Earnestine & Hazel’s is alive and well and waiting for you to come buy a “soul burger.”
After owner Bud Chittom died Sept. 5, people wondered what was going to happen to the iconic restaurant/bar at 531 South Main - at the corner of South Main and G. E. Patterson. The restaurant was closed for 10 days, but it now is open.
Bud left his entire estate, including a partnership in Beale & Second Inc., to his only heir - his daughter, Caitlin Chittom, 23. This includes Blues City Cafe, Beale Street Live (formerly Club 152), Jerry Lee Lewis’s Cafe & Honky Tonk, Beale Street General Store, Beale Sweets Sugar Shack, Handy Park concessions and commercial rental properties.
He left Earnestine & Hazel’s strictly to her, Caitlin says. “It’s the most special to me.”
Caitlin, who lives in Austin, says she’s “taking it day by day.” She’s been getting advice from friends, including Congressman Steve Cohen, restaurateur Kelly English, Miss Polly’s Soul City Cafe owner Ty Agee, and her mom, Angela Chittom-Merigian.
“I knew one day this would happen. It’s a lot to take on, but it doesn’t feel impossible.”
She basically is leaving Earnestine & Hazel’s as Earnestine & Hazel’s. She’s not repainting, renovating, re-designing or changing light fixtures. Nothing is happening to that famous grill, where those savory “soul burger” hamburgers are cooked. And they still come to the table in a red plastic basket with a bag of potato chips.
“Earnestine’s is such an integral part of Memphis history,” Caitlin says.
“We embrace the ragged of Earnestine’s,” Chittom-Merigian says.
“Locals are welcome there,” says Caitlin. “Tourists are welcome there. It’s very come as you are. I wouldn’t want to do anything to jeopardize our ability to welcome everybody.”
After Bud died, rumors began, Chittom-Merigian says. People said they were taking out the jukebox and that Caitlin wanted to turn E & H “into a cocktail bar.”
The downstairs and upstairs still look the same. Same jukebox. Same 45 rpm records dot the wall above the bar. Same retro light fixtures still hang from the ceiling.
Some familiar faces no longer work there, but Nate Barnes still bartends upstairs in Nate’s Bar. The same piano is there. And Floyd Foster continues to man the grill.
Bud used to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Chittom-Merigian says.
But some things do get broken, Caitlin says. For instance, they had to fix a leak in the ceiling. There was some “delayed maintenance” at Earnestine’s.
As far as changes, draft beer from local breweries now is on tap at E & H.
Customers now can order a mixed drink at the bar instead of having someone bring it from the upstairs bar or the old The 5 Spot restaurant, which now is a party rental facility.
The smoking regulation is changed; smoking only is allowed upstairs.
Albert King Jr. is the new house band.
Phone chargers now are installed at each booth so customers won’t have to have someone behind the bar charge their cell phones.
The new Malco Powerhouse Cinema Grill & Bar, which opens March 7, is an incentive to add more hours, Caitlin says. “With the movie theater coming in, we’re looking to expand our hours back into the day. I’d love to be open again during the day.”
She’s excited about the development going on in the South Main district. “I think it’s a growing and thriving community. I love that we’re in an area that is preserving its history. It’s an exciting intersection to be at. It’s the best corner in the city.”
The building which houses Earnestine & Hazel’s was built in 1906. During its lifetime it was a church, a brothel, and a pharmacy. Earnestine Mitchell and Hazel Jones opened the original Earnestine & Hazel’s.
Bud and Delmer George bought E & H in 1993. Bud later bought out George.
A few years later, Bud decided to bring Russell George (no relation to Delmer George) on board as co-owner. George owned Murphy’s at the time. Chittom-Merigian remembers Bud saying, “I’m going to go get Russell George. He’ll be the perfect face for Earnestine’s.”
Russell, who died in 2013, was the “essence of laid back cool,” Caitlin says. “He really was the front man while Bud was behind the scenes.”
Bud knew before Caitlin was born that E & H would be hers someday, Chittom-Merigian says. He told her, “This is her legacy. This is Caitlin’s corner.”
Bud always was excited about Earnestine & Hazel’s. “He’d call me in the middle of the night and talk about ideas for Earnestine’s,” Caitlin says.
After Bud died, the business was closed for 10 days because it was in probate, Chittom-Merigian says. “It was closed 10 days until Caitlin became the legal owner.”
Earnestine & Hazel’s still has “the same magic,” Chittom-Merigian says.
“I know that he’d be proud of the way Earnestine & Hazel’s is today and my commitment to preserve it,” Caitlin says.
And, she says, “I just want it to be what it’s going to be. You can stand in the way or you can grease the wheels and step back and let Earnestine’s do what Earnestine’s is going to do.”