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!
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:
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:
Sources that helped make this post possible include: