Memphis' rich restaurant traditions.
Jim's Place East
photograph by Amie Vanderford
Memphis has a deep and rich cultural history imbued with the sounds of soul, rock, and blues and fed, literally, upon a lineage from Greece, Italy, and Mexico — roasted over coals and served up with know-how. Of the most popular restaurants in the area today, several have been in business more than 50 years, stretching back through decades of lean times and fat.
Several claim to be the oldest restaurant in the city. Between them it’s a friendly rivalry with the insider knowledge that, along with the usual uncertainty of the restaurant business itself, these family trees, with their roots firmly planted in Memphis soil, have had to weather the flux of a city whose good fortune seems to rise and fall with the Mississippi River. Its population moved east en masse before flowing back to the west.
Over so much time, it is a city peopled with a single common denominator: appetite.
In 2010, Costa and Dimitri Taras moved their father Bill’s restaurant, Jim’s Place East, from its longtime location on Shelby Oaks Drive to the bustling intersection of Poplar Avenue and Perkins Extended. Since 1921 (they are among the restaurants claiming to being Memphis’ oldest), the Tarases have dotted the Memphis landscape. Nick Taras opened their first restaurant with partner Jim Katsoudes in the basement of the William Len Hotel, opening a second location, along with Nick’s brother, Bill, on Union Avenue across from The Peabody in 1927. In 1967, Bill’s sons joined the operation and moved to South Second Street.
The family had a summer home in East Memphis on Shelby Oaks Drive, and in 1976 they moved the operation to the bucolic two-acre site where many Memphians since enjoyed gathering with family for everything from birthdays to wedding receptions. The more recent move to Poplar and Perkins, says general manager Ronnie Powell, was to help usher in a new generation of diners and indoctrinate them on the taste of moussaka, souflima, phyllo puffs, baklava, and hand-cut steaks, a menu that has changed little in 90 years.
The business remains a family concern, and in 2006 Dimitri Taras opened Jim’s Place Grille in Collierville with his two sons, James and Sam.
“It’s unbelievable the kind of loyalty we have, and it’s awesome that Memphis supports local businesses such as ours,” Powell says. “When you come into our restaurant, you’re not just a customer, you’re family.”
The latest location for Jim’s Place East has a New York feel and a popular bar, and sees new clientele mixed in with those celebrating wedding anniversaries — those same brides and grooms who toasted their marriage with them 30, 40, and 50 years prior.
There is no more popular mainstay in an American’s diet than pizza. A dinner that any household can agree on, it’s as simple as it is versatile. In Memphis, there is no greater mainstay than a Coletta’s pizza.
Founded at 1063 South Parkway East in 1922 by Emil Coletta as an ice cream shop, it offered what he called “suburban ice cream.” Emil’s son, Horest, took over in the 1950s and recognized that “people coming back from World War II and from Italy wanted pizzas,” says Diane Coletta, Emil’s daughter-in-law who, together with her husband, Jerry, now run the South Parkway location. The couple’s children operate the location on Appling Road in Bartlett. A third location on Summer Avenue burned in 1996.
The menu today, as it did back when Horest took over, offers pasta, veal, sandwiches, and the Colettas' signature barbecue pizza — they were the first to add Memphis’ best-known topping to a pie. If the business’ longevity isn’t enough of a pedigree for you, then consider that they claim to serve pizza fit for a king: Coletta’s was the favorite of Elvis Presley.
They also claim, as many do, to be the longest lived in Memphis. Diane Coletta explains that, while others have closed down for a time or changed hands or locations at some point, “We do consider ourselves the oldest continuously family-owned restaurant.”
“It’s a people’s business,” she says, bringing their clientele into the family fold. “We have so many loyal customers and we see them day-to-day; it’s just really nice.”
Long before Mexican restaurants vied for the title of most authentic along Summer Avenue, the original arrived just across the river in West Memphis. It was 1956 and Pancho’s appeared to have literally sprouted from the earth with a hard-packed dirt floor and a live tree as centerpiece. When that first incarnation was destroyed by an errant 18-wheeler from the nearby highway, a new one was built in the space once held by the infamous Plantation Inn.
Founded by Morris Berger and his son, Louis Jack, after a trip to Mexico, the enterprise is still run by Morris’ daughter, Brenda O’Brien.
The restaurant expanded into Memphis in the early 1960s and saw a myriad of locations throughout the city over the decades — Midtown, Whitehaven, East Memphis, downtown — giving all neighborhoods the opportunity to experience the flavor.
These days, enchiladas, burritos, tacos, and fajitas can be had in one of two restaurants in Memphis, on Perkins at American Way and White Station at Summer Avenue, as well as in West Memphis. Their famous cheese dip can be found in more than 350 stores from Tennessee to Texas, Oklahoma to Virginia.
“We’ve always kept the menu the same, and we haven’t changed any of the recipes over the years,” says Tim Wallace, general manager of day-to-day operations for the Pancho’s corporation. “Customers really won’t allow us to change anything.”
It’ll be here.”
It’s what Harry Zepatos told his son, Harry Jr., of the family’s restaurant, The Arcade, as young Harry began his career as an engineer. And it’s what Harry Jr. tells his own children now.
Indeed, it’s what any Memphian might say of the world-famous restaurant at the corner of South Main Street and G. E. Patterson: “It’ll be here.”
It has, in fact, been right there since 1919 when a young Speros Zepatos, newly emigrated from Cephalonia, Greece, arrived to this city on the bluff. It was a time when the intersection was as busy a location as any in the city. With an active railroad station bringing people and freight into the city, and shops and cafés lining the streets to accommodate those newly arrived, it was an advantageous time for Speros to build what would, in effect, become a welcome mat to the city.
Though the restaurant, like the neighborhood itself, has had its ups and downs, having changed hands for a brief time in the 1990s before coming back to the Zepatos family, the café has become a mainstay for locals amd tourists. Several films — including Mystery Train, The Firm, and My Blueberry Nights — and television commercials have used its deco interior and exterior as a set.
These days, the restaurant seems to be at the top of its game, and every day, it seems, someone sits down in one of the vinyl booths with his own story of The Arcade, Zepatos says. “As rapidly changing as the world is, it’s fun to have a place where you can go back down memory lane.”
A Family Tree of Food
They may not have a restaurant currently in the 50-year bracket, but rest assured that the Grisanti family has touched many in the local dining industry since patriarch Rinaldo Grisanti first traveled from Lucca, Italy, to Memphis in 1909.
Alex Grisanti, fourth-generation chef in the kitchen now with Elfo’s Restaurant in Germantown, calculates 10 locations throughout Memphis over the last century.
Rinaldo moved his business around but kept it centered mostly upon South Main. Following two fires in the late 1950s, the family moved to Ashlar Hall, the castle on Central Avenue near Lamar, in 1960.
There have been so many Grisantis in the business, it can get a little confusing. Rinaldo’s third son, John Grisanti, and his wife, Dolores, would later open Grisanti’s on Airways Boulevard. In 1979, Ronnie Grisanti, son of Elfo, would open his well-known restaurant, Ronnie Grisanti & Sons, on Union and Marshall before moving to Beale Street, then to Poplar and Humes, and more recently to Sheffield Antiques Mall in Collierville. Alex Grisanti opened Elfo’s in Chickasaw Crossing 10 years ago before moving to Germantown. Ronnie’s brother, Frank, has operated Frank Grisanti’s in East Memphis on South Shady Grove Road for more than 25 years, and cousin Rudy has had Dino’s Grill on North McLean for 40.
Alex Grisanti, whose own son works alongside him now in the Elfo’s kitchen, says that as Memphis has grown so has the Grisanti legacy. “I love it, and that’s all I’ve ever done, and that’s all my family’s ever done, all of us.”