Zarzour’s was hurting. Established in 1918, the tiny diner had seen the booms and busts of a million economic tides that shifted right alongside the nearby Tennessee River. But this was different, receipts were down and there was talk around town that the cafe could possibly close.
That was 17 years ago, right before Shannon Fuller rode to the rescue. The bawdy cook had done her fair share of stints in cookeries both humble and grand in Tennessee and now she was tasked with turning the tide at her husband’s family’s historic restaurant.
The Zarzour clan never looked back. Fuller was soon overseeing packed luncheon crowds that came to dine on beauteous, flat top hamburgers and blue plate specials that featured a laundry list of Deep South mainstays like baked spaghetti, butter beans and meatloaf.
In a forgotten part of a rough and tumble neighborhood right off Main Street in Chattanooga, Zarzour’s has been feeding the community for nearly a century. We ran by on a recent trip through Tennessee to see what all the fuss was about, eat a couple blue plates and spend a little time in the oldest restaurant in the Volunteer State.
As soon as we walked in, the grill cook (Shannon Fuller) announced that she had sold out of lunch plates but burgers were at the ready if we were so inclined. We were.
A Zarzour’s hamburger is a study in grandma food. Each patty is different from
the one that preceded it as Fuller just sort of digs down into a pile of fresh ground beef and approximates what she reckons constitutes a portion. The pawful of beef is splatted down on the antique griddle, a bun from Niedlov’s Breadworks is dressed, the fries are dropped in the fryolator and soon enough you’ll be on the business end of one of the great Deep South hamburgers.
Juicy and craggy with a brittle crust, this hamburger is one for the ages.
Not overly big, roughly 5-6 ounces, ours came dressed with mayo, mustard, lettuce and tomatoes; a salad’s worth of toppings straddled the sandwich alongside a handful of extra long fancy crinkle cut fries. They were appropriately hot and greasy.
As we settled in for lunch, Shannon sat at an adjacent table and regaled us with Zarzour’s family lore, and there was plenty. Her husband Joe’s great grandfather, Charlie Zarzour, opened the doors of the lunchroom near the end of World War 1, right after his wife had passed away.
Zarzour raised 5 kids in that tiny building all by himself. He never remarried. Talk turns to the clientele of the cafe and I allow as how it’s bound to be men in paint-spackled work pants with tape measures clipped to their belts, but Shannon informs me it’s mostly doctors, lawyers and professors-not the blue collar crowd that I envisioned.
Fuller goes on to vividly illustrate the changes Chattanooga is undergoing as the city is in something of a renaissance right now with the old downtown seeing fresh construction and Zarzour’s benefiting greatly from all the extra mouths participating in the resurgence.
We take our leave just as Shannon begins barking orders into the telephone for pork chops for the following day’s blue plates.
Old timey joints like Zarzour’s are a dying breed in most of the US. Thankfully, here in the Deep South, we fight like dockhands to keep our old diners running strong with tills stuffed with greenbacks. Should you find yourself in southern Tennessee you’d do well to run by this old Lebanese lunch room.