During my 25 years of hosting a talk show on WDOD, we discussed thousands of topics. I always enjoyed hearing from listeners on what was happening on both the local and national level but the nostalgic programs were the most popular. We would talk about one’s first car, corner drug stores, barber shops, hardware stores, grocery stores, pets, and sports; you name it, and the topic would come up.
I think listeners enjoyed sharing memories about their favorite restaurants the most. They would mention the Mount Vernon, George’s Hamburgers, the Read House Green Room, Ranch House, Black Angus Steak House, Home Plate and S & W cafeterias, The Rathskeller, Tick Tock, Bea's, Ricky’s,Terdon and a lot more but at the top of the list was the Town and Country on North Market Street.
Clyde Hawkins was Tivoli Theater-Memorial Auditorium manager for many years. He said the “Town and Country Restaurant was by far the favorite of entertainers who came to town.” Hawkins said he took promoter Lon Varnell and Liberace there once before the piano players' performance at the Memorial Auditorium. Liberace wanted to go back on a return visit.
My last day on the air at WDOD radio was Aug. 19, 2005. It started with a call from Bill Hall, owner of the popular eatery. We traced the restaurant’s entire history dating back to 1947.
He said his uncle Hugh Abercrombie, a businessman, got mad one day at the price he was paying for a hamburger downtown so he decided to open a place for lunch in North Chattanooga and called it Parkway Drive In. Hall said he didn’t know where his uncle got the name “Town and Country” but expanded to serving dinner two years later and changed the name.
Hall said most of his family was involved in the business including his dad. The younger Hall remembers getting his first job in 1963 as a dishwasher and he evolved with the business, eventually becoming the chief executive officer.
Hall shared some of his memories during our conversation. He said Fess Parker came in several times while filming the movie “A light in the Forest” on Williams Island. He remembers his mother bringing him into the restaurant and sitting in Mr. Parker’s lap. “He sang to me Born on a Mountain Top in Tennessee.” (The ballad of Davy Crockett)
On another occasion, Democratic Party Chairman Ward Crutchfield brought Roselyn Carter in on a Saturday night for dinner. Hall said it was at the beginning of her husband’s presidential campaign. Hall said Mrs. Carter told his dad, “I hope you will support us this year.” His father responded, “Support you for what?” Mrs. Carter said, "My husband is running for president of the United States." His dad said, “Why would he want to do a thing like that?” Hall said his dad was really embarrassed.
Chattanooga Funeral Home President Gene Pike and his wife Gail were regular customers. Mr. Pike said they had the best salad bar in Chattanooga and he enjoyed their homemade dressings especially the blue cheese. Mr. Pike remembers that the late Ben Landress met his wife Chris at the Town and Country when she worked as a server. Mr. Pike enjoyed listening to Jon Robere play the organ during the dinner hour. Mr. Pike said Robere would play “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” for anniversary couples.
Hall said Marvin True was the last one to play the organ, When Mr. True’s health started to fail in 1995 he was unable to keep up the lengthy tradition. Hall said he couldn’t find a replacement so they had to discontinue the popular dinner music.
Hall had nothing but praised for his employees. He said, “We had the best cooks, servers and hostesses in the South.”
Hall said, “We were one of the few restaurants anywhere with a salad bar, which began in 1972.” Hall said patrons also enjoyed the bottomless salad bowl with their homemade dressings, French, blue cheese and Thousand Island.
He said he didn’t know when the restaurant started serving cinnamon rolls with meals but they really cut into his dessert sales. They did without them from 1972 to 1983. Hall said all he heard during this time was “when are you going to bring back the sweet rolls and re-open on Sunday, so we did both.” Hall added, “Ms. Eva’s pecan pie was our most popular of the homemade desserts.”
All the steaks on the menu were very popular, but Hall said the hamburger steak with the au jus was at the top of the list.
He eventually printed a cookbook selling about 6,000.
Hall said during the 58 years there was one minor fire that caused them to close at lunch but most diners never knew it occurred. There were half a dozen robberies that scared employees. Hall said he never went through one, but the workers told him about them.
The Town and Country was known for its large sign on top of the roof. The public didn’t know what the electric bill was and the high maintenance costs for all the neon bulbs so operation was limited. Hall said the last time he turned it on was a few weeks before closing. At the time of this conversation, Hall was unsure who would get it.
Hall said, “The decision to close was one of the hardest I ever made, but it was going to cost several hundred thousand dollars to modernize so everyone involved agreed we were doing the right thing.“
Thousands of guests have many fond memories of the landmark restaurant. In the words of the late Mayor Pat Rose, “The Town and Country Restaurant can never be duplicated. Carolyn and I always looked forward to eating there.”
The Town and Country locked the doors for the final time in the summer of 2005 and over 400 items were auctioned off. The building was torn down and a Walgreens super store built on the property.
“It was a good run, I thank everyone, and hope Chattanooga enjoyed it but it’s time to do something different,” Bill Hall said.