When I was growing up my family didn’t eat out very often. I came from a family of very accomplished cooks with little disposable income to spend on restaurant visits, so when we did eat out it was always a special occasion that excited my little Garanimals-covered body to no end. From the late ’60s to the mid ’70s there were two restaurants in particular that would get me excited like Honey Boo Boo on a go-go juice bender. One was Shoney’s Big Boy, which enchanted me with their Big Boy coloring books and faux newspaper-lined basket of fish and chips with malt vinegar. The other was a wonderland of Southern comfort food in motion—Bea’s Restaurant.
Typically, a discussion centering on a restaurant that opened its doors in 1950 would be focused on what used to be, how things have changed and how we pine for the images and tastes that populate our well-kept memories of that cherished eatery. This is not one of those discussions and Bea’s is not one of those restaurants. Bea’s has somehow managed to resist the creeping tide of change, retaining the best parts of what made this restaurant a Chattanooga institution without becoming “retro.” Everything from the decor to the food and even most of the staff has remained unchanged for decades, which is exactly what sets Bea’s apart from any other restaurant in town—along with the seating, tables, chicken and that crazy delicious strawberry cobbler.
Everything at Bea’s is done “family style,” starting with the seating. Each of their round, Formica-topped tables seats eight, which means that unless you brought seven people along, you will be sharing your meal with strangers. In spite of my own personal space issues and an aversion to mindless small talk, I found sharing a meal with strangers ignited a feeling of community and shared humanity with my fellow diners that I carried with me long after the meal. I also was able to strike up a conversation with a hot mother of three whose blonde pigtails and sweet Southern drawl stayed with me long after the meal as well.
In keeping with the family-style setting, there are no menus at Bea’s. Once you’ve been seated, your server will place serving bowls of whatever food is on tap for that day in the center of the table along with an array of condiments and garnishes such as pickled beets, diced onions and Bea’s homemade chow chow (a must for putting on your greens). Then, any strained attempts at small talk will cease while you and your tablemates serve yourselves out of the same serving bowls of food just like one big, happy family.
This is when the fun begins. The center of each table is one big lazy susan, so rather than having to interrupt Uncle Jimmy’s diatribe on the state of Southern rock in ’Merica you can just spin the wheel of carbs on around and grab yourself another piece of Bea’s amazing fried chicken or some butter for your cornbread. Need some more tea? Spin that sucker around and refill it with the pitcher of classic Southern sweet tea that they leave right at the table.
The food at Bea’s has withstood the ravages of time and trends. While you won’t find any baby arugula salads or suckling urchin en papillote spinning around on the lazy susan, you will find classic Southern meat-and-three choices made from scratch using the freshest ingredients the Bradshaw family can find. Their signature fried chicken is butchered by hand using an old school method that leaves a center “keel” breast piece that you’ll stab your own child with a fork for. The mac and cheese is the creamy, stovetop version granny used to make, and the potato salad has just a touch of mustard that you know you like.
If you enjoy finishing your meal with something sweet, the strawberry cobbler is unique and amazingly good. I was skeptical at first, but this sticky, sweet and delicious cobbler may seriously be my new favorite. They also realize that there are only three ingredients in a classic banana pudding —vanilla pudding, vanilla wafers and bananas—and they stick to that, except on Fridays when they create some mutant banana pudding with pineapple in it. But that’s another story.
Drive out to Dodds Avenue and check Bea’s out for yourself. If you’ve never been, you’ll find so much more to love than what I’ve been able to mention here, including a quarry tile floor that you just don’t see any more. If you haven’t been to Bea’s in a while, never fear. The same made-from-scratch food is being served on those same lazy susans you’ve always loved. Either way, get out to Bea’s and take some food for a spin!
Mike McJunkin always returns to the “biscuits” in Sushi & Biscuits, but remind him where he came from at facebook.com/sushiandbiscuits.