For almost 70 years, Memphis's famed Four Way Grill has nourished both stomach and soul.
Stirring up good stuff in the kitchen is a labor of love for owner Willie Earl Bates, who first ate at The Four Way when he was 10 years old.
photographs by Jonathan Postal
It’s late in the afternoon with sunset approaching on a frigid December day and the lunch crowd has cleared out of the toasty Four Way, making way for groups of loyal customers coming in to get their dinners to go: baked and fried catfish, turkey and dressing, baked and fried chicken, succulent neck bones, turnip greens, pinto beans, beets, okra, macaroni and cheese, smothered cabbage, yams, lemon icebox pie, homemade strawberry cake, and all of the other staples any soul food restaurant worth its salted salmon croquettes dishes up.
Owner Willie Earl Bates, 73, soft-spoken and still as fit looking as he was during his Booker T. Washington High School football-playing days, sits at a corner table in his apron and baseball cap, finally getting a bite to eat for himself. He is clearly exhausted, just part way through the usual 12- to 14-hour day he’s been putting in here almost every day for the past 12 years, but his eyes shine like a child’s with a new toy when he talks about the past, present, and future of his culinary and community-conscious labor of love.
Explaining the significance of the restaurant’s location at the South Memphis corner of Mississippi Boulevard and Walker Avenue in what is now known as Soulsville, U.S.A., Bates points out the window and says, “You have to put into context what this neighborhood used to be like. The Ace Theater was there. Over there was a five-and-dime, where I bought my mother a three- or four-piece set of serving dishes with my first paycheck, which was about $2. You had a drugstore over there that had a soda fountain counter. There was a shoe shop and a candy store and over there was a Harlem House restaurant. And of course in the center of it all was the original Four Way Grill. You could just walk around and smell the aroma of food in the air.”
Bates, who moved with his mother and sisters to the nearby LeMoyne Gardens apartment complex (now home of the College Park subdivision) as a child in 1947, first smelled that aroma around 1950, when he made his first visit to the restaurant that would become known worldwide not only for its delicious food, but also as a meeting place for the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Reverend Jesse Jackson, and, as Bates puts it, “anybody who came in town and wanted to announce his or her presence in the city.” He was just 10 or so years old, but it was the first time he’d ever eaten in a restaurant. To this day, he remembers that initiation —“the fancy cars in the parking lot, servers in white uniforms, tables with white cloths, everyone dressed in their finest clothes, and delicious food” — and realizes what a responsibility it is to carry on the tradition of the famed soul food restaurant that for almost 70 years now most refer to simply as “The Four Way.”
The Four Way began its long journey as a table or two stuck in the corner of a pool hall, where those trying to sink the eight ball in the right pocket could get a hot dog or sandwich, and a beer. But in 1946, former mayor E.H. “Boss” Crump’s chauffeur Clint Cleaves and his wife Irene Cleaves took out a $1,500 loan on their house and purchased the tiny enterprise and soon began expanding both the space and the menu, creating what would become one of the most famous soul food restaurants in the South, and for more than just its cuisine.
By the early 1950s, Irene Cleaves had expanded the restaurant into a front counter with stools that still served casual food, but had added a private dining room in the back that sat 45 people, had white tablecloths, waiters and waitresses in white uniforms, and one thing that helped make it the place to see and be seen: a doorbell at the private backdoor entrance. Patrons wanting to sit in the dining room had to ring the bell and be approved for entrance by the staff. That tradition would last well into the early 1990s and was an attraction unto itself for many visitors.
Another attraction was the atmosphere and clientele. Because Clint Cleaves was Boss Crump’s driver, Crump urged all of his friends and colleagues to patronize the restaurant, thereby making it one of the few places in Memphis where blacks and whites could eat together and where blacks could eat every day.
One of the restaurant’s early patrons, Rosemarie Whalum Pollard, sister of former city councilman and well-known minister, the late Kenneth Whalum Sr., and aunt of Grammy-winning musician Kirk Whalum, also visited the restaurant beginning around age 10, going there with her family every Sunday after services at Metropolitan Baptist Church, just a few blocks away on Walker.
“It was very unusual and I’ll tell you why,” Pollard says. “We ate at Goldsmith’s on Thursdays because we had our own little entrance like we had at the movie theaters where we had to sit upstairs at that time. To have the colored and white water fountains and to have certain days where we were allowed to eat delicious food at other restaurants, it was quite a big deal to eat at The Four Way any day of the week with white and black people eating together. It was like everyone was on the same level and everyone was intelligent and cordial. And because the food was the common factor, everyone enjoyed themselves.”
Pollard further explains that part of the reason for the racial mix at The Four Way was because the neighborhood at that time was integrated and secretive mixed marriages were not uncommon. “I went to a Lutheran school,” she says, “and many of my classmates and friends in the neighborhood were white and Jewish. Many of the businesses in the neighborhood were owned by Jewish families and were integrated. And some of the black people who ate at The Four Way were so white . . . it was a really strange phenomenon.”
Among all the stories that still circulate today about the heyday of The Four Way Grill, one common theme is that everyone loved Irene Cleaves. Dot Cooper, now 83, went to work there in the 1960s as a waitress and recalls the respect Cleaves was shown by everyone who came through the doors.
“I was working at a nightclub nearby named Mulando’s,” she says. “And every Sunday I would pass through The Four Way to see Mrs. Cleaves and get my dinner to take to the club. I would get turkey and dressing or fried chicken and always got the corn because, aside from my aunt’s, they had the best corn I’d ever put in my mouth. When Mulando’s closed, I went to ask Mrs. Cleaves for a job and she hired me on the spot. I loved her like a second mother because she cared about us and about how we did our jobs. If we did something wrong, she wouldn’t scold us but would very lovingly tell us how to do it the right way.”
Just as Cooper was Cleaves’ protégée, Bertha Alexander, who worked as a server at The Four Way from 1977 until 1994 and returned to work for Bates in 2009, says Cooper was like a mother to her.
“I was around 23 when I first went to work there,” says Alexander, who serves diners there Tuesday through Friday with the speed and organizational skills of a special ops soldier but always with a warm smile and a familial hug. “Dot was like a mother to me, just as Mrs. Cleaves was to her. It was always like a big family, always. And Mrs. Cleaves was so loving and caring.
“It was also very exciting to work there. We had these big Sunday dinners with duck and dressing and Cornish hens and you never knew who was going to come in to eat. I had the privilege of waiting on Reverend Jesse Jackson, Reverend Al Green, Johnnie Taylor, Pops Staples and the Staple Singers. It was just very, very exciting.”
Others who dined at The Four Way during its first incarnation included Gladys Knight and The Pips, Elvis Presley, Redd Foxx, Aretha Franklin, Ike and Tina Turner, and dozens of others, including the many artists at nearby Stax Records.
In the 1960s and 1970s, with Stax just blocks away, the relationship between The Four Way and the label was a natural. Deanie Parker, longtime director of publicity for Stax and founding president and CEO of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and Stax Music Academy, both located at the original site of the studios, says they knew the menu by heart.
“More often than not, we placed orders for carry-out,” she says. “We kept a menu in every office but most of us had it memorized because each day had a special and we could plan to eat baked chicken and dressing with string beans and candied yams on Thursdays, fried fish and spaghetti on Fridays, and there was always a beef stew on Wednesdays. Their lemon icebox pie was the Godiva of Soulsville desserts.”
Over the decades and up through the early 1990s, when Irene Cleaves fell ill and spent the remainder of her years in a nursing home until her death in March 1998, she was something of a celebrity in Memphis and beyond. Almost every Memphian who listened to the radio in the 1980s remembers her King Cotton Meats commercials, in which she coined the phrase “rightly seasoned,” which was later picked up and used by basketball star Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway in subsequent ad campaigns for the company. In 1985, she received the Preservation of Black Heritage Award from the Reynolds Metals Company of Richmond, Virginia, a prize that was covered by publications from The Commercial Appeal to Jet magazine to the NAACP’s official publication, The Crisis magazine. She was 76 at the time and for the most part had stopped cooking but daily supervised her staff of 22 cooks and servers.
As Cleaves’ health declined and family members tried to maintain The Four Way without her expertise in the restaurant business, it fell on hard times and the Tennessee Department of Revenue closed it in 1996 due to nonpayment of taxes. So special was the landmark restaurant that then Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton attempted an emergency move to save it by proposing a resolution to the city council, asking them to give $20,000 from an inner-city projects fund to the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, which would in turn loan it to The Four Way as a grant that would pay the taxes and that The Four Way would pay back.
“Let me tell you why I did that,” he says today, although he can’t recall all of the details of the deal. “I admit I had a bias at the time. First of all, it was a landmark that for decades served quality soul food. Every dignitary in the U.S. or the world, we took them to The Four Way when they visited Memphis to feed them excellent Southern cuisine. Also, I went to LeMoyne-Owen College and played basketball. And evidently they had a contract with The Four Way and we ate our meals there — all the best meals I ever had other than what my grandmother cooked. So yes, I was biased. But if you look at my background you’ll see I’ve never been timid about stepping up and making a leadership decision if I believed in it.”
That deal never happened and eventually someone bought The Four Way and reopened it in the late 1990s but it stayed open for only a brief time. And then a funny thing happened to Willie Earl Bates at his Metropolitan Baptist Church in 2001. His minister told him that The Four Way was going to be auctioned off. Bates, also a real estate developer, and a business partner, Tyrone Burroughs, bought it and some adjacent property on the courthouse steps the next day. They would be partners in the real estate but Bates and his family would be the sole owners of the restaurant.
“I had no experience in the restaurant business,” Bates says, “but I had been having some secret thoughts, some secret love, about The Four Way and I knew I could take what I’d learned from my business degree from Tennessee State University and my experience in business management throughout my career, and apply that to returning the tradition of Mrs. Cleaves’ delicious food.”
Bates and Associates put on their hardhats and went about gutting, remodeling, and expanding the restaurant. Bates turned the old pool hall space into restaurant space, and demolished the adjacent beauty salon and shoe repair shop, both of which had been closed for some time, making way for a fenced-in patio/garden area dedicated to Bates’ mother, the late Magnolia Gossett Bates. He also added an upstairs dining room, which can be reserved for special groups lunches, meetings, and other occasions. Today, the old shoe-stitching machine from the shoe shop sits like a sculpture in front of the restaurant and on the patio sits an old, rusted red wagon, the one Bates used as a youth to deliver groceries in the neighborhood and later on a Commercial Appeal newspaper delivery route that took him by the old Four Way every morning around 4:30.
Bates also expanded the restaurant’s tiny galley kitchen into a larger kitchen where the private dining room used to be located. Asked about losing the famed room with the doorbell, the astute businessman pauses and replies, “New day. In 2001, things had changed and the community was different. It was obvious that in order to attract and to accommodate and provide conveniences and satisfy a larger clientele we had to have an expanded facility and make it more accessible. We wanted to have much more space to cook away from the center of the restaurant and made it easier to bring in supplies and produce. It was just a business decision.”
Bates reopened The Four Way to great fanfare in October 2002, but one thing he didn’t renovate was the tradition of serving fine, fresh soul food in the tradition of Irene Cleaves. He created much of the menu and recipes based on her original recipes and invited “tasters” — former cooks who worked for Cleaves and customers who were her regulars — to help get things just right. Bates goes out of his way to make sure everything is as fresh as possible, relying on various regional sources for vegetables such as turnip greens and yams. And because of a challenge several years ago to cook a diabetic-friendly meal low on fat, Bates now serves all of his vegetables without meat in them.
Asked how he does that and still maintains the delicious flavor, Bates explains, “We check and re-check the outcome and we do that over time and once the flavor is to our satisfaction we record the recipe. We make adjustments as needed; it’s just a part of doing good business — testing the consistency of the guidelines and making sure everyone is following them carefully. It’s not unusual for me to go back there and sample the food as it is cooking and make sure it’s being cooked correctly, that it’s ‘rightly seasoned,’ as Mrs. Cleaves used to say.”
Bates’ sister, Barbara Payne, a beautiful woman in her 70s, is the cashier Tuesday through Friday and adds to the welcoming atmosphere much the way Mrs. Cleaves used to do when greeting and checking on guests. She also keeps volumes of guest books for the customers from all over the world to sign. There are entries from Italy, Sweden, Brazil, England, India, and just about every other corner of the earth.
And the restaurant continues to draw regular folks and celebrities alike. Just like in 1985 when Mrs. Cleaves and Dot Cooper had to keep it very secret when the late R&B/soul singer Teddy Pendergrass and his entourage ate in the back dining room, Bates had to keep a recent visit hush-hush. Last October, megastar recording artist and actor Drake and his crew pulled up in six or seven matching black SUVs for lunch after filming a music video in Memphis.
While Bates does appreciate the celebrity visits and visits from diners from faraway places, he isn’t star-crazed about it. When asked about his special clientele, he says, “I had a mother and daughter from Oklahoma in here not too long ago and they had come here from St. Jude. They had done research and found out about the restaurant and the little girl wanted to come eat here. That was so touching, so satisfying to know that we were able to touch a child and make her happy during a time like that.”
Bates is also excited about and dedicated to The Four Way being such an active community partner, citing relationships with LeMoyne-Owen College, University of Memphis, Rhodes College, Habitat for Humanity, FedEx, the Soulsville Foundation, Knowledge Quest, and others. Looking at retirement someday down the road and concentrating constantly on the future of his restaurant, he says he hopes these relationships help ensure that the Four Way is around for decades to come.
And just as former Mayor Willie Herenton had great admiration for The Four Way, current Mayor A C Wharton also sees it as an important asset to the city.
“The Four Way has always been and continues to be a gathering place for community leaders,” Wharton says. “It may seem a bit quirky, but it was a status symbol to enter The Four Way through the back door and dine in the back room. Principals, doctors, lawyers, and accomplished entertainers, and occasionally, a skinny, hungry black Ole Miss Law student like me could often be found in the ‘back room’ being served by Miss Dot. The Four Way thrives today thanks to the talent and hard work of the new owners and staff and the love of its customers.”
As our conversation comes to an end, Bertha glides through the restaurant taking care of last-minute orders and getting ready to close up shop and Willie Earl Bates is ready to make his final rounds and do the same. Just as I prepare to leave, the music coming from the restaurant’s radio perched in a windowsill catches my attention. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the song beginning to play: Mikki Howard’s 1989 R&B hit “Love Under New Management.” It’s just another fitting taste of magic here at The Four Way.
Tim Sampson is the founding editor of The Memphis Flyer, former editor of Memphis magazine, and currently serves as the communications director for the Soulsville Foundation.