges, lawyers, politicians, businessmen, musicians, and tourists, everyone who is anyone has stopped in to have some cornbread sticks with Miss Sue. She is a true Memphian at heart. When asked how she, a muslim Palenstinian immigrant learned how to make catfish and greens, she quickly stated that she was from South Jeruselum.
You’ll often find her donning her Grizzles cap and running from table to table greeting folks like your grandma would when you come to see her for lunch. Family photos and Memphis memorabilia are plastered on the walls. Miss Sue says that her place is not a restaurant, it’s a home away from home. It’s where friends meet. You feel like you’re not rushed to hurry up and eat and then leave. It’s home.
The Little Tea shop is currently closed due to the pandemic, but hopefully soon Miss Sue will be able to reopen and invite her family members back home for lunch.
Now to the restaurant I thought was the oldest Memphis eatery. The Arcade. It missed the date by probably less than a year.
But technically they are the oldest, serving food for more than 3 hours a day, restaurant. So there’s that. We won’t steal all their glory.
The Arcade opened its doors in 1919. Speros Zapatos, an immigrant from Greece, purchased the Paris Cafe at 540 Main Street and renamed it the Arcade Cafe. Originally, the building was a small, one story wooden structure with pot belly stoves to cook the food. Because the restaurant was located across from the train station, business was booming! The restaurant was open 24/7 for any and all who wanted or needed a home cooked meal. In 1925, Zapatos tore down the original structure and built a new one from brick in the Greek revival style.
In the 1950s, Speros’ son, Harry, took over the business and transformed it into the 50s style diner you see today. The next two decades were some of the busiest times for the diner. The intersection of Union and GE Patterson was so crowded, there was a police officer directing traffic 24 hours a day. Elvis became a regular at the restaurant during this time. He was there so often, he even had his own booth. Even today, you can enjoy the King’s favorite meal, the peanut butter and banana sandwich.
The late 60s and 70s, as we’ve mentioned before, were a sad time for downtown Memphis. People were moving to the suburbs and not many businesses survived. The Arcade, and Earnestine and Hazel’s across the street, were just a few of the places that still had that notorious Memphis grit and grind mentality, even back then. 1968, after Dr. King was assassinated, was the first time that the restaurant closed its doors in the evenings. But the diner continued to serve up breakfast and lunch specials for the patrons willing to venture down to see them.
Unfortunately, Speros passed away in 1994. The restaurant was sold the following year, but the new owner only managed to keep it open until 1996. The younger generation of Zapatos couldn’t let their legacy come to an end, so Harry Jr reopened the restaurant in 2002. The diner still serves classic favorites, but has added some new tasty treats to the menu. And their mission is still the same, “make people happy”.
Several movies have also filmed in this historic location. You can find shots of the cafe in movies such as Mystery Train, Great Balls of Fire, The Client, Walk the Line, 21 Grams, Elizabethtown, and The Firm. It has also been featured on the Food Channel and the Travel Network.
Currently the restaurant is open 7 days a week from 7am-3pm, but occasionally it’s open for dinner a few nights a week too.
If you’ve not made a trip to the Arcade, what are you waiting for?!? This is your invitation. Give the oldest cafe in Memphis a try.
And last, but certainly not least, is Memphis’s oldest tavern, The Green Beetle. I know it’s really old because Big Daddy used to eat there and if he were alive, he’d be almost 106. Big Daddy was my daddy’s daddy and was a young man when he used to go there and hang out. So I asked my dad if he told him any stories about his days hanging out there. And my dad told me a story that Big Daddy and some friend were there drinking and playing cards when a lady came up and asked Big Daddy if he wanted to sleep with her and he said no thank you, he wasn’t sleepy. Ahahaha! Amazing.
The Green Beetle was opened at 325 Main Street in 1939 by an Italian immigrant, Frank Liberto and his wife Mary. He also opened Frank’s next door, which was a liquor store. The tavern was a hit with patrons, serving up a delicious burger and good beer that kept everyone happy. Celebrities like Elvis, Hank Williams, Sr, and Desi Arnez would even hang out sometimes. For roughly 20 years or so, business thrived.
But like every other establishment in the 1960s, The Green Beetle was not spared from the plight of downtown. What was once a respectable place to have good food and drinks became a dive bar. Frank couldn’t keep good help and he decided to sell the business in 1971. But one of the coolest things, I think, that he did was put in the deed that any establishment at 325 Main St had to be named The Green Beetle. According to his grandson, as to how it got such an interesting name, he said that Frank had always wanted a place called The Green Beetle, no other reason than that.
Over the next 40 years, the Beetle changed hands a few times before Frank’s grandson decided to buy it and continue his family’s legacy. In 2011, Josh Huckaby was approached by the building’s owner to see if he’d like to purchase the establishment. Without hesitation, Huckaby moved back to Memphis (he had been managing several restaurants at a casino in West Virginia) and readied the bar to reopen. When Huckaby took over, he wanted to keep the late night feel, but spruce up the place so it was no longer a dive bar. The front has been opened up with big windows and the floor space was opened too by removing the booths and bringing in tables. A long bar along one side was replaced with bar tables and stools. He’s kept some of the original aspects of the bar though. There’s leatherwork on the walls and original signage with vintage foods and prices still kept intact. The big Frank burger and grandma’s lasagna are staples on the menu, as well as other Italian inspired Southern fare and his sister’s homemade cake.
A new sign hangs at The Green Beetle, which has become their new motto:
“Have a beer here; your grandfather did.”
And true to our nature, I found an article about how the oldest tavern in Memphis has a ghost story of its own. I can’t help it. I don’t seek them out, they just find me.
A paranormal investigation was set up in the bar and the investigators said they made contact with the spirit of a charming, handsome, lively spirited grey haired man. Is this the spirit of Josh’s grandfather, Frank? I’m sure he’s more than ecstatic that his grandson has revitalized his once beloved restaurant.
They also said there is the spirit of a lady in the bar. They believe she is displeased with all the loud music. The bar goes through a lot of wine glasses because whenever she visits, the glasses fly off the shelves and break. The investigators believe the spirit is of a lady who lived in an apartment upstairs who died from hitting her head.
So not terribly nefarious spirits, just a bit spirited.
We hope you enjoyed listening to the stories we’ve unearthed. We hope they have made you as equally hungry as they have made us. And we hope you go out and try these Memphis staples. They’ve survived a hundred years, so they must be good.
Dowdy, G. Wayne. Lost Restaurants of Memphis. American Palate, 2019.
**Photos on this site are for informational purposes only and constitutes Fair Use under Section 107 of the US Copyright Law. We do not own the rights to these photos. **
2 thoughts on “Season Two: Episode Three: Memphis’s Oldest Eateries”
I remember my Aunt Reva telling me about meeting my Uncle Red Null at the old Black & White Department Store on Main, but having first date at the Green Beetle. He was a Marine stationed here. At the Beetle they saw a young musician Elvis Presley there, but being a clean cut Marine, my Uncle said he’d never amount to anything without “proper structure”.
He may have been wrong about Elvis, he did make his marriage to my Aunt last 53 years.
Y’all “got” me on the ‘Danver’s Connection’; never saw the relationship with Mortimer’s.
I LOVE their crab claws !!!! Great bar set-up too.
We’re going to have to go to Mortimer’s at some point. I’m not real big on seafoods, but I hear all their food is good.