Lost Memphis: What Did H.G. Wells Have To Do With Britling Cafeterias?

It's probably not common knowledge that the famed British author H.G. Wells played a role in one of our city's best-known restaurants.

I'm referring to Britling Cafeterias, which occupied very impressive buildings downtown before branching out to other areas of Memphis. The first one here opened in 1921 at 155 Madison. A second location opened in 1938 at 75 Union, right next door to the Loew's Palace Theatre.

The founder's name was not Britling, as you might expect, but A.W.B. Johnson, who decided that "Johnson's Cafeteria" just didn't have the right ring to it. The story goes that he was reading a collection of short stories by science-fiction master H.G. Wells (author of such classics as War of the Worlds and The Time Machine), when he encountered a story titled, "Mr. Britling Sees It Through." He decided that was a fine, classy name for his new eatery, and eventually opened others in Nashville, Louisville, Lexington, and Frankfort, Kentucky.

The company's slogan, as it was promoted on menus and matchbooks, was "Good Food Is Good Health." Still, eating there could, at times, be rather risky. Customers of the Madison Avenue Britling had a narrow escape on the afternoon of November 4, 1929, when rags stored in the basement somehow caught fire. Within minutes, the whole restaurant was ablaze. Firemen rushing to the scene discovered a tragedy in the making, as more than 300 people jammed the exits trying to escape.

But then an odd thing happened, as reported in the Memphis Press-Scimitar: "A phonograph that changes records automatically kept playing as the patrons filed out of the burning building. Officials believe this helped prevent a panic." Except for a few cases of smoke inhalation, nobody was seriously injured.

After the fire, the owners rebuilt the cafeteria, and this photograph (above) from the mid-1950s shows a stunning building with a truly fantastic ground-floor facade — all sweeping curves and polished marble and gleaming stainless steel. But that location closed in 1956, and the fine structure was demolished just a few years later to make way for First Tennessee Bank's headquarters.

The building at 75 Union, which featured a Colonial Revival facade complete with portico and white columns, was greatly remodeled during this period. Among the enhancements: murals by noted Memphis artist Burton Callicott, and "one wall will be a precast terrazzo panel in three dimensions in an off-white shade," which the designers bragged was "the first of its kind in Memphis." I guess we'll have to take their word for it.

Britling built another cafeteria in Poplar Plaza in the late 1950s, and by 1970 also had branches in Laurelwood and Northgate shopping centers. But then things just went downhill. The Union Avenue Britling came tumbling down — along with the Loew's Palace — to make way for Parking Can Be Fun. The Poplar Plaza Britling closed and went through several incarnations, I believe, before becoming home to a French Riviera Spa. I can't tell you what happened to the Northgate location, except to say that it's closed.

There are other cafeterias in Memphis, but not a single Britling. And the next time I venture to Nashville, Louisville, Lexington, or Frankfort, I'll let you know if any of those Britlings survived.


Reader Comments:
Jul 13, 2011 02:58 pm
 Posted by  warbirdali

300 people in a downtown Cafeteria? Now I KNOW you make this stuff up! That is indeed a very nice looking facade, reminds me of Andertons. Do you have any idea what the deal is with the sloping "thingy" on the right of the picture, just round the corner? Almost looks like a chute for dumping something onto the street? Like a coal chute in reverse almost. Hard to imagine the Poplar Plaza being one... it wasn't instead what is now the Tasty Buffet? (or used to be, it just closed too) That had similar recessed flowerbox areas.

Jul 13, 2011 03:21 pm
 Posted by  rocknrollnurse

I love the parked car in the opposite direction of the "one way" sign...Memphis drivers haven't changed.
I remember eating dinner @ the 75 Union location before my high school graduation at the Auditorium North Hall & many times before that. It was a beautiful place with those murals & a sweeping staircase.

Jul 13, 2011 03:37 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

The French Riviera Spa is where Lowenstein's was located. It is where the back entrance was. The closed Tasty Buffet is where Britling's was.

Jul 13, 2011 03:38 pm
 Posted by  broandbabs

The French Riviera Spa is where Lowenstein's was located. It is where the back entrance was. The closed Tasty Buffet is where Britling's was.

Jul 13, 2011 04:22 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

What happened to the gun collection displayed at the Britling's in Poplar Plaza? As a kid i thought that was neat, probably would as an adult also.

Jul 13, 2011 06:40 pm
 Posted by  midtowner2

I fondly remember eating at that Britling Cafeteria on Madison when I was a boy. I always chose the shrimp cocktail, no matter what else I chose. Being the 50's, we always dressed up to go there. One of the serendipities of my childhood.

Jul 14, 2011 02:29 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Talk about lost Memphis...as a teenager I came to Memphis to see Liberace at the Auditorium, ate dinner at Britling and stayed overnight at the King Cotton Hotel. Boy do I feel old.

Jul 15, 2011 12:54 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

In the fifties we used to come to Memphis to shop for the day. My favorite place to eat was Britlings next to the Lowes Palace Theater. I always wanted to go upstairs to eat. My favorite must haves were the "hard rolls" and the great log-like "fried fish." Afterward we could go next door to the Loews Palace for a movie

Jul 18, 2011 09:14 am
 Posted by  tigerlil

The parked car would be, of course, Vance's family. Sigh... I seem to rememeber they were always entitled. Never changes, does it?

Aug 15, 2011 03:16 pm
 Posted by  freeliberty

Sorry to be disagreeing with everyone, but I think the one-way sign is for the alley. I can't prove it; just looks that way to me.

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and MBQ: Inside Memphis Business.  Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

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