John Shearer: Getting Reacquainted With Zarzour’s Café During Its Reprieve

  • Friday, February 9, 2024
  • John Shearer

As many who have followed the local news know, closing time did not quite come for the historic Zarzour’s Café when expected. And that has allowed diners and fans to enjoy a few proverbial second and third helpings in the meantime.

The Main Street area eatery, which is known for its small building but for creating big eyes among its faithful patrons who enjoy its simplistic homestyle dishes, had been scheduled to close last Oct. 20 following a flurry of nostalgic news reports about its end of an era.

But the next week, owner Joe “Dixie” Fuller announced that the planned sale to developer John Wise, who was to convert the property to another restaurant and bar, had fallen through at the last minute. As a result, Mr. Fuller quickly reopened the restaurant with his same staff while placing the property back on the market.

While I was unable to reach Mr. Fuller either over the phone or in person in recent weeks to get some updated information on the sale or a quote as fresh as his eatery’s cole slaw about what the restaurant means to him or Chattanooga, I did become curious about its history. And while I was at it, I of course went by and enjoyed a meal there in early December.

I followed up this week with another meal and was told by one of the waitresses that she did not know of any imminent plans for its sale or closure.

The restaurant’s history is as multi-faceted as a multi-course dinner, which at Zarzour’s means getting the homemade and hot cornbread first. But it has still managed to stay in the family for roughly a century until the present.

The current restaurant property at 1627 Rossville Ave. dates to about the end of World War I, when Charles Zarzour and his wife, Nazera, who died young, bought the structure there as a residence. They had come from Lebanon and became known in the local Catholic community.

One of their children, Abe Zarzour, later had a small luncheonette in the old Hamilton National Bank building at the corner of Main and Market streets before having a Ham Smoke and Sandwich Shop at 1514 Mitchell Ave. Abe, a former semi-professional baseball player, was known for helping youngsters in the neighborhood and was affectionately called the “mayor of Main Street.”

His father, Charles, meanwhile had opened a fruit and snack stand in front of the current 1627 Rossville Ave. site that eventually became an eatery operated by Abe’s siblings, Rose and George Zarzour.

Some city directories at the Chattanooga Public Library from the mid-20th century list a dozen or so people named Zarzour around Chattanooga, with some operating other restaurants at such places as 2643 S. Broad St. and 616 E. Main St. A more detailed genealogical search would be required to figure out possible relations.

After George Zarzour died and Rose was in declining health in the late 1970s, some feared Zarzour’s on Rossville Avenue might close. But Abe’s daughter, Shirley Fuller, who was married at the time to then-County Commissioner Floyd “Flop” Fuller, agreed to continue operating the restaurant with her then-brother-in-law, Frank Fuller.

The restaurant in more recent years has been operated by Shirley Fuller’s son, Joe “Dixie” Fuller, with Joe’s wife, Shannon Fuller, handling much of the day-to-day operations until her death in 2022 from cancer. Joe Fuller had been a music stage and road manager for such groups as Alabama.

While the restaurant for a period was known for such dishes as chili, in recent years it has been known for hamburgers and blue-plate-style specials of homestyle entrees and vegetables with freshly made cornbread.

When I arrived there around 11 a.m. the first Friday in early December for its lunchtime only operating hours, several people had already arrived to eat, although it was nothing like the lines out the door the last few days before its planned closing in October.

The restaurant’s interior looked more like the 1970s instead of 2023 or 2024, as its knotty pine paneling on the walls, vintage mid-century tables and chairs, and lunch counter stools harkened to another era when phones were found on a wall, not in a pocket.

Although the Zarzour’s name hints of an eatery serving ethnic food, it was definitely Southern fare down to the core. The restaurant is also known for drawing a good diversity of Chattanoogans from varying work environments.

Since it was a Friday, I ordered the fried flounder with mashed potatoes and cole slaw, cornbread, and sweet iced tea. I enjoyed most of the hot cornbread with butter before the rest of the meal came five minutes later, and I continued heartily eating on all of it and wished I could have more. It was simplistic and not fancy but delicious.

The staff also seemed just as down homey. The waitresses enjoyed good banter with everyone, and I felt as welcome and comfortable as a longtime diner. That is, even though it was only about my third time eating there, and the first in five or more years. But the waitress patiently told me the good dishes after I asked her what everyone likes to get there.

I suspected it was a cash- and check-only eatery, and it was. I had put an extra $20 bill in my wallet beforehand and paid $12 for the meal and set down $3 for a tip.

When I came back this Friday, I ordered the same dish and enjoyed it again. The only difference I noticed about the place was a big “50” on the wall next to a picture of Joe and Shannon Fuller, perhaps a reference to a 50th anniversary.

A number of the tables and stools were also already filling up before I left about 11:45 a.m.

I definitely want to come back as well and try the hamburgers I saw cooking on the old grill in the front corner and enjoy some other meals. I also almost wish I had discovered the restaurant earlier.

It is in a now-popular area near Main Street after being almost inconspicuous in a forgotten area of Chattanooga for a few decades, and any real estate sale will likely be somewhat lucrative. But longtime diners probably wish it would remain in business as a restaurant and be a culinary treasure of Chattanooga instead.

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