Jim's Place gets it all right with a lively new restaurant in the center of town.
It's late Thursday afternoon at Jim's Place Restaurant & Bar, and manager Scott Gentleman is doing his math. "I've got an extra six-top and nowhere to put it," he says, pacing the dining room and counting tables.
Six-top is restaurant lingo for a table of six, and Gentleman has become adept at juggling the numbers to accommodate a full house. "It's going to be slamming and jamming in the bar tonight," he says, not at all worried. "We are completely booked for dinner."
Since opening the day after Thanksgiving in the heart of East Memphis, the new Jim's Place Restaurant has reinvented itself with a more convenient location, a New York steakhouse feel, and a spacious bar that is fun and sophisticated. The restaurant's much-loved predecessor, Jim's Place East, had thrived for three decades on Shelby Oaks Drive, but had suffered more recently from the area's changing demographics and its reliance on holiday dinners and special events.
"It was time for a move," says Costa Taras, who owns the new restaurant with his son, Bill. "We knew Poplar and Perkins would be a great spot, but it's gone way beyond our expectations."
Customers are packing the restaurant for lunch and dinner, including first-timers Shing Shaw and Tom Gettelfinger, who found a 15-year-old gift card to Jim's Place East during a year-end cleaning of their downtown home. "We can't believe they accepted it," Shaw says. "A lot of restaurants would not."
Longtime customers also are curious about the new location, including Memphis native Lucille Marx and her friends Sally, Dorothy, and Aimee, who would not reveal their last names. ("Our dad always said you want your name in the paper three times: when you are born, when you are married, and when you die," Aimee explains.) The friends are happy, however, to reminisce about the lush garden setting at Jim's Place East, to explain why sea scallops are their favorite dish on the menu (it's the lemon-garlic butter sauce), and to recall their girlhood memories of the original steak house downtown.
"It was the place to go when we were growing up," Marx says. "And the thing I remember most was the chicken-fried steak with tomato gravy."
For three generations, members of the Taras family have continuously owned and operated Jim's Place, and their story is a building block of Memphis' restaurant history. Costa's uncle, Nick Taras, and restaurant namesake, Jim Katsoudes (who eventually left the business), opened the first Jim's Place in 1921 in the basement of the Wm. Len Hotel at Monroe and Main. They were joined later by Nick's brothers, George and Bill, who, like Nick, immigrated to Memphis from Greece. In 1927, Jim's Place relocated to Union across the street from the Peabody. When Costa and his brother, Dimitri, joined the family business in 1967, the restaurant moved again, this time to South Second Street in a space above the Rendezvous.
From the start, Jim's Place specialized in hand-cut steaks and popular Greek dishes, such as souflima, an original family recipe still on the menu today. Costa remembers the downtown stockyards, where he went with his uncle to buy beef, and a vibrant scene in the 1940s of big bands and cocktails that lasted late into the night.
"You could come by at 3 o'clock in the morning, and someone was there to cook you a steak," Costa says. "The place was open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. When the restaurant had to close for renovations in 1947, nobody could find a key to the front door."
In 1976, Jim's Place moved east to five acres on Shelby Oaks Drive, turning the family's summer home into a restaurant and adding seafood to the menu to accommodate customer tastes. "It makes me sad to see the place empty and up for sale," Costa says. "My father bought the property in 1946, and my wife and I lived there for eight years after college. All the memories are hard to leave."
In many ways, the new Jim's Place in East Memphis echoes the urban appeal of the restaurant's original downtown locations. Customers can catch glimpses of street traffic from the front dining room or congregate in the restaurant's lively bar with flat-screen televisions and an 18-foot mural by Memphis artist Debbie Pacheco. Full menus are served in both places.
The bar that seats 72 people — an intentional welcome to younger customers — is integral to the restaurant's design, orchestrated by Mary Katherine Taras, who also designed Jim's Place Grille in Collierville, which is owned and operated by her husband, Dimitri, and their sons, James and Sam.
"The new restaurant is definitely a family affair," Mary Katherine says, crediting Melissa Taras, Bill's wife, for the restaurant's table settings, menu design, and signage.
Family members studied the 6,000-square-foot space for more than a year before renovating the former Harold's with repurposed mahogany paneling from the store's doors, trim, and display cases. "We disassembled, numbered, and reused all the mahogany," Mary Katherine says. A fortuitous meeting with Germantown orthodontist Lyle Muller also helped. When the Harold's in Saddle Creek closed eight years ago, Muller salvaged the store's mahogany paneling for a home library, which he never built. "He said come and take what you want," Mary Katherine says. "It was a blessing that just fell down on us."
While the restaurant's ambience evokes Peter Luger, a trumpeted steak house in Brooklyn, New York, the menu at Jim's Place is its own, offering traditional American favorites such as fried oysters, grilled pork chops, jumbo lump crab cakes, stuffed shrimp, and a 16-oz. New York strip. Except for a few new items (the lamb burger with eggplant and tzatziki sauce is particularly good), the menu at Jim's Place is virtually unchanged from the 1970s.
"We've had the same cooks for 30 years," says Bill Taras, who attributes the longevity of Jim's Place to excellent customer service and fresh, flavorful food. "There is always a family member at the restaurant, because the comfort of our customers is so important to us."
Scott Ritchie started as a bus boy at Jim's Place East in the early 1980s and learned every job in the kitchen on his way to becoming head chef. On New Year's Eve, he and his kitchen crew turned the restaurant's tables three times, feeding almost 500 customers. "It was crazy," Ritchie laughs. "I think it finally might be time to hire a prep chef."
A Jim's Place Specialty
Sea Scallops with Lemon-Garlic Butter Sauce
Sea scallops (use four to six scallops per person)
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1 teaspoon cracked pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly flour scallops and season with fish seasoning. Heat vegetable oil in a flat grill. Sear scallops on each side. Transfer to a shallow oven-proof pan and cook in oven for 8 to 10 minutes. Drizzle lemon-garlic butter sauce over scallops before serving and garnish with a little chopped parsley.
Lemon-Garlic Butter Sauce
One-half pound of butter
Several garlic cloves
1 teaspoon of oregano
Mince a few gloves of garlic, depending on taste. Melt butter and add garlic. Add oregano and the juice of two lemons. Stir continuously until butter is melted. Keep warm until ready to plate scallops.
Note: Chef Scott Ritchie typically mixes up 15 pounds of butter at a time for his trademark sauce. He's adapted this recipe for home kitchens, but feel free to adjust measurements, as any combination of butter, garlic, oregano, and lemon is delicious.
Jim’s Place Chef Scott Ritchie
As head chef at Jim’s Place Restaurant & Bar, Scott Ritchie hand-cuts the restaurant’s steaks and seafood, makes gumbo three times a week, and directs a six-person kitchen staff. And those are just a few of his duties. Affable and energetic, Ritchie took time to answer a few questions about cooking for one of the city’s legendary restaurants for almost 30 years.
Was Jim’s Place East your first restaurant job?
Yes, it was, and Dimitri Taras took me under his wing and was instrumental in teaching me how things are run in the back of the house. But I always seemed to have a knack for cooking growing up. My grandmother was one of the best cooks I’ve ever known, as well as my mother.
What are the most popular dishes at the new Jim’s Place Restaurant?
We have a hip, new crowd, and they are crazy for our sea scallops and the grouper Pontchartrain. The lamb burger and French dip sandwich, which are new items, also are doing well, and, of course, steaks have always been our mainstay.
Why do you think your customers are so appreciative of your food?
It’s because of one word: Consistency. If your food is consistent and good, you will be successful.
What is your favorite seasoning for cooking?
Salt rules the world! I also like cracked black pepper.
Do you cook at home?
I occasionally cook something like a steak on the grill but other than that, not much. I’m not married and I don’t have kids, so it’s just me and the dog.
Do you watch cooking shows on TV?
I do watch a lot of cooking shows for new ideas but also for the entertainment. One of my favorites is Hell’s Kitchen with Gordon Ramsay. It reminds me how hectic our kitchen gets at times. I also like Rachel Ray.
Any advice for home cooks on how to stay interested in fixing dinner every night?
Don’t overdo it and try to show off. This only creates a recipe for disaster. Keep things simple, organized, and clean.
And finally, I have to ask: Can you tell me the recipe for your trademark lemon-garlic butter sauce?
It’s 90 percent butter! Come by the restaurant, and I will show you. (He kept his promise; see above).