Rightly Seasoned

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

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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.”

 

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