The “Keep America Beautiful” crusade of the 1960’s called them unsightly and demanded their removal. The energy crisis of the 1970’s threatened to unplug them. However, neon signs have survived, even becoming valuable collectibles. I was always fascinated by them when I was a child, and I especially liked the ones which were animated. The Incline Drug Store in St. Elmo used to have a mortar-and-pestle which appeared to be mixing a prescription. Zayre’s Department Store in the Golden Gateway had a sign that spelled out its letters one-by-one. The neon sign of the jumping frog above the Ellis Restaurant at 1443 Market Street was my favorite.
Gus Ellis emigrated from Greece when he was sixteen. After living in other parts of America, he settled in Chattanooga. In 1909, he started the Ellis Restaurant, which was originally located at Market and Ninth Streets. Soon, the opening of the Terminal Station provided business opportunities farther south on Market Street. In partnership with his cousin, Victor Ellis, he built the Ellis Hotel at Market and King Streets. Gus also relocated his restaurant to a site across from the Terminal Station, an easy and rewarding walk for those traveling by passenger train. The restaurant was also in proximity to hotels, a roller rink, the industrial YMCA, and manufacturers.
The exterior of the building was styled in art deco. Beneath the leaping frog, “Ellis Restaurant” was aglow in neon surrounded by flickering incandescent bulbs, and names of menu items were displayed to catch the eye of a hungry passerby. A large, rounded plate glass window allowed prospective customers to observe the fine dining taking place inside the business.
An advertisement noted that the Ellis was “Chattanooga’s most popular and up-to-date café. A visit will convince you.” A high standard of service kept customers coming back. They could select a live lobster from a tank, or a steak from a chilled case. Spaghetti was a favorite of many. “The Ellis” was stamped into the thick china plates and silverware. The restaurant became well-known locally and nationally. Sports celebrities, including Jack Dempsey, Joe Namath, the Lookouts, and the wrestlers from Harry Thornton’s auditorium events were among those who enjoyed meals there. During World War II, soldiers would form a double line for breakfast at the Ellis. The line would sometimes extend to the Grand Hotel. Because it was one of the few restaurants open late, it became a popular destination after high school proms.
Gus Ellis passed away in 1976 at age 91. In addition to his many business accomplishments, his obituary noted that he was founder of the Greek Church of the Annunciation. The family continued to operate the restaurant for a few years before closing it around 1979. Though once easily accessible in the days of travel by train and trolley, business at the Ellis had declined due to lack of parking. As the Southside revitalization continues, I hope that the restaurant will one day be restored and reopened. I would love to see the neon frog jump once more.
If you have a favorite memory of the Ellis Restaurant, or you want to recommend an old building for an article, please send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.