Unearthed: Memphis

Unearthed: Memphis

Season Two: Episode Three: Memphis’s Oldest Eateries

March 22, 2021

Opening in the 1890s, the Bon Ton Cafe has been operating in some form or fashion in downtown Memphis. Apparently the cafe was originally a saloon in the late 1800s, but was then turned into a restaurant in 1904. Tony Angleos and Charlie Skinner, two cousins who immigrated from Greece, opened the first manifestation of the Bon Ton Cafe, called The Hole in the Wall. This eatery was located behind the original location of the Peabody Hotel on Monroe. In 1923, the cousins renamed and reopened the Bon Ton Cafe, as it is known today. Apparently Elvis really liked to visit and perform in the basement. The cousins owned the restaurant for 41 years before selling in 1945. 

Now, you’ll notice on the plaque, which will be posted on the website, that it says The Hole in the Wall opened in 1911. But like any good history retelling, dates are going to be a bit dodgy.

The Bon Ton Cafe was purchased and reopened in 1950 (or 1945 as I have also read) by the Zambelis family. Mike Zambelis, also a Greek immigrant, took over the cafe and their breakfast and lunch specials have been staples in the downtown community ever since. When Mike passed away in 1998, his son Sam took over the business. Sam kept his father’s legacy alive by running the restaurant exactly like his father did, like a family dining room. Bon Ton was a place where you could get good food and have good conversation, and according to one member of the “Breakfast Club”, a group of people that had been eating breakfast there for decades, it’s a place where they figured out how to “solve the world’s problems, if only anyone would listen”.

Sam Zambelis suddenly passed away in 2008 and the restaurant closed for a few years. 

In 2011, the Bon Ton Cafe was reopened by Mac Edwards, the previous owner of McEwans. This time, Ewards added dinner to the menu. According to Edwards, breakfast will be nice and sunny, lunch is all business, and dinner will have the lights turned down low for a sexy vibe. You can get a nice, inexpensive dinner, but also high quality spirits. He also wanted to support the local community by providing a farm to table philosophy, buying as much as he could from local vendors. 

Currently the Bon Ton Cafe is doing private events and catering.

Next up is the actual oldest still operating restaurant in Memphis. This also surprised me because I had always heard it was another restaurant, but we’ll get to that later.  

The Little Tea Shop is located at 69 Monroe Ave and is open Monday through Friday, 11am to 2pm. This lunch only cafe is another staple in downtown Memphis. 

The Little Tea Shop was opened in 1918 by Lillie Parham and Emily Carpenter. They wanted to have a place where their friends could come get lunch while they were having an outing downtown. The ladies served finger sandwiches and made change out of a shoebox at the front of the shop. Obviously at the time, two women owning and running a business wasn’t terribly common.

Originally, the shop was located in the basement of the Memphis Cotton Exchange Building. While the men were upstairs conducting business, their wives could shop downtown and then come in for a light snack and socializing before heading home to do whatever wives of wealthy cotton traders did. 

In 1935, the shop was relocated to its current location. It’s said there was no disruption to the service either. After closing time one day, the employees packed everything up and moved it down the street. They were serving lunch the next day like nothing had ever happened. 

The ladies sold their shop in 1946 to an amatuer golfer named Vernon Mortimer Bell.