OLD & NEW SCHOOL SOUL: 3 MEMPHIS RESTAURANTS THAT’LL FEED YOUR APPETITE & YOUR HEART
There’s a little restaurant in the shadow of FedEx Forum in downtown Memphis that my family frequents: Lunchbox Eats. My husband likes the sporting events projected on the wall and the fish tacos (check the chalkboard of daily specials). My daughter likes that she can pencil in her name and order on the sheets provided at each table, and that her standby, chicken fingers and fries, goes by the name of “After School Scooby Snack” here. I like slurping the lemonade of the day, served in a mason jar, through a thick plastic straw, beating my brother at Connect Four and gathering with friends on the front patio.
In terms of creating a feel for her restaurant, chef/owner Kaia Brewer nails it: Retro school chairs surround the tables; board games and books stack up; metal lunchboxes and cutesy salt and pepper shakers punch up the exposed brick and stainless steel tableau. It’s part schoolhouse, all nostalgia – “something everyone can relate to,” Brewer says.
Similarly, Brewer’s menu is something everyone can relate to, even if you don’t see it that way at first. Take her most popular offering, the “Homeroom Chicken and Grids.” It’s chicken and waffles, packaged as a savory sandwich: Cheddar waffles and muenster cheese hug peanut oil-fried chicken tenders; in place of syrup, you get honey mustard and green tomato relish.
The “Graduation Burger” spins the same way: It’s meatloaf and mashed potatoes – sandwiched between two slices of toasted white bread, perfect for sopping up the tomato gravy and setting off the crunch of the fried onions. Lunchbox Eats’ menu isn’t all sandwiches, either; I like the “Field Trip Greens” salad topped with chicken (smoked in-house), cornbread croutons and pickles (made in-house).
And that’s the most important thing for you to know coming into Lunchbox Eats: This is from-scratch food. Brewer calls it “soul fusion,” clarifying, “It might not be the soul you’re used to having, but it’s the same soul. It’s someone really putting the love to what they’re doing.”
Lunchbox Eats, 288 S. 4th St., is open Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-3 p.m., and two hours prior to Grizzlies and Tigers basketball games at FedEx Forum, with additional hours during playoffs. Check Facebook or call 901-526-0820 for extended hours.
Old-school soul food restaurants
Brewer grew up around Lewis Bobo, owner of Memphis’ Gay Hawk Restaurant. (Brewer’s mother, in fact, used to help Mr. Bobo with catering jobs for his restaurant.) The Gay Hawk’s been around since 1951, but Mr. Bobo bought it in 1963. He’s run it as a carhop service and a nightclub over the years, but its current iteration, as an all-you-can-eat buffet, has stuck for more than two decades. For $9.95, you’ll get yours with a drink and dessert. My advice: Miss Georgia’s fried chicken has a following. To my taste, it deserves it: It’s moist, just crunchy enough and hot (because it never stays on the buffet long enough to cool). At 82, Miss Georgia prepares it and walks it from the kitchen to the buffet several times throughout the lunch rush. Arrive early or practice your patience to get in on it. Sides are basic: candied yams, pinto beans, corn, green beans and corn muffins; desserts are Miss Georgia’s recipes, usually peach cobbler, but watch for the rare appearance of banana pudding.
Without the retro-glorious sign that once topped the Gay Hawk, you’ll have to watch for this hand-painted exterior on South Danny Thomas to know where to stop. (Don’t worry – Terica Bobo saved the sign.)
Inside, the space has changed little over the years. It’s cozy with wood paneling and white tablecloths. And the Gay Hawk’s catering business, which counts Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Al Gore among past clients, is still going.
The Gay Hawk Restaurant, 685 S. Danny Thomas Blvd., is open Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-3 p.m., and Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Call 901-947-1464 for more information.
My friend Tim Sampson just wrote a history of The Four Way Restaurant for Memphis Magazine. It’s full of anecdotes from locals and details on what makes the site so special: From its establishment in 1946, the spot helped to anchor Memphis’ Soulsville neighborhood, hosting Martin Luther King Jr., Stax Records artists and an integrated crowd of diners (evidenced virtually nowhere else in the city). After The Four Way’s original owner died in 1996, the restaurant foundered and closed until 2002, when Willie Earl Bates, who grew up in the neighborhood, reopened it.
The Four Way calls itself “your kitchen away from home.” The food is homey, organized into meat-and-threes starring catfish, turkey and dressing, salmon croquets, neck bones and fried chicken supported by straight-up soul sides including macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy, turnip greens, smothered cabbage and English peas. If you aren’t familiar with the Southern/soul convention that is the meat-and-three, bless your heart. Now, learn the math: meat + two sides + cornbread = meat-and-three.
Just as the food at The Four Way tastes like home, its people treat you like family. Yesterday at lunch, my server, Bertha, was sincerely worried about me when I barely touched my country fried steak. (I was saving my appetite for dessert.) Once, when a friend missed our lunch appointment, Mr. Bates put his hand on my shoulder like a father and told me to chin up. At the cash register, Miss Barbara, Mr. Bates’ sister, will ask you to sign her guestbook, full of names of visitors from across the world. Last fall, The Four Way added Drake to that list, who was in town to record a music video at Memphis’ Royal Studios.
The Four Way Restaurant, 998 Mississippi Blvd., is open Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-7 p.m., and Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Call 901-507-1519 for more information.
Back at Lunchbox Eats, Kaia Brewer and I talked more about the Gay Hawk, The Four Way and her definition of soul food. “Mr. Bobo and Mr. Bates opened those restaurants with love. That’s soul food, and you can taste the difference,” she said.
Have you dined at Lunchbox Eats, the Gay Hawk or The Four Way? What’s your favorite soul food restaurant or dish in Memphis?