For many people, hearing that Mt. Vernon restaurant at 3535 S. Broad St. at the foot of Lookout Mountain had closed was sad news.
The fact that proprietor Jeff Messenger was closing it for personal health reasons was also disconcerting to many concerned regular diners, who remember him as the person often manning the hostess stand and seating customers.
A small – almost understated -- message on the restaurant’s glass front door said, “Due to family illness, the Mt. Vernon will not reopen after Christmas.
Thank you for your patronage. Merry Christmas and blessings for the New Year. – The Messengers.”
In many ways, Mt. Vernon was the last of the Chattanooga restaurants that had opened by the middle part of the 20th century and offered an elegant but not overly pricey dining experience. Fehn’s and Town and Country were two others of a similar style.
For baby boomers, Mt. Vernon was a comforting reminder that a non-fast-food dining place of the their childhood still remained, even though it had been remodeled a few times at the same site.
I am idealistically hoping and praying for improved health for Mr. Messenger and that maybe the restaurant can return or be sold to someone interested in keeping it going in its current state.
In the meantime, I thought it might also be neat to go back and look at some of the old newspaper articles about the restaurant. I also peeked one last time at the online menu still up and running as of this weekend, and, of course, felt my mouth water.
Mt. Vernon had opened in 1955 at the site and was apparently called Mt. Vernon Colonial Restaurant in its early decades. It had been started by Mr. and Mrs. Gus Tombras and their daughters, Natalie Humphreys and Helen Evans, and the latter’s husband, E.A. Evans.
Mr. Tombras had come from Argos, Greece, and initially lived in New York and worked as a bus boy at a New York hotel. He later opened a restaurant in Jacksonville, Fla., but it burned.
However, after the fire was put out, his desire to be a restaurateur still burned brightly, so he moved to Chattanooga and owned such restaurants as the White House, U.S. Café and Manhattan earlier in the 20th century.
People of Greek descent have traditionally run popular restaurants in East Tennessee, so this was not unusual. The Darras, Gulas and Ellis restaurants are familiar past names of eateries in Chattanooga, and George Jonopulos ran George’s Hamburgers. Regas Restaurant in Knoxville was another well-known one.
Early in his restaurant career, Mr. Tombras hired a woman named Myrtle Coulter from Sale Creek as his bookkeeper. She later became his wife.
He also operated the Curb Market Restaurant at the old Farmers Market on 11th Street during the World War II era.
Although he was from Greece, he had soon mastered American cooking and food tastes. His success also allowed his family to live on 40 acres of land in East Ridge, part of which is now the site of East Ridge High School. There is also a Tombras Avenue there.
In 1955, the family opened Mt. Vernon. Also helping them was E. A. “Worry” Evans. Reared in the Southwest Virginia area, Mr. Evans – who had the unusual first and middle names of Elza Ansel – had attended Baylor School briefly and was a Navy veteran of World War II. One of his brothers was longtime Baylor teacher and coach Sib Evans Sr.
Mr. Tombras died in 1958, just three years after he saw Mt. Vernon open and begin to thrive. He had taken a long-awaited trip to his native homeland of Greece, but suffered a heart attack and died not long after his return. He reportedly kissed the ground at Lovell Field upon his return, saying America had become his home, even though he still loved Greece.
Although Myrtle Tombras would not die until 1982 while she was in her early 90s, the Evanses bought the restaurant in the early 1960s and later bought the land they had leased.
The restaurant was remodeled and expanded several times over the years, including in 1972 and early 1973, when it was closed for several weeks before opening back up and offering liquor by the drink after customers formerly brought brown bags.
The restaurant had at least two longtime helpers over the years, who would likely be in a Chattanooga restaurant hall of fame. They included Ida Kate Davis -- who made all the homemade pies, rolls and loaves of bread – and Winnie Mae Chapman, who played a major role in preparing the entrees and vegetables.
In the mid-1970s, someone else began helping out a lot at the restaurant – Jeff Messenger. Born in Connecticut and a graduate of the University of Miami in Florida, the English major originally thought he was going to work as a teacher or in department store retail.
After graduating from Miami in 1970, Mr. Messenger worked at Burdines department store in Florida but came to Chattanooga with his family and worked with Lovemans.
He met and married the Evanses’ daughter, Cindy. Although admittedly not much of a cook, he began helping out at home with the meals while Cindy kept a busy schedule with the Dawn School and also attending UTC.
He also later began helping out at the Mt. Vernon restaurant after the Evans family experienced an illness and soon began working there fulltime.
He had been the main face of the restaurant since before Mr. Evans’ death in 2002 and saw a period when the restaurant tried to sell its famous salad dressings in grocery stores.
Although we always lived in other parts of Chattanooga, I always enjoyed making periodic visits to Mt. Vernon with family, and rarely failed to get a salad with the sweet celery dressing and the Amaretto cream pie for dessert.
The visit was always a pleasurable experience, and I remember eating in there one time at night, and the wealthy former Coca-Cola bottler Jack Lupton walked in to eat as well.
Although saddened that the restaurant had closed, I was pleased to find that its website with its mouth-watering menu was still up and running. As a sendoff, here are some of the items and prices and descriptions I found:
Crabcake appetizer ($8.95)
Slow roasted turkey and dressing ($11.95) -- sliced turkey breast on cornbread dressing and gravy with cranberry sauces. Served with your choice of two sides.
Ribeye steak ($19.95) -- 12-ounce hand cut and char-grilled to order served with two sides.
Potato crusted haddock ($13.95) -- the signature dish, served with your choice of two sides.
Fried pork chops with peppercorn cream gravy ($13.95) -- chops hand-breaded and cooked to order, with gravy. Served with two sides.
Chicken livers ($11.95) – a Southern delicacy.
Southern half fried chicken dinner ($15.95) – a breast, wing, leg and thigh fried crispy and golden.
Vegetables -- Southern green beans, house-made mashed potatoes, slow-cooked pinto beans, casserole of the day, macaroni and cheese, steamed cabbage, grilled vegetables, fried green tomatoes, fried okra and cole slaw.
Desserts --Amaretto Cream Pie, apple pie, French chocolate pie, Southern pecan pie ($5 for slice, $20 for full pie).