by Paula Anderson and Johari Hamilton
At the corner of Mississippi and Walker Ave. in the heart of South Memphis, you can enjoy the taste of ‘soul food’ at the legendary Four Way Soul Food Restaurant originally named the Four Way Grill.
The first restaurant owners were Clint and Irene Cleaves. Clint Cleaves worked as a personal chauffeur to the former Mayor E.H. Crump during that time.
“It was the dream of Clint and Irene Cleaves to own a restaurant and former Mayor E.H. Crump helped with the opening," said Patrice Bates-Thompson, partner and co-owner.
The restaurant opened in 1946.
“He was instrumental in helping them establish a clientele,” added Bates-Thompson.
Since this was a time of segregation, the Four Way Grill was a place where everyone “could eat and be safe.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a regular customer and many prominent people ate at the restaurant while visiting Memphis.
According to Bates-Thompson, the Four Way Grill was the last restaurant King ate before he was assassinated in Memphis.
Although the restaurant was a popular eatery, the doors closed in the 1980's due to the health of Irene Cleaves.
The legacy was sparked again when the late Willie Earl and Jo Ellen Bates bought the restaurant with a partner. It still has the same flavor of a soul food restaurant, but the new owners made some changes. The building was purchased in 2000 and re-opened 2002.
The original Four Way Grill had a shoe shop and sundry with a pool hall next door. The Four Way Restaurant is filled with table and chairs, and a lobby area for customers to be greeted and seated.
The late Willie Earl Bates wanted to go back to his community and reignite the spirit of community and business development. He grew up in LeMoyne-Owen Gardens and attended high school at Booker T. Washington High School.
Since that time, the community has evolved as during periods of revitalization and renewal and is known as Soulsville.
The Soulsville Community is located in the heart of South Memphis with connections to LeMoyne-Owen College (LOC), Cummings School, Metropolitan Baptist Church and the STAX Museum.
Bates-Thompson described the community impact of the Four Way Restaurant. She and her family are members of Metropolitan Baptist Church and have served as stakeholders in the community for many years.
The restaurant has served such notables like the late Isaac Hayes, The Bar-Kays, Jesse Jackson, Don King, former Governor Bill Haslam and National Basketball Players (NBA).
The legacy of the restaurant has attracted several celebrities. According to Bates-Thompson, Drake, the hip-hop rapper, featured the restaurant in a music video.
One of the most recent highlights for the restaurant was the “Bluff City Law” pilot show. Bates-Thompson said, “The show has brought unity, because many local residents did not even know the restaurant existed.”
The restaurant also employs students at LOC. This is a stepping stone for students and an opportunity for students to network with other people who may be able to help them in their career, stated Bates-Thompson.
Former co-owner, the late Willie Earl Bates, saw potential in a young church member, who was in college
“Mr. Willie Earl Bates gave me the opportunity to work here in 2013. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here,” said Malcolm Hawkins, former Lane College student and employee of the Four Way Soul Food Restaurant.
Hawkins admires the community’s legacy and takes pride in working at the restaurant.
“It has definitely made me proud,” said Hawkins. “To walk in this building you can feel that you’re carrying the legacy and pushing it forward and making it better. It’s an honor to understand what other people have gone through and have seen and still look forward and live through it… it’s amazing.”
Hawkins uses the rich history of the restaurant to inspire his generation.
The evolution of the community has changed since the original opening of the restaurant. According to Bates-Thompson, there was a movie theater across the street and a pharmacy next door to the restaurant. Her father and his sisters attended the movie theater while growing up.
The neighborhood has undergone a revitalization and renewal over the years and new businesses are preparing to set-up shop near the legendary restaurant.
“I would like to have neighbors instead of vacant lots,” said Bates-Thompson.
Everyone loves a good meal and since the opening it continues to be a source for eating ‘soul food’.
Bates-Thompson said, “The fried catfish, turkey and dressing and fried chicken are the top dishes.”
Rosita Timmons and Chuck Lester were dining at the restaurant on Dec. 13, 2019 and shared these comments about the food.
“My food was delicious. It all was well-seasoned. The service was excellent,” Timmons.
“The food and service were excellent. I have never had a bad experience here. It is one of my favorite places,” said Lester.
As the legacy continues to move forward, Bates-Thompson plans to pass the torch to her children, Jerry Rashaan and JoElle Simone Thompson, so the restaurant can grow and upgrade to meet the current customer demands. Her daughter is a graduating senior at Hampton University manages the restaurant’s Instagram ® social media page and her son is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy.
The legacy of the restaurant started in 1946, but it continues in 2020 with relationships with other community pillars like LeMoyne-Owen College, The STAX Museum, Cummings School, Knowledge Quest and Metropolitan Baptist Church.
To learn more about the Four Way Soul Food Restaurant located at 998 Mississippi Blvd., contact Patrice Bates-Thompson at 901-507-1519.