Remembering Donley's "Chicken in the Rough"

Does anyone remember Donley's? Well, you should. The owners of this eatery at 1371 Union had such a high opinion of their establishment that their matchbooks (such as the one shown here) proclaimed it "Memphis' Finest Drive-In."

What's more, they announced, "If you are not eating juicy steaks and decent fried chicken ... you ain't eatin' at Donleys."

"Decent" fried chicken? Is that really the best they could offer?

The matchbook also advertised that Donley's was "world-famous" (huh!) for something it called "Chicken in the Rough," and the colorful image on the matchbook shows a chicken (or maybe it's a rooster) swinging away with a golf club, apparently trying to hit a ball out of the rough. Now chickens can do many things, I know (peck, lay eggs, and cackle pretty much sums it up), but until I saw this, I didn't know that golfing was one of their better-known accomplishments. I guess I need to get out more.

By "chicken in the rough" Donley's simply meant chicken that had been deep-fried in a pressure cooker, much like KFC does today. But when Donley's opened on the southwest corner of Union and Pine in 1942, "broasted" chicken (as it was also called), served in a basket with fries and slaw, was a novelty.

The owners were Lawrence and Virginia Levy. I'm not sure where they got the name for their restaurant. Lawrence had previously been the manager of the Claridge Hotel downtown, but that's pretty much all I know about the Levys. I can only do so much, you understand.

In 1956, the restaurant changed hands. A fellow named Sam Wolff purchased the property and renamed it Wolff's Big Champ Restaurant. It occupied a block that also included Frank Splann's Used Cars, Eugene Hair Stylist, and the Gaisford Apartments.

All those places are long gone. Today, you can still get chicken at 1371 Union, but you have to order a Krystal Chik; since 1972 a Krystal has stood on that corner. Don't confuse them by trying to order "chicken in the rough." Just take your food and go.

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and 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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