A century of good eats: A look at Memphis’ five oldest restaurants
Five Memphis restaurants have survived the Great Depression, world wars, changing food trends and, most recently, an unprecedented pandemic.
Old-school, legendary, historic, timeless – these adjectives could all be used to describe the five oldest restaurants in Memphis. For a century, these restaurants have been a fixture in the Memphis food scene.
While each of these posts is a unique original, the common ingredient is that each is a family-owned, small business known not just for its food, but its hospitality.
Standing the test of time, let alone staying open for 100 years, is no small feat in the restaurant industry.
Here are five Memphis restaurants that have not just stood the test of time, but have endured as beloved eateries for multiple generations.
Touted as “Memphis’ oldest cafe,” The Arcade is the oldest continuous running, single family-owned restaurant in Memphis. Founded in 1919, this iconic Memphis restaurant is still operating in its original location and is still run by the Zepatos family that opened it more than 100 years ago.
The Arcade is world-renowned for its breakfast and diner fare with the most popular item being their famous sweet potato pancakes.
“They’re the perfect combination of a delicious doughy texture with a sweet, cinnamon flavor. You don’t even really need syrup,” said Kelcie Zepatos.
The Fried Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwich at The Arcade was included on Food Network’s 2020 list of best sandwiches in America.
Zepatos also recommends The Arcade’s pizzas.
“I love our pizzas! We do them incredibly well. It’s a thing with the crust that crisps up really well.”
The Arcade was founded by Speros Zepatos after he immigrated from Cephalonia, Greece, to Memphis. Today, the restaurant is run by the fourth generation, Jeff Zepatos, his brother Michael and Jeff’s wife Kelcie.
“The founder, Speros Zepatos, was a Greek immigrant. He fought in WW I excited to earn his citizenship. He felt he earned his right to be in America. He put a lot of energy and time into his future family’s legacy understanding the opportunity in front of him,” said Kelcie Zepatos. “The American dream isn’t to own your own business Speros would tell you. It’s to own your own business and set up your children, grandchildren, and in Spero’s case, his great-grandchildren to fight vanity.”
The Arcade: 540 S. Main St.; arcaderestaurant.com; (901) 526-5757; Open daily 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The Little Tea Shop
Established in 1918, the Little Tea Shop is the city’s oldest restaurant. For decades, its menu has been dedicated to customary Southern fare: fried chicken, fried catfish, turnip greens, seafood gumbo, peach cobbler, and so on.
The Little Tea Shop was established by Emily Carpenter and Lillie Parham in 1918. As indicated by its name, the Little Tea Shop originally was rather dainty, specializing in finger sandwiches and the type of light fare supposedly favored by women diners.
The Little Tea Shop temporarily closed in the 1940s when World War II enlistments had surged.
In 1946, the restaurant was purchased by Vernon Bell, and managed for most of his tenure by Betty Cunningham; Vernon’s daughter, Sara Bell, ran the place for a while, before selling it to current owner Suhair Lauck’s husband, the late Jimmy Lauck. Lauck has run the restaurant since 1982.
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“People love The Little Tea Shop because it’s a home away from home,” said Lauck on how the restaurant has survived over a century. “It’s a gathering place for everyone.”
Lauck said the most popular dishes are the turnip greens, corn sticks and its iconic Lacy Special (a chicken and gravy dish served over cornbread).
According to a 1955 story in the Memphis Press-Scimitar, the Lacy Special was “first fixed for C.A. Lacey, Memphis cotton man” (when the “e” disappeared from the name is a mystery). Because the eatery was located near Memphis’ old “Cotton Row” business district, “Cotton men boosted the restaurant from the beginning,” the Press-Scimitar reported, “and thruout the depression it prospered.”
The story of Suhair Lauck and the Little Tea Shop was told in a 2020 short documentary film entitled “The Little Tea Shop.”
The restaurant has remained temporarily closed since March 2020 due to the pandemic. Lauck said she hopes to re-open before the end of the year.
The Little Tea Shop: 69 Monroe Ave.; temporarily closed.
Jim’s Place Grille
Jim’s Place Grille, a beloved restaurant that has been family-owned and operated since 1921 turns 100 this year.
It’s known for its fare influenced by the owners’ Greek and Southern roots. “We are not totally a Greek restaurant. We have lots of influences from the South,” said third-generation owner James Taras.
Jim’s Place is known for its Charcoal-grilled Steaks and New Orleans-style Seafood Gumbo as well as Greek specialties like Pork Souflima (charcoal-grilled prime pork tenderloin in a lemon-oregano marinade) and Char-grilled Shrimp Cocktail (which features Grecian-seasoned jumbo shrimp and a homemade cocktail sauce).
Named for James Catsoodas, who was one of the first owners of Jim’s Place back in 1921, the original location was in Downtown Memphis.
Soon after opening, Nick Taras and his brother Bill Taras took part in the operation and ownership of Jim’s Place.
Jim’s Place has moved locations over the years with it having settled into Collierville since 2006.
In keeping with the past, the Taras family has continued to use the same hands-on management principles taught by Bill Taras.
“I think our success is due to an intentional ability to provide quality service to our customers,” said James Taras. “We have a relationship to all we serve.”
Jim’s Place Grille: 3660 S. Houston Levee Rd., Collierville; jimsplacegrille.com; (901) 861-5000; Open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday – Friday for lunch and 5 – 9:30 p.m. Monday – Saturday for dinner.
Leonard’s Pit Barbecue
Leonard’s Pit Barbecue, the oldest barbecue restaurant in Memphis, was opened in 1922 by Leonard Heuberger.
Leonard’s started out as a stand with five stools with a barbecue sandwich that was only 5 cents. As his sandwich grew in popularity, he expanded, opening what was the largest drive-in restaurant in Memphis at the time. People came from near and far to pig-out on pit-cooked ribs and pork shoulders. Even Elvis was a regular.
Current owner Dan Brown has worked there since 1962.
“Leonard’s sweet barbecue sauce and sweet mustard slaw are what sets us apart,” said Brown. The Chopped Pork Sandwiches are the restaurant’s most popular item, but Brown said not to overlook the Italian Spaghetti. “Our homemade spaghetti sauce is some of thebest in town,” he added.
New ownership: Gus’s Fried Chicken to purchase historic Leonard’s Pit Barbecue
When Leonard’s turns 100 in 2022, it will be under its third owner as Memphis-based Gus’s Fried Chicken will be taking over the historic restaurant later this summer.
Leonard’s Pit Barbecue: 5456 Fox Plaza Drive; leonardsbarbecue.com; (901) 360-1963; Open daily 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Coletta’s has been serving Memphians Italian fare since 1923. The restaurant is renowned for its original creation, the Memphis Barbecue Pizza, which, according to the Coletta family, was a favorite order of Elvis Presley.
Emil Coletta founded the original Coletta’s, located on South Parkway, in 1923 under the name “Suburban Ice Cream Company,” where he served homemade ice cream, sandwiches and pastas.
As the restaurant’s popularity grew, he changed the emphasis to Italian, which later contributed to Suburban Ice Cream Company’s transformation to the legendary Coletta’s Italian Restaurant. The restaurant started serving pizza, including its signature barbecue pizza, in the 1950s.
Coletta’s has remained a family-owned business as it has expanded and grown over time. The restaurant is currently run by the third and fourth generations of Colettas with two locations, the original on South Parkway run by Jerry and his wife Diane and a location on Appling Road that opened in 1998 is run by Jerry’s three children, Lisa, Stephen and Kristina.
They also have a stand in the University of Tennessee Health Science Center Food Court.
Coletta’s: 1063 South Parkway East and 2850 Appling Road; colettas.net; South Parkway Hours: Open 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. Monday – Thursday; 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. Fridays; 12 – 11 p.m. Saturdays and 1 – 9 p.m. on Sundays; Appling Location Hours: Open 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Sunday – Thursday and 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. Friday – Saturday.
Jennifer Chandler is the Food & Dining Reporter at The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @cookwjennifer.