I stopped by Bea’s Restaurant last week for one of my favorite meals and thought about all of the nostalgia that comes with the place. It is 62 years old this year and many an area resident has fond memories of the great food there. The same family has run Bea’s for 62 years. Ponder this - Bea’s opened in 1950, but that was nearly 13 years after the death of Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues and Chattanooga born star. To put her stardom in to perspective, Bessie Smith was the modern day equivalent of Beyoncé, or the Sixties equivalent of Aretha Franklin. She was the highest paid black entertainer in the world at the time.
While Bea’s does not come close to approaching the Bessie Smith era, another Chattanooga restaurant comes a bit closer. Wally’s Restaurant opened in 1937, the year Bessie Smith died at just 43 years of age. With 75 years of history behind Wally’s, it is hard to believe that Bessie Smith had passed away about the time they opened. With two locations – McCallie Avenue and Ringgold Road – I frequent the East Ridge restaurant often for their great breakfast bar. Two of my favorite red-headed servers in the world – Tina and Lois – always take great care of me and all of their loyal customers.
So, we are getting closer to the Bessie Smith era with Wally’s, but just barely. What to do? Well, we have to go back to 1918 and enter Zarzour’s Restaurant. That’s right – 1918. Ninety-four years ago, this family restaurant opened in Chattanooga and is still operated by the same family – making it likely as the oldest restaurant in Tennessee and possibly one of the oldest in the United States that has been continually operated by the same family. It is still located behind the Main Street fire hall. With the area’s best burgers and meat & 3 lunches, the movers and shakers in Chattanooga saddle up there to talk politics, music, and food. To put it in perspective, Zarzour’s was nearly a generation old by the time Wally’s opened and the conclusion of both World War I & II had occurred by the time Bea’s opened.
Now we’re talking the Bessie Smith era when Zarzour’s is thrown into the equation, as she would be but 24 years old and about to be signed by Columbia Records and become the highest paid black entertainer in the world. Glen Miller’s Chattanooga Choo-Choo didn’t come out until 1941. The TVA wasn’t created until 1933. The Aquarium, a centerpiece of Chattanooga’s revitalization is but twenty years old this year. In 1950, when Bea’s opened, a new car was about $1600. A loaf of bread was 14 cents. A gallon of gas was 25 cents. A postage stamp was 3 cents. In 1937, when Wally’s opened, a gallon of gas was a dime, and a loaf of bread was 9 cents. A new home cost about $4,100 in 1937. When Zarzour’s opened in 1918, a gallon of gas was 8 cents, and the average salary in the U.S. was $1,144 per year.
I suppose the point of all this is to remind folks that Bessie Smith is one of Chattanooga’s oldest icons. News has come out that the tribute to her – the Bessie Smith Strut - may continue in some form this year, after a near-death experience. Friends of the Festival, along with members of the city’s black leadership have been working feverishly to continue the street party on MLK. It may be a tad bit different, but the tradition may well continue. Stay tuned for more details!
The Pick-o-the-week is definitely the Chattanooga Market, opening Sunday at 11 a.m. Every Sunday, local vendors have food, crafts, and good eats on-site for the whole family to enjoy. Located at the First Tennessee Pavilion, the market also features live, free music. This week, the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera String Quartet appear at 12:30 p.m. and Charles Butler & Associates come in from Nashville to play at 2 p.m.
For more fun, local music info, try http://chattanooganightscope.com, or http://www.chattanoogaentertainers.com. They both have great local music info and schedules. For local info on Country music, try Jim Boles’ site at http://chattacountry.ning.com .
Email Bob Payne at email@example.com or www.facebook.com/davrik2000