My Desperate and (So Far) Futile Search for the Davis White Spot Restaurant
A popular TV show called Without a Trace features the FBI searching for people who have run away, been kidnapped, or otherwise vanished "without a trace." By the amazing miracle of television, they usually find their victims by the end of each episode.
My own life doesn't work that way. I'm tempted to start my own show, focusing on Memphis places — not people — that have seemingly vanished without a trace. By that I mean, even though these were places that so many people fondly remember — that's what they tell me, anyway — they have left behind no photos, menus, matchbook covers, postcards, drawings, or anything at all to show they actually existed. Places like the Tropical Freeze and the Luau come to mind.
And now Davis White Spot has moved to the top of that list.
By all accounts, this was a little mom-and-pop home-cooking restaurant, operated out of an old white house that was located on Poplar — back when that section of it was called Poplar Pike — near present-day Estate. Readers recall the good food and comfortable atmosphere of the place, and one fellow even sent me a recipe for one of the White Spot's popular desserts.
But that's all we have so far — just memories.
Who owned Davis White Spot? What did the name mean? Who was Davis, for that matter? When did it open? When did it close? Where oh where is a decent photograph of this place?
City directories only give a few tantalizing bits of information. Most people seem to think the White Spot opened in the 1940s, but city directories — a more comprehensive catalog of businesses and residences than a regular telephone book — didn't list anything beyond the city limits, and back then that was Goodlett. Hard to believe, I know. By the late 1950s, when these directories finally began to include things as far east as White Station, the only information they provided was very curt: Davis White Spot, 5341 Poplar Pike.
I finally located a city directory that provided another tantalizing clue. At that same address on Poplar Pike, it added: "Wingfield, Robert (Pearl)." Now does that mean Robert Wingfield and his wife, Pearl, owned Davis White Spot? Did they actually live there (since they are listed nowhere else in these directories)? Or — for reasons not made entirely clear — did they just share the address, or driveway?
I say this because my pal Kerby Bowling (the one who supplied that dessert recipe) says he remembers going to Davis White Spot with his parents, and his recollection is that you turned off Poplar around present-day Estate, drove back a ways on a narrow drive, crossed over the present-day Southern Railroad tracks, and then the road split, and you turned right and found yourself at the Davis White Spot. If the road split, then what was at the end of the lefthand split?
Here's another thing that confuses people today about the location: People I've talked to say it was west of Estate, other insist it was east of Estate, and one person told me it was as far east as Ridgeway. The problem is that in the 1940s and 1950s, present-day Estate didn't extend as far north as Poplar, so that street was not a reliable landmark. For what it's worth, 5341 Poplar is now the address of a gas station at the southeast corner of Poplar and Estate, and that station was originally constructed in 1965. Street numbering didn't really change that much in the 1960s, so this was most likely the location of the restaurant — though farther back from Poplar than the current gas station. And that does suggest that Davis White Spot closed, and was torn down, before 1965.
I've even looked at aerial photographs of the area, but they are too danged blurry to show anything conclusive.
I've looked through old yearbooks, which are often good sources of advertisements for local businesses. In the back of an old White Station High School yearbook (I can't even remember the year), I had a small "Eureka!" moment, when I came across a tiny ad for the restaurant. But all it said was Davis White Spot, and the illustration was — get this — a hand-drawn black circle. Was that supposed to represent the "white spot"? Well, it didn't tell me much.
And even the Internet has failed me. A Google search turned up something very curious — a portion of a long document that was apparently an application to get the sculptural works of Dionicio Rodriguez listed on the National Register of Historic Places, or some other official recognition. Now you may recall that Rodriguez was the itinerant Mexican artist who created the surreal Crystal Shrine Grotto in Memorial Park here, along with other creations in Tennessee and Arkansas. And one paragraph of that document mentioned some of his other works, including "a concrete seal balancing a glass ball on his nose, which served as a fountain for the Davis White Spot restaurant in Memphis."
Now that is rather incredible information, and I would be a lot happier if someone had actually thought to include a photograph of this interesting fountain. Because it poses two problems. First, we know that Rodriguez was working in the Memphis area in the late 1920s and early 1930s. By all accounts, Davis White Spot didn't open until the 1940s. And second, by all accounts (as I have said if you've been paying attention), the restaurant was just a rather plain wooden house — not exactly the type of place that would have a fountain with a seal out front. And if you've seen the crazy creations of Rodriguez, you'll really understand how jarring that would have looked. So I don't know what to make of that.
A big problem, as I recently told my fellow historian Bonnie Kourvelas, who has been searching diligently for images of this place ever since she produced her fine "Beyond the Parkways" show as one of WKNO's Memphis Memoirs segments, is that we are hoping to find a photograph that is clearly labeled — where somebody has written something like "Davis White Spot, August 1944" on it. It was such a popular place that someone, somewhere surely took a picture of it. But snapshots like this tend to end up in old photo albums or shoeboxes, without any identification whatsoever, because whoever took the picture knew what the place was.
And so, in my endless quest, I occasionally stumble across old photos like the one shown here (above). It shows the back door of an old white building that is apparently a restaurant, because the cook and busboy are posing for the camera. I know this because they are labeled on such on the back of the photo, in scribbled blue ink. But whoever took the photo — or did the scribbling — didn't bother to write where, or when, the photo was taken.
It's probably NOT a picture of Davis White Spot. (And even if it is, it's not a very good one.) But until we find a genuine, authenticated photo of the place, how will we know for sure?
I feel like I've tossed a bottle into the ocean, but the message — a plea for help, really — is similar: If anyone reading this has a good photo of Davis White Spot — or any of the other places on my "Most Wanted" list, such as the Luau or the Tropical Freeze — please let me know.
Whew, that was a lot of typing! I think I've made my point. So now I will just lie back in my La-Z-Boy with a cool towel on my forehead, and imagine that dramatic scene in Miracle on 34th Street, when all those mailmen dump thousands of letters to Santa Claus on the judge's bench. That would be great, but really — all I want is ONE good photo. Is that too much to ask?