Madrid in Memphis?
Our trivia expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.
Dear Vance: Back in the 1960s, Memphis didn't have many foreign restaurants, but I remember an establishment on Union that served Spanish -- not Mexican -- fare. I believe the name of the place was Casa Madrid, or something like that. Where was it, and what happened to it? -- F.E., Memphis.
Dear F.E.: You're correct that our city lacked a certain cosmopolitan flavor until more recent times. It's true that in the 1960s we had several fine-dining restaurants, such as Justine's and the Embers, among others. But for truly foreign fare, we had only one or two Mexican restaurants, and one or two Italian restaurants, and one or two Chinese restaurants, but that was pretty much it. Not to mention that citywide chain of Scottish diners -- let's see, what were they called? Oh, right. McDonald's.
So that's partly what makes the story of the place that opened at 2220 Union so remarkable. It was called Chateau Madrid, and I suppose that name probably made patrons think it offered some kind of French/Spanish-fusion cuisine. I can't explain the French part of the name, because this cozy establishment at Cox and Union was entirely Spanish, opened by a pair of brothers -- Julio and Efren Pertierra, who came from Spain by way of Cuba. I know this, you see, because the Lauderdale Library has an extensive collection of old Key magazines, which -- then and now -- served as guides to all the attractions and points of interest in Memphis, and I actually located an issue from 1968 that featured Chateau Madrid.
In other words, I didn't have to research this very much, which always brings a bright smile to my ruggedly handsome face. I don't do that very often, though, since it tends to frighten the children when I visit them in the Home.
As I was saying, the Pertierra brothers had been born in Spain, but moved to Cuba, where they operated the very successful Montmarte Night Club and Oriental Race Track. You can already see that they apparently liked to mix up the nationalities of the places they owned. When Fidel Castro came into power, the Pertierras fled to Miami, where they opened an eatery with the strangest name of all, if you ask me: the Toledo Restaurant and Lounge. They were thinking of the city in Spain, of course, but to me it just brings up images of Ohio.
As you might imagine, there were already lots of Spanish restaurants in Miami, so in the mid-1960s, the brothers moved to Memphis, and opened the Chateau Madrid, which Key magazine helpfully explained was "the capital of Spain." Really? I always thought the capital was Spainville. Of all the places they could go, they chose Memphis because "we like the town, the people, and the weather."
The weather? I suppose only someone from Spain or subtropical Cuba could say they truly enjoyed a Memphis summer.
The owners, who brought an entire staff with them from Cuba, warned diners they would not find your basic tacos and enchiladas at the Chateau. Instead, specialties included Filet Madrilena, Rice Marinara, Spanish sausage, and the most popular item on the menu, Paella a la Valenciana. The Key article explained this last dish was a concoction of "fresh clams, red snapper, lobster, shrimp, chicken, sausage, ham, yellow rice, onion, green peppers, asparagus, pimientos, and peas." And that was just one dish!
The decor featured paintings of matadors and scenes from Spain, and there was a special treat. "The restaurant has a piano player, and practically all the staff joins in the singing." The pianist's name, by the way, was Altie Jean Pickens. I just thought you'd like to hear that name.
The place that proclaimed itself "a bit of Spain in the heart of Dixie" bid adios to its customers after only about a year. In the early 1970s, the building became home to an Italian restaurant named Elfo's. Today, a modern Crye-Leike Realtors office stands on that corner.
Dear Vance: Please help me settle a friendly wager. Memphis is the barbecue capital of the world, right? And I say that no barbecue restaurant has ever closed in Memphis -- at least not in the past 50 years or so. True? -- D.G., Memphis.
Dear D.G.: I hope this is indeed just a friendly wager, and not one that involves the title to your house or your first-born son. Because, my friend, you are about to find yourself homeless and childless. This is one of the silliest claims I have ever heard. Yes, we are known for our fine pork barbecue, but the restaurant industry is a notoriously fickle one. Just ask the Pertierra brothers, who came here all the way from Miami to discover that sad truth.
Off the top of my head, I can think of more than 50 barbecue joints that have closed in my lifetime. Fifty! And that's just off the top of my head. Even the world's best psychiatrists really don't want to delve any deeper into my subconscious "mind" (as I like to call it) than that. Oh, it's a dark and spooky place.
You want a list of barbecue places that have closed? Just for starters, there's the famous L-word. No, not that one: I mean Loeb's. In the mid-1960s, in addition to their thriving laundry business, Loeb's operated almost 30 little eateries all over town. All of them are now gone. And then look at this newspaper ad from the same period for their chief competitor, Coleman's. "28 Openings in 28 Months," they bragged. Just by way of comparison, the ubiquitous Taco Bell only has 24 branches in Memphis. And today, there's only one Coleman's left in the Memphis area, on Millbranch.
Saddest of all was the barbecue chain operated by my own family, Lauderdale's Loins. Flashing neon signs proclaimed them as "Hot and Spicy" but we never had many customers. Actually, not any. Some people tried to convince us that the name itself was sort of a turn-off, but what did they know about running a restaurant business? We finally closed after making just $37.50 that first month alone -- and that was from the cigarette vending machine. To this day, I have no idea why no one wanted to take a big juicy bite out of a Lauderdale Loin.
Plus there was . . . oh, I think you get the picture. Many barbecue joints have come and gone in Memphis. You lost that bet, D.G. I pity you.
Dear Vance: I used to drive by this forlorn-looking place on Brooks Road, and remember that at one time it was a popular restaurant, but my co-workers can't remember the name. So we turn to you for help. -- S.M., Memphis.
Dear S.M.: Are you -- like the previous fellow -- possibly playing a joke on me? Because your own initials are a clue to the identity of the place that has so intrigued you. It was called the Sawmill. I'm not sure why any developer thought that was a good theme, unless they were taking into account our city's reputation as a hardwood capital, but I remember this place had a rather rustic interior, and lots of giant saws and sawblades hanging around. It was always a good idea to bring some Band-Aids along before you dined there, just in case you stumbled. No, I'm joking! The Sawmill, as I recall, served some mighty tasty steaks and burgers. This photo isn't a current one; the building has been spruced up and is now a club. But that part of town -- Brooks Road and Airways -- has lost some good restaurants in recent years, most notably Fred Gang's, and it's just a matter of time before a clever entrepreneur approaches someone about building another nice eatery in that area.
Hey, don't look at me. We're still trying to recoup our losses from the Lauderdale Loin chain. We were clearly ahead of our time with that venture.
Got a question for Vance? Send it to "Ask Vance" at Memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org