Tucker's City Café fed Lebanonites for half a century
It's been a long time coming, but with this spring's opening of Dean's Hot Chicken & Waffles and The Coffee Shoppe, eating, drinking and making merry returns to the Lebanon Square.
More than half a century ago the town center offered numerous places for hungry locals and tourists to chow down. Longtime Lebanonites recollect such eateries as the Long Dog, the Orange Bar, the Street Car Café, Kuhn's, Bradshaw Drugs, Shannon's Drug Store, Lebanon Drug Store, the West Side Coffee Shop and Tucker's City Café.
All are but distant memories, but back in the day nobody ruled the Cedar City's gustatory landscape like foodie king Green H. Tucker, the owner and operator of Tucker's City Café, the West Side Coffee Shop and Lighthouse Restaurant.
Established in 1918 and calling it a day 53 years later in 1971, Tucker's City Café was famed for its fried chicken and Tennessee ham dinners. The restaurant's motto went "Our chicken dinners are something to crow about."
"Dad was real particular and always served good food. The restaurant always had a Grade A rating. He served fresh vegetables and tomatoes when they were in season. We had homemade pies and donuts and always served Tucker's Sausage and Country Ham," said Betty Ann Tucker Griffin, the only child of Green H. and Elizabeth Hardaway Tucker, who at age 16 went to work in the café typing the daily menu and waiting on tables.
"Dad and his brother B.O. Tucker started in the restaurant business together. My uncle decided to get into the sausage and country ham business."
(In the early 1920s her uncle opened Tucker's Sausage and Country Ham two blocks northeast of the square on North College Street. The plant closed in 2010 after a fire.)
Square eatery served all a variety
Tucker's City Café was perched at 110 Public Square in the northeast quadrant of the square where Wilkie's Outfitters sits today. In earlier decades it was open 24 hours a day, but by the 1950s when Betty Ann was a schoolgirl, it operated from 6:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.
Other popular offerings included turkey and dressing, hamburgers, hot roast beef sandwiches, steaks and ribs.
"We had anything you wanted," she said. "It was a good place for friends to meet to eat. We served local folks and tourists, law enforcement, attorneys, local civic clubs, everybody.
"Mom and Dad were always together in the restaurant business and fairs. Dad also had the Lighthouse diner on West Main (today the site of Hertz Car Rental) that was open 24 hours a day and busy all the time. There we served local people, tourists, Castle Heights boys and country music stars. He also had the West Side Coffee Shop for several years.
"In the summers he had a big cook house that he took to fairs. He always made the Wilson County Fair, the Nashville State Fair and fairs in Detroit, Michigan; Springfield, Illinois, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and the Texas State Fair."
A generous boss
Betty Ann remembers that City Café held six booths, two big round tables, tables upstairs and a jukebox. She recollects longtime waitresses Lassie Hamilton and Janie Tomberlin and cooks Uncle Phil Horton and Theola Harrison.
She describes her mother as "very friendly, always in a good mood, always smiling. Mom did whatever needed to be done. She cooked, kept the books, made payroll. I don't know how she did it.
"Dad made sure everything was A-OK. Dad was good to his help and paid 'em good. He was friendly, knew everybody and strictly a businessman. For years he wore a white shirt and tie. He was generous to old people. If you were hungry he would give you a something to eat. He'd say, 'I'm not gonna give you money, but I'll feed you.'"
Twin memories make her smile
Among other details tucked in her memory bank, Betty Ann revealed, "The waitresses liked waiting on tourists because they tipped better than local people. And a lot of ladies (customers) picked the biggest piece of pie but would have Sweet'N Low with their coffee as they were watching their weight."
Mr. Tucker operated the Lighthouse restaurant from the 1920s into the mid-1950s. After graduating from Lebanon High in 1959, Betty Ann waitressed there from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. six days a week, taking home $40, plus tips, and occasionally fill in at the City Café on the evening shift.
"I waited on a tourist one morning at the Lighthouse and then served him that evening at City Café," she recalled. "He said to me, 'Can I ask you a question? Do you have a twin sister?'
I told him, 'No,' and then he said, 'Well, there's a girl who looks just like you in another restaurant who waited on me for breakfast this morning.'"
Cook remembers owner fondly
Robert Hatton Knowles Jr., 79, remembers Tucker's City Café well as his father worked there off and on for 30 years.
"It had the old-time look with an octagon-type, white tile floor. It had counters down one side and a jukebox where you could play a record for a nickel," said Knowles.
"My dad started out washing dishes there when he was a student at Lebanon High School in the 1930s. He went from dishwasher to cook. It was open all night then and he would stay at night and had to deal with the Cumberland law students and soldiers here on maneuvers in the early '40s.
"Green H. made him the manager so he stayed with Green H. for a long time and went off on the fair circuit with him."
Knowles says that most adults referred to the café owner as Green H. while younger folks called him Mr. Tucker.
"I can remember going in there and getting me one of them roast beef sandwiches. I thought they was the best thing I ever put in my mouth," said Knowles, who also spent a summer working for Mr. Tucker at fairs in Oklahoma, Michigan and West Virginia.
Former waitress with a Coke habit
Nellie Hollis Smith, 83, who was nicknamed Tiny, got her first job at the City Café as a waitress in the 1940s.
"I was really young, no more than 14, and it was the first job I ever had. I needed it. Mr. Tucker was one of the kindest people I ever knew. He befriended me and let me work there," said Smith.
"It was a very homey atmosphere, really unique, a wonderful and friendly place. I can remember Miss Pearl the cashier, Mr. Tucker's sister. She was something else. She sat there like a Madonna and never took her eyes off of anything. She watched the people coming and going and watched the cash register.
"Mrs. Tucker was as sweet as she could be. She was real pretty and always dressed really nice. The Tuckers were just very, very nice people. They had a rule that you could not serve a country ham unless it was four years old. It had to be just so. They did not have anything going out of there unless it was topnotch.
"The big pies they used to make, oh, my goodness, those homemade pies. The meringue stood up about two inches on top and was just beautiful. I had a bad habit of drinking Cokes. I was drinking more than I should and remember one of the cooks told me, 'Miss Tiny, you shouldn't be drinking all them Cokes. Do you know how many you've had?' I said, 'No,' and he said, 'You've had seven.'''
Locals worked and ate there
Lebanon barber Randy Johnson, who has been cutting hair and cutting up in Lebanon for more than 50 years, remembers City Café mostly for its cherry Cokes and cheeseburgers, saying, "It was a cool place to be, especially for young people. Mr. Tucker run a pretty good ship. Everybody liked him. He had a good place everybody enjoyed going there."
Betty Vantrease Arnovitz got her first job at the age of 16 in 1958 as a waitress at City Café. She was allowed to leave Lebanon High at two o'clock and worked until 6 p.m.
"I was sort of scared at first," she recollected. "A tourist came in and he asked me what was the difference between country ham and city ham, and I told him one was made in the country and the other in the city, and he bust out laughing.
"Country ham was the most popular order," she said. "The square was always crowded on Saturdays because all the farmers came to town, and it was packed all day long. You didn't get no let up."
Arnovitz worked six years for the Tuckers and also served customers at the Lighthouse and West Side Coffee Shop.
"I always had a good time. If I had to do it all over, if I was young again, yes. I would do it," said the waitress, who later worked 32 years as a cashier at "The Grand Ole Opry."
'Still miss the City Café'
Betty Ann Tucker Griffin has one more clear memory of her parents' renown eatery.
"The City Café had a big chitlin supper once a year. If you didn't want chitlins, you could have steaks. I always took steak," she said.
Mr. Tucker closed the City Café in 1971, Betty Ann says "because he had too much going on." A year later the popular restaurateur died at the age of 68.
She sums up her folks' legacy of serving square meals on the town square by saying, "It was a busy, wonderful life. I see people all the time who say, 'I still miss the City Café.'"
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at email@example.com.