Chattanooga’s historic restaurants are icons of their neighborhoods and they know the customers well.
It’s been an amazing few years for restaurant growth in Chattanooga. Young entrepreneurs have opened the doors of many new eateries offering diners an array of delicious options. But just as popular are those places that have been serving locals for decades.
Zarzour’s, 1627 Rossville Avenue
This establishment has been a talisman of Main Street activity for 98 years. It opened in 1918 when Main Street was a bustling place, and remained open when people and other businesses took flight to the suburbs. Now that life has returned to the neighborhood, and Main Street is a happening spot once again, Zarzour’s continues to pack them in.
It looks the same—a large front room with tables and a counter for seating, and a smaller back room that’s always filled with hungry folks wanting a taste of home. The greens are still simmered for hours. The country style steak has been made the same way for decades— soaked for hours in homemade gravy and served with made-from-scratch sides. What is the secret to nearly 100 years of success? Knowing the patrons. “We know all of them,” says owner Shannon Fuller.
“We know their names, their kids’ names, even their dogs’ names,” she says. “When they come in, we already know what they want. They come in here and they feel like they’re at home.”
The menu, which always features a meat-and-three, two daily specials, cheeseburgers and hamburgers, didn’t start out with such an extensive menu. The original owners kept things simple—beef stew, chili, hot dogs and peanut brittle. Now, it’s the place to go for the daily meat-and-three special or a hot, open-faced roast beef sandwich or meatloaf like your grandma used to make. Although there are a few rivals to the Fuller’s claim in the Nashville area, Fuller says, “It’s the oldest restaurant in Tennessee.”
Bea’s Restaurant, 4500 Dodds Avenue
Bill and Patricia “Bea” Steele opened on May 20, 1950 in the parking lot of the current location. Today, there are five generations working at the popular family-style eatery. When it opened, Bea’s quickly became known as the best place in South Chattanooga, if not the entire city, to get a full Southern meal—as much as you could put on your plate as the lazy Susan went round.
- Items on the menu then and now: Fried Chicken, barbecue pork, pinto beans and homemade cornbread and biscuits.
- Menu changes: Very few changes have been made, save for the addition of a mechanical dishwasher in the 1970s.
- House favorites: “Bea’s is known as having the best fried chicken in Chattanooga,” Doug Bradshaw, part owner, says.
- Key to success: “It’s all about remaining true to the original concept and mission of Bill and Bea,” Bradshaw says. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
The Longhorn Restaurant, 129 North Market Street
Longtime restaurateur Bill Hall and partner, Richard Abercrombie, opened Longhorn in 1959 in the same location with the same look now, as it did when it first began serving one of the hottest breakfasts on Chattanooga’s North Shore. Though the owners have changed—it’s now in the hands of Susan Danner—little else has. Longhorn continues to serve breakfast and lunch daily.
- Items on the menu then and now: Eggs Longhorn, The Deluxe Burger and The Lassie, a sandwich made with sugar-cured ham.
- Menu changes: A more healthful focus on fresh meats, fruits and vegetables.
- House favorites: Hand-cut fries, homemade soups, chilidogs and seasonal fresh fruit cups.
- Key to success: “I believe our key to success is really good fresh, home-cooked food,” Danner says. “And our staff. Customers—old and new—come to see them.”
Nikki’s Drive-Inn, 899 Cherokee Boulevard
Nikki’s opened in 1942, offering guests an amazing view of downtown Chattanooga from high atop a hill at the base of Stringer’s Ridge. It still reigns today as one of the best places to get your burger on, along with many more of those comfort foods we can’t live without.
Then and now: Fried shrimp, hamburger steaks and the best onion rings on the planet.
- Changes: Frog legs from the original menu were discontinued several years ago, as were soups. But customers were jumping when the frog legs returned to the menu two years ago. A porch for outside dining has replaced the drive-in area. “Any change is a big change at Nikki’s,” says owner Jim Jones.
- House favorite: Reubens, burgers, fried shrimp and chicken livers wrapped in bacon.
- Key to success: “Two factors: our employees and customers,” Jones says. “Nikki’s cherishes both and understands their value to the restaurant’s success.”
Mount Vernon, 3535 Broad Street
Gus and Myrtle Tombras owned several restaurants in the first half of the 20th century; Mount Vernon was their last and is now a fixture on South Broad Street. The doors opened in 1955 and two generations later, it remains a family-owned business, now run by the Tombras’ granddaughter, Cindy Messinger and husband, Jeff.
- Items on the menu then and now: Fried chicken, chicken and dressing, and fried haddock.
- Menu changes: Healthier choices have been added, such as North Carolina trout and or haddock, blackened or grilled.
- House favorites: Haddock with sides of fresh turnip greens and black-eyed peas, and amaretto pie.
- Key to success: “We’re very customer oriented and work to be consistent with service and food quality,” Messinger says.
Wally’s, 1600 McCallie Avenue and 6521 Ringgold Road
In a day of carhops and skating servers, Wally Alexander launched his namesake eatery, Wally’s. Much in keeping with the decor, his menu was typical of most drive-ins in 1937 —burgers, fries and onion rings, along with ice cream and milk shakes. In 1975, Tony Kennedy purchased the place. In 1989, he opened a second Wally’s in East Ridge, forming a partnership with stepsons, Gary and Glenn Meadows, today’s owners.
- Items on the menu then and now: Burgers, fries and onion rings.
- Menu changes: With the rise of fast-food restaurants and the demise of drive-ins, Kennedy reinvented the menu, turning Wally’s into the popular meat-and-three it is today.
- House favorites: Hand-battered chicken strips and vegetables, and the Friday night catfish dinner.
- Key to success: “Offering quality food at reasonable prices, but mostly a dedicated staff. I have some employees who have worked at Wally’s for as long as 18 years,” says Gary Meadows.