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  • Writer's pictureMason Edwards!

Zarzour's Last Day Before New Management: Chattanooga's Oldest Restaurant

By Mason Edwards, Features Editor for the University Echo

Customers enter the building of Zarzours during lunch time. Monday, October 9, 2023. Mason Edwards.

In the best ways possible, wandering inside of Chattanooga’s oldest restaurant felt like stepping into another person’s home.

On Oct. 20, 2023, the owner and staff of Zarzour’s Cafe celebrated its last day before new management. Operated by its original owning family for 106 years, the dimly lit, cozy atmosphere rested easy on the eyes, and remnants of past eras lived on through the wood paneling walls and cherry-red barstools.

As you were ushered to a seat, you’d notice the open concept kitchen which invites you along for the food-making process. Such a transparent view of the work put customers at ease, letting them interact with the cooks and owner as their hamburger patty sizzled.

Or, if you found a table along the back wall, you'd encounter the wall of family pictures.

They were not only proof of the owner’s values, but the photos also offered a sincere, vulnerable welcome into the personal lives of Joe “Dixie” Fuller and his late wife Shannon Fuller. According to Johnny E. Smith– a regular at the restaurant of fifteen years– the two created a dining experience unmatched by any other.

“I come in here, and I see 25 people I know– and I think, ‘the place only seats 20,’” Smith said. “This became a little community hub. People come in to see each other as much as they do for the food.”

Founded in 1918 by Lebanese immigrant Charlie Abraham Zarzour, the restaurant became part of Chattanooga’s cultural heritage. Fuller still remembers that time, when streetcar rails split Rossville Avenue’s pavement. He has worked in the restaurant since he was old enough to know how to make change.

Fuller sparked headlines throughout the city last August when he announced an impending sale of the restaurant. After spending most of his life on the road in the music industry and losing his wife, Shannon, he’s ready to retire.

“This was her passion. This was her passion,” Fuller repeated. “She loved this, these ten tables over here and this crowd, this was perfect for her. Everybody loved just to see what the hell she was going to say next.”

“She’d tell you exactly what she thought,” Fuller chuckled. “This was her favorite saying, ‘the insults are included in the price.’”

“Shannon was a huge personality,” Smith added. “If you didn’t know her, you really missed out. I’ve never been cussed out and appreciated it so much.”

“I feel, probably like a lot of other people feel, [that] she made me feel very special, in a really personal way, and I think that was her gift,” Smith said. “You could interview a thousand people, and I bet a thousand people would probably say the same thing I just did.”

Photo of family images hanging on the wall of Zarzours. Monday, October 9, 2023. Sammy Mckenzie, Photo Editor

Married to Shannon for thirty years, Fuller remembered her fondly and said that her passing from cancer emotionally devastated him. All of his plans changed at that point.

“You wanna make God laugh real hard, tell him what you’re thinking about doing,” joked Fuller.

Despite customers’ initial fears that Zarzour’s Cafe would be lost, Fuller seemed hopeful that the new owner will preserve and expand the restaurant. Apart from the addition of liquor sales and a new patio, everything should stay the same– including the family photos on the back wall.

“The gentleman that bought both the restaurant and the house from me, John Wise, is going to leave the restaurant intact and keep operating it as Zarzour’s Bar and Grill,” said Fuller. “He understands the history here, he gets it.”

When asked whether Smith would return to Zarzour’s Cafe under the ownership of the same man who owns the Whisky Cowgirl and the Southside Social Club, he hesitated but thought that it would be worth visiting at least once. As an entrepreneur, Smith prefaced that he hopes every business venture succeeds before he said, “I don’t know that it will ever be what it is without the Fullers involved.”

“I think I’d be like a cat– I’d be curious,” Smith explained. “What’s happened here can’t necessarily be recreated.”

With the money from the sale, Fuller will retire and share a portion of the proceeds with a staff member of 25 years, Mary Nell. She plans to start another restaurant, and she has permission from Fuller to use the Zarzour name.

In the past two weeks, hundreds of new customers have stopped by for a taste of the cafe’s legacy. Gayle Lea from Ootlewah particularly enjoyed their vegetables when she visited on Oct. 11, and she planned another visit before their closure.

“This is my first time, and I read where they’re closing,” Lea said. “I thought I’d come and see what it’s all about.”

Mike Courter and his brother shared a meal with a friend they haven’t seen for a while. During what was his second visit, he shared that they try new Chattanoogan eateries all the time. After hearing the news, he wasted no time in traveling to Zarzour’s Cafe.

“I was afraid it was going to be bulldozed and condominiums put over it,” Courter said. “It’s probably worth looking into as a protected place in Chattanooga.”

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