In recent weeks I've droned on and on about some of our city's "theme" restaurants — namely the Polynesian-themed Luau and the tropical-motif Tropical Freeze. Well, using a grant from the Lauderdale Foundation, I recently purchased an old menu from another eatery in town with a rather unique theme — the Ohman Ranch House, which modeled itself after the Old West, even to the point of having an old six-shooter as a front door handle.
William L. Ohman opened his first restaurant in the mid-1940s at 1358 Madison, just east of Cleveland. It was a pretty ordinary place, really, more like a drive-in, so in 1948, Ohman went all-out, building a rustic lodge behind the original restaurant. The menus proclaimed it was "a bit of Texas in Tennessee," and patrons found themselves in a rustic saloon, with rough-hewn walls, fake kerosene lanterns, and brands burned into the beams. The menu I purchased came from 1951, and it offered all sorts of "Wild West" concoctions, including Texas Shrimp ("big like Texas"), Chuck Wagon Chicken ("Pecos Bill went wild for this!"), Beef Tenderloin Steak ("It ain't bull, it's tender"), and a barbecue plate that used "only lazy, contented pigs."
(Something tells me those pigs weren't too contented about being slaughtered, but I digress.)
The cover of the menu (above) is especially interesting because it shows how Cleveland and Madison looked half a century ago. Look carefully, and on the north side of Madison you can see that a Doughty-Robinson Drug Store stood on the corner, and next to that was the Star Bowling Alley. You can see the original Ohman House #1, and behind it the Ranch House, complete with outdoor patio and a parking lot entrance adorned with a wagon wheel and the folksy message, "Y'all come back."
Across Madison, on the south side, was the Howard Graham Furniture Company, Johnnie's Shoe Repair, a beauty parlor, and Jenkin's Cafe, which apparently had a huge sign advertising Goldcrest 51 beer mounted on its roof. And across Cleveland was, then and now, Stewart Brothers Hardware.
Ohman eventually built other Ranch Houses around town. The fanciest one stood at 2439 Summer. When that one opened in 1952, the Memphis Press-Scimitar enthused about the "Spanish mission-style building, with a courtyard walled in brick and cypress and planted with yucca and tiny palms." Inside was the same rustic Western motif, with lots of cactus and rope designs, and again you yanked on a revolver to get inside. The distinctive red tile roof came from the Women's Building, which had burned some years earlier at the Fairgrounds, and a little cupola was surmounted by a "weather vane pointing to Texas." So it really wasn't much of a weather vane, I guess, if it was stuck in one direction.
The Ohman Ranch Houses thrived during the 1950s and 1960s, but one by one they closed. The Ranch House site on Madison is now a parking lot, and the former Star Bowling Alley is (I think) now home to Bruno's Italian Restaurant, though the building seems far too small for that — unless the lanes were unusually short. Hmm, I need to look into that someday. At any rate, it's safe to say that the intersection doesn't look anything like what it did almost 60 years ago.
There's one other detail of the Ohman Ranch House menu that's interesting, considering all the talk lately about allowing guns in bars/restaurants. Even though it was a Wild West-themed eatery, and you yanked on a revolver to get inside, the menu makes one thing very clear: "Leave your shootin' irons outside. This here's an eatin' place — it ain't no saloon." Maybe they were joshing, maybe not.
Below are some other images from the menu, and a couple of photos of the place that I found in the Special Collections Department at the University of Memphis Library. I park in that empty asphalt lot on Madison all the time when I dine at Bruno's. It's hard to imagine it was once the site of such a colorful eatery.