Zarzour’s Café (above)
6 Landmark Chattanooga Restaurants
Some places in Chattanooga never go out of style. The six restaurants featured here have been Chattanooga landmarks for decades, and they don’t seem to be changing any time soon. If you’re looking for a taste of the good ‘ol days, they’ve got you covered.
By Rusty Crump
The cinder block establishment we know as “Zarzour’s Café” was first purchased by Lebanese immigrants Charlie and Nazeera Zarzour in 1918. Then situated at the hub of a working class neighborhood, the concrete hut had all the trappings of an up-and-coming business. The young couple moved in with plans to operate a store in the front and live in the back.
Just two months later, tragedy struck. Nazeera died in the flu epidemic of 1918, leaving Charlie to run the business and raise their five children by himself. To support his young family, Charlie began selling small food items in the storefront. “He started with Cokes, peanut brittle, and popcorn,” says current owner and family member Shannon Fuller. Not long after came beer, chili, and stew.
When Charlie died, the restaurant passed to children Rose and George, who operated it until 1978. They were followed by their niece Shirley, who become a legend for her feisty personality and delicious homemade desserts. Now Fuller, who is married to Shirley’s son, Joe “Dixie” Fuller, keeps her mother-in-laws’ sizzle and spirit alive as she flips burgers, calls out orders, and greets Zarzour’s customers by name.
Zarzour’s interior décor would certainly catch anyone’s wandering eye. The cozy dining room’s wooden walls are covered with framed family photos, cheeky catchphrases, and old proverbs. Checkered tablecloths and an old-fashioned cash register lend to the homey feel, giving patrons the sense that very little has changed since its earliest days.
The food certainly hasn’t changed much, and that’s a good thing. Guests return again and again for Zarzour’s juicy burgers, homemade desserts, and hot plate lunches – all delivered with an extra dose of personality. “All served with a side of sass!” Fuller says.
Gotta Try: Cheeseburger – Homemade Peach Ice Cream – Lemon Icebox Pie – Peanut Butter Pie
This classic city diner was founded by Wallace “Wally” Alexander in 1937. Opened at the height of the Depression – back when one dollar could buy your dinner – it became a place to sit, have a good meal, and chat with friends.
In the early days, Wally’s operated a drive-in where carhops on roller skates would bring burgers to customers in their cars. By the 1950s, it had become a popular hangout for teenagers going out for a night on the town or just cruising.
Today, Wally’s is best known as a “meat and three” – a switch that came during the late ‘70s and ‘80s when Chattanooga’s food landscape was drastically changing. Then-owner Tony Kennedy knew that if Wally’s was going to survive, it would have to adapt. “With the fast food chains coming into town, Tony saw the need for meat dishes and fresh vegetables,” explains Gary Meadows, Tony’s stepson and current owner of Wally’s McCallie Avenue location.
Ever the businessman, Kennedy opened a second Wally’s location in East Ridge in 1989. Today it retains Wally’s warm diner atmosphere with the added perks of a gargantuan buffet and private rooms for community events.
Menu-wise, Wally’s is best known for its fried catfish, crispy fried chicken, hearty meatloaf, hot and gooey macaroni and cheese, fresh collard greens, and large breakfast specials. No matter your order, expect to feel like family. Wally’s is one of the few remaining restaurants where waitresses might call you “hon” or “darlin’.”
Tony Kennedy, now 80, continues to stay active in the restaurants, but has since passed ownership of the two locations to his stepsons, Gary and Glen Meadows. Gary manages the McCallie Avenue location, Glen manages the East Ridge location, and both strive to offer the same good food and feelings Wally Alexander set down so many years ago.
If you’re looking for a place to indulge in down-home Southern cooking, go no further than Bea’s Restaurant. It all started in 1950 – the year Bill and Beatrice “Bea” Steele opened a lunch option for blue-collar workers on Dodds Avenue. At that time, Dodds was surrounded by manufacturing plants. When word that Bea’s was serving up hot platters at an affordable price got out, swarms of workers filed in for lunch hour every day of the week.
Two decades later, Bea’s was hit hard by the wheels of progress: Chattanooga’s manufacturing plants began to close down, taking with them the backbone of Bea’s business. Yet the family was determined to keep Bea’s a hive of activity.
“It was hard, but we pulled through by staying true to our blue-collar roots,” says Dusty Bradshaw, who represents the fourth generation of family ownership.
If you ask the locals, they’ll tell you Bea’s is more of an institution than just another place to eat. Patrons sit at round tables with large lazy Susans heaped with fried chicken, pinto beans, creamy macaroni and cheese, fresh hot collard greens, sweet peach cobbler, and more. It’s not uncommon to enjoy your meal alongside total strangers. “It all adds to the family feel of the establishment,” Dusty says.
Now Bea’s is owned and operated by Doug and Mike Bradshaw, grandsons of Bill and Beatrice, and their children Dusty, Stacey, and Bryan Bradshaw. Dusty says that while much has changed around Bea’s in the years it’s been open, Bea’s itself hasn’t changed much at all.
“It started out humble, and it’s still humble today,” he says.
Gotta Try: Fried Chicken – Sweet Tea – Macaroni and Cheese – Pinto Beans – Collard Greens – Peach Cobbler
Nikki’s Drive-In is no longer a drive-in nor owned by Nikki, and the reasons why make for quite a tale. In 1941, a lady named Nikki bought the building with her husband for the purpose of turning it into a restaurant, but they owned it only two years before he lost it in a gambling game. The winner, Rudy LeVan, owned and managed the restaurant until 1968, when it was bought by longtime owners Charlie and June Jones.
In 1971, June discovered Nikki’s had become a hotspot for underage drinking, so she transitioned Nikki’s from a drive-in to a dine-in only restaurant. A few years later, she introduced a “no food, no beer” rule and started closing the restaurant on Sundays so employees could attend church services.
Since then, changes have been few and far between. Steel siding, shiny neon signs, an old-fashioned jukebox, and comfortable booths invoke a sense of yesteryear to all who enter. “We want to remain true to Nikki’s roots,” says current owner Jim Jones, June’s son.
While in its earliest days it was more of a Coke-and-burger joint, Nikki’s is famous today for its jumbo fried shrimp and onion rings, which are hand-prepared daily just like everything else on the menu. The fresh shrimp is cleaned, peeled, deveined, butterflied, battered, and fried to golden perfection. Other notable items on the menu include classic Southern fried chicken, hand-cut fries, and even – believe it or not – a side of frog legs.
Nikki’s employee-customer bond is so strong that it’s common for patrons to come in, sit down, and be delivered a piping hot meal before saying a word. “We try to operate on a first-name basis,” Jones says. It’s a familiarity that only comes from decades of loyal business.
Gotta Try: Fried Jumbo Shrimp – Hand-Battered Onion Rings – Frog Legs
Longhorn has long been hailed by many as one of the premier breakfast destinations in Chattanooga. The classic diner was built in the late 1950s by Bill Hall, who wanted a companion restaurant to his nearby lunch and dinner joint, “The Town & Country.” Today you can still enjoy a home-style breakfast in Longhorn’s original location, which retains an old-timey vibe with its swivel stool lunch counter and rows of two-person booths.
The staff’s sense of camaraderie as they flip eggs, pour coffee, and take orders is evidence of just how long they’ve worked together. Most have been with the diner for 20 years, some even longer. Business partners Henry Smith and Susan and Charlie Danner have owned Longhorn for seven years now. They say it’s changed very little since they took the helm. “We don’t want to alter much, because, well, it’s Longhorn,” Susan says. “Part of the charm is its classic feel.”
Customers come from miles around to dine on Eggs Longhorn (two eggs sunny side up served atop two hash brown patties), fluffy biscuits, and omelets taking up most of the plate. In recent years, the place has garnered quite a lunch crowd too, as items like the “Lassie” sandwich, made with sugar cured ham, are enough to make any first-time customers come back for more.
If you visit, you can expect to dine with the regulars, many of whom first came with their parents. You can also see the tradition carried on, as many are bringing their children and grandchildren to experience what Susan Danner calls “the last of the breakfast diners.”
Gotta Try: Eggs Longhorn – Western Omelet – Blueberry Pancakes – The Lassie