justines-restaurant-memphis

Fine Dining of the Past at Justine’s

In South Memphis by Caitlin L. Horton6 Comments

justines-restaurant-memphis

Old Justine’s Restaurant. Image via historic-memphis.com

As far as we know, the pink stucco house was built in the 1840s. It managed to survive the Civil War, the yellow fever epidemic, and, at least for now, emptiness. Due to neglect, it’s now considered an endangered property.

Justine Smith opened “Old Justine’s Restaurant” in 1958. For over thirty years, the restaurant brought New Orleans-style fine dining to the Memphis area. Visitors like the Metropolitan Opera would step up the marble steps into a dining room fully outfitted, chandelier and all, for a luxury culinary experience.

When the Met went on tour, it was quite the cultural ordeal. A 1963 article in the St. Petersburg Times says the Met’s tour included nine full productions and required no less than: 17 baggage cars for the sets and two special trains for the 65 artists, 92 musicians, 36 ballerinas, 78 members of the chorus, and varying amounts of support staff like conductors, electricians, wig makers, and others.

Each city had a special event for the cast each year. In Memphis, they enjoyed a garden party at none other than Justine’s!

This portrait of Justine by Billy Price Carroll once hung in the dining room. Image via historic-memphis.com

How did this restaurant become the go-to for fine dining in Memphis? Well, in 1948 Justine wanted to offer something nicer than the nicest meal you could get at that time  – a T-bone steak and onion rings “served with something less than loving care.”

She opened her first venture in ’48 with no experience in the restaurant industry. With the help of a loan, Justine began working on the small warehouse she rented by Beale Street and the city barn (Side note: I don’t yet know what this city barn was, but I intend to look into it!).

On opening night, a few dozen friends and others dined at her new restaurant, which was outfitted with hand-sewn curtains and her own personal silverware and crystal. On her one day off, Justine flew to New Orleans to learn restaurant operations at some of the finest and most well-run restaurants in that very cosmopolitan city. In just two months, her loans were fully paid off and she and her husband made the move to restore the pink stuccoed Old Coward Place off E.H. Crump Boulevard. This would be the site of the Justine’s many of you knew and loved.

We’ve been told that Justine had fresh seafood flown in daily from New Orleans. So it’s no wonder that the restaurant was well-reviewed by the likes of The New York Times. For Southern writer Julia Reed, the Crabmeat Justine was a special treat. In Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and Other Southern Specialties, Reed recalls that even though they lived three hours from the restaurant, there was always someone who was willing to drive the distance for the starter dish.

In 1966, a second location opened up in Atlanta. This location was created from a 1797 plantation that was moved over 100 miles from Washington, Georgia, to Atlanta.

Even the menu was high style, featuring original illustrations by artist Billy Price Hosmer!

Justine’s closed in 1996. However, the food lives on in two recipe books. Julia Reed discovered how to recreate Crabmeat Justine from the Junior League’s The Memphis Cook Book. Justine’s daughter, Janet Smith, compiled photographs, stories, artwork, and recipes in her own book Justine’s: Memories & Recipes.

Do you have memories of dining at Justine’s? Please share in the comments below!

 


 

Find the books mentioned here:

Justine’s: Memories & Recipes

Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and Other Southern Specialties

We don’t know if the recipes from Justine’s appear in either of these books, but here are the links for two Junior League Memphis books available on Amazon:

The Memphis Cook Book 1977

Memphis Cookbook 1952

Sources that helped make this post possible include:

http://www.landmarkandlegend.com/threatened.html

“If You Think Conventions are Fun – Dig a Met Opera Tour”

http://historic-memphis.com/memphis-historic/restaurants/restaurants.html

http://www.bizjournals.com/memphis/stories/1998/12/07/tidbits.html?page=all

Caitlin L. Horton

Author of Memphis Type History & Brand Strategist at Caitlin L. Horton Brand Strategy
Partner-in-crime for entrepreneurs and community builders getting their message out with thoughtful design and marketing.

Comments

  1. Memory so sweet
    My uncle who had moved to Albquerque NM always liked to dine at Justine’s when he would come home for family visits.One particular time I remember my mother taking us to Lowensteins(usually shopped at Goldsmiths) and I remember getting a satiny black and white checkered dress with cherries on the collar and a blue leather coat with a white fur collar.This was for a particular dinner there when I was about eight years old.I remember walking up the very steep stairs to the ladies room!, Beautiful restaurant and memory

    1. Author

      Wow, what a sweet story to share with us! Thank you so much for sharing! I sure do wish we could go eat at Justine’s today. So many have wonderful memories of the place and the food.

  2. In the late 1960’s I would go to Atlanta about every six weeks. No trip was complete if we didn’t eat at Justine’s. Loved everything about it. The place, the help, and especially the food. I took my wife and two young daughters there in the 1970’s. When we arrived we were shown to a small dining room at the rear of the mansion. It had one table in it and had a fire going in the fireplace. The staff treated us like royalty and the attention they paid to our two young daughters can’t be described. I’ve had the good fortune to eat at many of the fine restaurants from coast to coast and Justine’s is right at the top of the list. As a matter of fact I was just telling a friend about it the other day. Great memories don’t fade away. Thank you.

  3. What can I add to the superlatives that are Justines! As an 8th grader I ate there for the first of many times – this evening with the Semmes Lucketts of Clarksdale and their daughter Lucretia Boyle (who now resides in Bend, Oregon) – Crabmeat Justine, Vichyssoise, Tournedos of Beef, Lotus Ice Cream served at our beautifully set table – with the pale blue candle, the rose garden, valet, piano, marvelous waiters! What a wonderful place! Thank you for posting the memories!

  4. As a bride my husband and I were taken by my new in-laws for a special dinner at Justines. The year was 1965, and we drove two hours from eastern Arkansas for the event. I was awed by the elegant facade of the pink building as we arrived at dusk. The rooms were dark, tables lit by candles, tuxedoed waiters ringed the room. Many of them were longtime employees and they recognized by sight the regular diners from the Memphis area. The dinner that followed lives still in my mind. My father-in-law especially liked the salad of Bibb lettuce with hearts of palm. My mother-in-law recommended the crabmeat Justine, which I ordered. The taste was heavenly! I think there was a special fish dish similar to Pompano en papiotte. Justine was much in evidence, elegantly clad in a taffeta cocktail dress. She seemed to check on every detail. In the years that followed it was our favorite place for a special celebration of anniversary or birthday. We moved further west to Little Rock. One weekend in the 1990’s we were driving to Memphis for a short trip, and I used a car phone to call Justines for a reservation, but the information operator said there was no such business listed. I thought there must be a mistake and asked her to check again. Still she did not find Justine’s. A phone call to a Memphis friend confirmed that Justines had closed.
    What a blow it was then and even now. Never did we have such exquisite food served more elegantly and with great courtesy as if in a beautiful private home. And every night Justine oversaw every detail. We will not see it’s like again.

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