Caroline Saunders 0000-00-00 00:00:00
The jukebox is haunted; the Soul Burger sings for its supper; and the 100-year-old building keeps its secrets close to the vest. Welcome to Memphis’s nationally acclaimed juke joint. Earnestine and Hazel’s owner, Russell George, wants every person who steps into the landmark restaurant to have the same ðfeeling: like they’ve walked into the past. “The place has great soul,” he says. “Otis Redding hung out here.” At this storied, unique establishment, music, movies, and soul food collide to form a feeling that is so … Memphis. “It’s warm, comfortable, and comical because there’s nothing like this anymore,” George says. “Icecold Beer, great hamburgers, great jukebox. I keep it simple.” The jukebox, which is loaded with Motown, Stax, classic country, and classic jazz, is definitely haunted. “It comes on and plays spontaneously,” George says. “And 50 percent of the time, it plays exactly what your conversation is about. It’s freaked all of us out.” Having a haunted jukebox with that kind of personality, Earnestine and Hazel’s only Needed a burger to match. So George came up with the now-famous Soul Burger. It’s loaded with just two garnishes: pickles and grilled onions. “We tried lettuce, tomato, bacon, and Swiss cheese, but those things go bad quickly, and throwing away food will make you go broke,” George explains. “But pickles never go bad and onions will last for a good while — so the Soul Burger was really a survivor burger.” Survival is a skill that must have been built into Earnestine and Hazel’s foundation. The 100-year-old building is rumored to have been a brothel until two sisters transformed it in 1967 into a soul food restaurant and hot hangout during Memphis’s musical heyday. By the time George’s friend and landlord, Bud Chittom, encouraged George to reopen the place in 1992, the location was boarded up — and scary. “It took six months to clean it properly,” George says. “Then we had the challenge of getting somebody to come down into this area.” But the native Memphian and 40-year restaurant veteran knew what he was doing. Now, Earnestine & Hazel’s enjoys national acclaim. Picture frames on the wall display famous faces: James Earl Jones, Sean Penn, Tina Turner, Shane Battier, Norah Jones, Bonnie Raitt, and Danny Glover gaze out from the walls. “We’ve had nine major motion pictures filmed here,” says George. “We’ve hung out with people such as Francis Ford Coppola, Rachel Weisz, and Natalie Portman. Even when they weren’t working, they came here and drank beer, ate burgers, played pool, and laughed the whole time they were in Memphis.” Clearly, Hollywood has taken notice of the place, so it was only a matter of time before the press began to pay attention. Esquire magazine named Earnestine and Hazel’s the second coolest bar in America, and Playboy magazine named it one of the 15 greatest Bars in America. Now and then, customers can enjoy the restaurant’s six-piece house band and a spin around the dance floor. George gives visitors grand tours of the establishment, explaining its unique history and Hollywood fame. Every guest leaves with a picture of the “Memphis Kings” — Elvis and B.B. — that George says was taken in the restaurant. Upstairs, customers enjoy the 12 Mellow Fellows Blues Lounge, a jazz piano bar headed by George’s friend Nate. “We’ve been together for 30 years,” George says. “That’s his gig up there.” George left the other upstairs rooms alone so guests could relax on simple furniture, drink beer, and talk. Back downstairs, in the back of the restaurant, a door opens. The 5 Spot, perhaps the smallest restaurant in the world, was built inside the restaurant’s original kitchen space. Seating only 16 (unless the patio is open), it may be the smallest, “but it has the biggest heart,” says George. While Earnestine and Hazel’s atmosphere is quicker and louder, The 5 Spot features old classic jazz tunes and a more intimate crowd. George opened it about five years ago and has been treating customers to delicious steak and seafood ever since. His son, Murphy, is the chef. With so much historic Memphis style hovering over 531 S. Main, it’s no wonder Earnestine and Hazel’s has reached landmark status. “All I had was a burger,” says George.“Now I’ve got this restaurant. It’s just a beer joint with a real good burger and a jukebox. It works for me.” Earnestine and Hazel’s and The 5 Spot, 531 S. Main, 523-9754.
Published by Downtowner Magazine. View All Articles.