Restaurateur Edwards to Reincarnate Bon Ton Cafe

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

Mac Edwards will reopen Bon Ton at 150 Monroe Ave. later this year or early 2011. (Photo: Bob Bayne)

Every city has restaurants like these Downtown, usually near the courts and lawyers’ offices or the banks, restaurants that serve traditional breakfasts and plate lunches to customers who might be wearing white shirts and ties or workers in blue or gray uniforms or women in everything from slacks to power suits.

Bon Ton Restaurant was one of those places, along with – and I’m looking at a brochure the Memphis Restaurant Association used to pass out, one that says of Mud Island, “Opening July 1982” – such long-forgotten Downtown spots as George & David’s Coffee Shop, Nick’s Coffee Shop and Mr. Gee’s.

There’s been a Bon Ton in Downtown Memphis since the 1890s, though its first manifestation was a saloon. Later, the name was used for a restaurant owned from 1904 to 1945 by Tony Angelos and Charlie Skinner. That’s the year that the Zambelis family took over, and they ran the place until 2008, when Sam Zambelis died suddenly at the age of 50, so the restaurant at 150 Monroe Ave. has been closed for a couple of years.

By the first of 2011, however, or perhaps, god willing and creeks not rising, by the end of 2010, the Bon Ton will reopen and begin a new segment of its long existence Downtown. Instrumental in the restaurant’s revival is none other than Mac Edwards, in a move that proves you can take the boy out of the restaurant but you can’t take the restaurant out of the boy.

What I mean is that Edwards sold his popular and successful restaurant McEwen’s on Monroe, which he opened with his wife, Cindy, in June 2008, saying that he had accomplished what he had set out to do at the 10-year-old establishment (in the old Red Rooster Café location) and that “it was just time to do something different.”

And here he is again, a bit more than two years later, taking on responsibility for operating a Downtown legend. Under the direction of Edwards and his “unnamed local investors,” Bon Ton will be transformed into something different indeed, a restaurant open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“Breakfast will be nice and sunny,” Edwards said, “lunch will be business, and for dinner we’ll turn the lights down for a sexy vibe.” The new Bon Ton will not be open late late; “I don’t want the after-Raiford’s crowd,” said Edwards. “I’m too old for that.”

Born in Oakland, Calif., Edwards moved to Alabama at 16 with his mother, after she divorced his father, who was in the wholesale meat business.

“My mother was an interesting person. She sewed beautifully and made clothing. She worked in an ordnance factory, waited tables, worked as a nanny. Late in life she became a locksmith. We moved around a lot. She never really found herself, but she learned to do what she had to do to keep going and put food on the table.”

At 56, Edwards has a background in local food and wine that goes back decades. He worked in the wine division of Star Distributors during three separate periods, and between those stints worked in and managed a variety of restaurants: Hoppin’ Johns, Toucans, Madison Bar and Grill, the short-lived Bluff City Grill and Brewery in the old Continental Trailways bus station; also The Half-Shell and the now obliterated Gonzales and Gertrude’s, when it first opened.

After selling McEwen’s to Bert Smythe and John Littlefield, Edwards did various things and then went to work for Preston Lamm’s River City Management Corp., helping to reopen Spindini after the departure of Judd Grisanti. He left River City in April, and now there’s Bon Ton.

“We see Bon Ton as a value-added place,” said Edwards, “where you can get a dinner entrée for $15, and also where you can get a martini. We want to follow, as much as possible, a farm-to-table philosophy, to elevate the products we purchase and the food we produce. Locally made bread, locally made beer on tap, high quality spirits.”

The key to a great restaurant, Edwards said, “is building a great staff. I could have taken those 20 people from McEwen’s and gone on one of those restaurant reality shows and kicked ass and left them groveling on the floor in a fetal position.”

The question is: why go back into the restaurant business? “There’s immediate gratification,” said Edwards. “I’m a hot dog, and I enjoy that part. It’s about hospitality and fellowship. I love people, and it’s a people business. I’m pretty co-dependent, I guess, and I enjoy making people happy. There’s this challenge: You’re only as good as your weakest employee. You’re only as good as the last plate you serve.”

Another challenge is the sheer number of hours and the amount of work it takes to keep a restaurant open and working efficiently from, say, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. And let’s face it. One aspect that brought people to McEwen’s regularly was the gregarious Edwards himself, perpetually clad in Bermuda shorts, calling the shots, bringing dishes to tables, chatting, cajoling, the affable host.

“Sure,” Edwards said, “I know that people want to see me there. In the beginning, I’ll be at Bon Ton from can to can as they say, but when things settle down, we’ll see how it shakes out.”