Joe and Nick
photograph courtesy Memphis Room, Benjamin Hooks Central Library
Dear Vance: My father used to talk about a little café downtown called Foppiano’s. Where was this place, and what happened to it? — H.T., Memphis
Dear H.T.: Is your father still around? Because I need him to be more specific. The Foppianos, a proud Italian family well-known throughout Memphis, owned quite a few restaurants here, along with grocery stores and other businesses, and they had a bothersome tendency to name them all “Foppiano’s.” Bothersome to me, trying to write history columns, you see.
Just to show you what I mean, in the 1930s and ’40s, Steve and James Foppiano ran a nice little grocery store at 58 North Tucker, Jack Foppiano ran a nice little restaurant at 167 Jefferson, Samuel Foppiano ran a nice little restaurant just down the street at 940 Jefferson, and Joseph Foppiano ran yet another nice little restaurant at 259 South Main. And to make things even more confusing, Joseph later opened another place just a few doors north of his first one, at 241 South Main, in a little building that had once housed the Memphis Costume and Regalia Company (where the Lauderdales often shopped). So — according to the old phone directories, which are my main source of confusion here — Joseph ran Foppiano and Company at 259 South Main, and also Joe Foppiano’s Grill at 241 South Main.
South Main was a busy place to open an eatery, since that immediate area was also home to the Belmont Café, Pow-Wow Café, Chisca Grill, the Shack Restaurant, and the curiously named Electric Waffle Shop.
Out of all the Foppiano establishments, however, I bet you a shiny dime (it’s all I’ve got) that the place your father remembers was Foppiano’s Grill — because it served mighty tasty food, but mainly because it was the scene of one of our city’s most famous crimes.
First, the food. As you can see from this nice old picture obtained from the Memphis Room, Foppiano’s Grill was a cozy café, advertising Kansas City steaks, “golden brown chicken,” beef stew, chops, chili, and sandwiches “of all kinds.” Judging from the signs in the window, patrons could also enjoy Goldcrest 51, Budweiser, Sterling, and Falstaff beer. After your meal, you could munch on a five-cent Power House candy bar (weird slogan: “Makes Your Nickel Feel Important”), or grab some gumballs from the vending machine just inside the door.
But you want to hear about the crime, don’t you? Everyone always does. Well, late-night joints like Foppiano’s tend to attract colorful characters, and few were more colorful in Memphis in the late 1930s than Bob Berryman. He’s been mentioned in this column before, as the owner of the famed Silver Slipper nightclub out on Macon Road, and the somewhat shady Berryman’s Tourist Court on Highway 61 South. Berryman was involved in other, less public ventures, though, and the newspapers called him “king of the Memphis gamblers.”
Well, shortly after midnight on May 31, 1940, Berryman spotted a nightclub bouncer named John Phillips outside Foppiano’s and chased him inside. Cornering him in a back hallway, Berryman blasted away with a pistol and then a sawed-off shotgun until Phillips was very dead, and then waited calmly for the cops to haul him to jail. All he told police was, “There has been a grudge for some time.”
Such a public killing made for a rather sensational trial, and what really had tongues wagging was Berryman’s curious motive for killing the unarmed Phillips: self-defense. As his attorneys explained to a skeptical jury: “He was in mortal fear of his own life,” supposedly because he had heard that the victim, described in court as a “gorilla man,” had threatened him over “that Mississippi nightclub business.”
What seemed to be an open-and-shut case lasted several weeks. Never mind his previous convictions for larceny and other crimes; Berryman’s attorneys argued that he “bore a good reputation for peace and quiet, truth, and veracity.” Meanwhile, the newspapers reported that “a succession of witnesses testified they had been beaten by Phillips, or had seen him beat up someone.” A Memphis car salesman said that Phillips punched him in the face for no good reason and knocked him down, so he jumped back up and said, “Is that as hard as you can hit?” Phillips punched again, and again the poor sap demanded, “Is that the hardest you can hit?” and got walloped again. This went on several times, and newspapers noted that the “witness’ account drew considerable laughter from the jury, attorneys, and spectators.”
All this made banner headlines, day after day, but Berryman was eventually found guilty and went to prison for a long time.
Back to Foppiano’s Grill. I doubt that the trial had anything to do with it — if anything, the resulting notoriety probably brought in new customers — but the place didn’t remain in business very long. Just two years later, 241 South Main became home to a series of furniture companies: Beasley, Statler, Bonnie, and others.
Although some of the Foppiano family’s other establishments are still standing here and there around town, though housing new businesses, the entire block that contained Foppiano’s Grill came tumbling down in the 1960s. Today a modern annex for Memphis Light, Gas and Water stands here.
Dear Vance: My husband’s great uncle once operated a restaurant somewhere in South Memphis called the New York Café. What can you tell me about this place? — B.K., Memphis
Dear B.K.: I might as well tell my half-dozen readers that B.K. is actually Bonnie Kourvelas, a noted local historian, and she occasionally sends interesting questions so that I can expound in my longwinded, paid-by-the-word way, about a variety of topics.
And this query gives me the chance to point out the importance to Memphis of the Greek community, because without them, our city would be restaurant poor. Think about this for a minute. Some of our landmark eateries in town have been owned by Greeks: The Rendezvous, Jim’s Place East, The Arcade, Melos Taverna. I’ve written before about the curious “Old Master Says” Restaurant on Poplar, the one adorned with a 14-foot plaster head of the owner, a Greek with a non-Greek name, John George Morris.
And then there are the dozens — if not hundreds — of little Greek-owned cafes scattered in just about every neighborhood of our city. And the New York Café was just one of them. But if my pal Bonnie thought she was tossing me a softball question, one that would allow me to say that her great-uncle’s café opened at a certain date and closed at another, equally certain date, in a sentence or two, she was wrong.
Because there were at least three different New York Cafes here. I won’t take up your time with a convoluted history of all of these establishments, so here’s the gist of it. The first New York Café in town — or at least the first with that name listed in old city directories — opened in 1915 at 333 Beale Street. It was owned by Leon Bryonis, and later taken over by the Touliatos family.
Sometime in the early 1920s, yet another New York Café opened at 546 South Main, owned by two brothers, Nick and John Trifonopoulos. You’ll note that all of these fellows are members of the Greek restaurant community, but none of them was Bonnie’s great uncle.
His name was Nicholas Demopoulos, and he entered the picture in 1920, when he joined his uncle John Zarifes, who had opened yet another New York Café at 219 East McLemore, close to South Third Street.
In fact, that’s Nick and his wife, Demetra, in the fine picture here, showing them standing at the counter of their café. I wish I had a menu, showing all the tasty eats available, but obviously one thing you could purchase was an ice-cold bottle of Goldcrest 51 beer.
Their New York Café remained in business on East McLemore until 1955, but there’s some confusion about the address. Over the years, the phone books show it as 211, 217, and even 219 East McLemore. According to Bonnie, her family insists that at some point, the café moved across the street. But Memphis streets have even-numbered addresses on one side, and odds on the other. All the addresses for the New York Café are odd-numbered, meaning that if the café did move, it stayed on the same side of the street. I don’t know what to make of that.
Around 1955, Nick Demopoulos left McLemore, turning that restaurant over to another Greek relative, Michael Talarico. He got involved in various downtown ventures, including the American Legion Café, the City Coffee Shop, and finally, Nick’s Café, located in the row of buildings torn down to make way for the new Radisson Hotel, next door to the old Tennessee Hotel. His son, Chris, took over the business, until it closed in the late 1980s or early 1990s. The original buildings on McLemore were demolished for the widening of South Third.
And that leaves us with one final mystery. Bonnie’s family says that before he got involved with the restaurant on McLemore, Nick had opened an earlier New York Café on North Main, somewhere around Adams. Well, the city directories don’t list it, so that provides me with a topic for another day.