By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2004 Gourmet Magazine
You’ll find the best plate lunch in Chattanooga in a gray brick hut across from a junkyard in a stark neighborhood where most buildings were vacated long ago. That is, if you can find Zarzour’s at all. If you get lost, don’t bother looking in the phone book to call and ask for directions. There is no evidence of it in the Yellow Pages—the number is in the residential listings, under the name of the manager’s mother-in-law—and when you do finally locate this no-man’s-land café, you will be out of luck unless you arrive during the 15 hours a week that it’s open for business: Monday through Friday from 11 A.M. to 2 P.M.
We park in a rock-strewn lot next door, and as we approach we note that the windows are ominously barred, reminiscent of a roughneck saloon too scary to enter. Out the front door stride two women dressed in business suits and heels, their coiffures and makeup immaculate. They look ready for court (as attorneys) or for an afternoon of corner-office order giving. Noticing the bewildered expressions on our faces, one says, “This is the place!”
“The best hamburger in the world,” adds her companion.
The two of them stand at the door, effectively blocking our way, and sotto voce, as if imparting a secret code, they go back and forth issuing a litany they believe we need to hear: “turnip greens … creamed potatoes … butter beans … black-eyed peas … and, oh! fried chicken livers today … and peanut butter pie … and banana pudding.”
Inside, we find a minuscule dining room buzzing with the sounds of burgers sizzling, utensils clattering, and mostly well dressed lunch-hour eaters crowded around the ten tiny tables happily chattering away. The front eating area and the kitchen are all one space, separated by a short counter with four stools. Behind the counter, manager Shannon Fuller handforms and grills huge, juice-dripping burgers, and Mary Smith prepares meat-and-three lunches on sturdy partitioned plates. Fuller warmly greets all who enter and says goodbye when people leave, and she frequently steps out to sit and chat at one of the tables or to hug someone she hasn’t seen in a while.
As strangers, we are beneficiaries of advice about what to eat and how to eat it, not only from Fuller and her staff but from nearly everybody else in the room. As we heft chunks of skillet-cooked corn bread, a man paying his tab at the old keypress cash register suggests, “Crumble it on the pinto beans.” He has a cellphone and a pager holstered on his hips like a pair of six-guns, and he is one of at least a dozen customers Fuller addresses as “Doc” during lunch. She has no explanation for why so many physicians eat here, but one man at a nearby table volunteers that his cholesterol count has gone so low that his doctor recently gave him a choice: Cut back on the Lipitor or eat twice as many Zarzour’s hamburgers.
Splendid as the hamburgers are, hot lunch is Zarzour’s forte. “Are you having a cheeseburger or dining off the menu today?” Fuller calls out as new customers walk in. The menu is small: a 5 by 7 inch piece of paper with three entrées handwritten every day above a printed list of vegetables. Turnip greens, creamed potatoes, pinto beans, and coleslaw are always available; morning-market specials might include butter beans, fresh corn, and black-eyed peas. The greens are especially delicious: pork-sweet, as tender as long-steamed cabbage, and heavy with tonic pot likker. “See those peppers,” says Fuller, pointing to a Mason jar on the table. “Sprinkle them on the turnip greens and you will yelp happy.” The roaring-hot peppers are pickled and put up for the café by a customer who is a retired Chattanooga fireman.
Certain meals are unforgettable, including the roast beef, served every Friday. When former cook Carolyn Williams drops by to make what Fuller calls a cameo appearance, she prepares her famous chicken and dumplings. We personally adore the antediluvian baked spaghetti, which is lightly sauced and laced with crumbled beef, chewy shreds of cheese scraped from the edge of the casserole, and a web of hardened noodles from the top. One of the most popular hot meals is Wednesday’s salmon croquettes. “I make twenty-five or thirty plates of them,” Fuller says, showing how she forms each one from a mix of salmon, egg, onion, flour, and cornmeal, then panfries it so the luxurious pink mash is encircled by a good crunch.
“Folks here love them,” pipes in Joe Fuller, Shannon’s husband, who calls the croquettes “redneck crab cakes.” He reminds us that 25 orders is remarkable in a restaurant that usually feeds around 40 people a day.
Charlie Zarzour, Joe’s great grandfather, established the café in 1918, which makes it Chattanooga’s oldest family-run restaurant. At that time, Main Street was the thriving heart of the city and Zarzour’s lunchroom was in the thick of it. Charlie had come from Lebanon via Syria, and shortly before opening day his wife died of influenza. He raised five children in the restaurant’s back room.
Joe’s mother, Shirley—Charlie’s granddaughter—took over the café back in the 1970s from her Aunt Rose and Uncle George, and she continues to make the desserts. These include such exemplary southern-kitchen sweets as lemon icebox pie and banana pudding, and the amazing millionaire pie.
Charlie Zarzour’s naturalization certificate, the 6,397,047th issued by the United States, is framed and hangs on the wall in the dining room. It lists his age as 65, his hair as gray, his complexion as sallow, and his marital status as widower. His signature is in Arabic. The papers are dated “In the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and forty-six and of our independence the one hundred and seventy-first.”
“He lived the American dream,” says Shirley, whose eyes sparkle when she points out that her son Joe and his wife are the fourth generation to carry on the enterprise her grandparents started 86 years ago.