Zarzour’s Cafe, Chattanooga TN

Here’s a really interesting restaurant that I supposed I would not get the chance to try. Zarzour’s Cafe opened in 1918 and has a wonderful reputation for their meat-and-three meals, but, sadly, the restaurant, for years, has only been open from 11 am to 2 in the afternoon, and only on weekdays. That’s not a very good window for out-of-town guests! Fortunately, they have elected to stay open a little bit longer each weekday – to the comparatively late hour of 3.30 – even though the kitchen itself still closes at 2. Guests in this last ninety minute window can still order some of their very famous burgers, grilled up by an exceptionally sassy lady who let us know how she drank her way out of college in Knoxville. Yes, this place is a dive in the finest possible sense of the word, and I love it absolutely.

My son and I had business up the road in Knoxville last Friday evening, and I realized that, if I timed it right, I could get to Chattanooga and maybe have some of that baked spaghetti that I read about at Roadfood.com. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite manage it. My daughter narrowly escaped getting in trouble over some other student’s drama and, conferring with an administrator about things, I didn’t leave the school with my son until after 12.30, and then forgot – I’ve lived here almost eight years and forgot – that the road in front of Town Center Mall is completely gridlocked during the lunch hour. So we didn’t get to Zarzour’s until around 2.30, and missed the day’s specials.

Yeah, I know, for all that hay that I made about that recent trip through the Carolinas being mine and Marie’s last out-of-state trip together, I turned around the very next week and ran up to Tennessee. I never said that I was going to have to slow down until the baby’s born. Although I probably should divert at least a little gasoline and dining money into baby clothes. That would be the decent thing to do, I suppose.

So, anyway, we missed the kitchen’s three-hour window on Friday, but that’s okay, as it looks like they didn’t have baked spaghetti that afternoon anyway. They did have flounder, which would have been lovely. And green beans. Man, just as well that was a really, really good cheeseburger.

In fact, we were kept so long in Marietta that my son was, unfortunately, able to have a school lunch before we ran up I-75. So he missed out on a cheeseburger of his own – of course I shared – and just got dessert. They offered peanut butter pie. He had a bite, put down his spoon, pulled out his phone and told all his Facebook friends – three-quarters of whom were stuck in sixth period around this point – how good a slice of pie he just had. My son uses social media to be evil.

Zarzour’s is a delightful place to linger. I love the wood-paneled walls and all the framed photos of the elder members of the Zarzour family, who ran this place for decades. I’m not certain whether it is still in family hands, but respect for the past, and disrespect for the present, is very much on display here. Cautioning any diners who may wish to try and out-sass the staff, the old photographs share space with several delightful signs about how they kindly don’t charge for insults. It is a small dining room, but it is absolutely pulsing with activity, happy regulars, and travelers. One older gentleman present when we arrived was wearing the amazing combination of a classy suit jacket and leather pants. Another table was taken by a young couple from Missouri, returning home after sitting out the snow during a very well-timed trip to Florida. Like me, they’d been lured in during Zarzour’s brief window of operating hours by the raves they’d read online.

My cheeseburger was superb; it was easily the best I’ve had in weeks, and certainly on par with the best burgers available in the Atlanta area. I would love the chance to swing back by one day soon. You know, David has mentioned that he’s curious to see McKay, the remarkable used CD and bookstore chain in Tennessee with a branch in Chattanooga. Perhaps one Thursday, we can get up here for another burger, or some baked spaghetti, and hit a couple of book shops before trying out Sluggo’s or Good Dog or one of the other popular places in town.

Speaking of McKay, my son and I had an appointment at the one ninety miles up the road, but that’s a story for another time.

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