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VOL. 126 | NO. 20 | Monday, January 31, 2011

Long History Follows Paulette’s to Harbor Town

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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Georges Falls has seen many changes come upon Overton Square since the entertainment district’s heyday in the 1970s and ’80s, but one of the most startling changes is one he is bringing himself.

George Falls is owner of Paulette's, which is moving from Overton Square to the River Inn of Harbor Town at the beginning of March. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

Paulette’s, his Continental restaurant that has been a flagship, even a beloved attraction near Madison Avenue and Cooper Street since 1974, is moving to Harbor Town, about as far west as you can get from Midtown and not fall into the Mississippi River.

“I’m still sort of surprised by this,” Falls said recently, sitting in the front dining room at Paulette’s as a lunchtime crowd poured in. “It all happened pretty quickly.”

By Feb. 27, Paulette’s will have replaced Currents, the restaurant in the River Inn at Harbor Town. Currents opened in November 2007, an expensive fine-dining, white-tablecloth establishment that had trouble finding an audience and went through a series of chefs and concept changes. From its inception, Falls has had the service contract for Currents and its sister, diner-type restaurant Tugs.

Did Paulette’s falter? Was the restaurant noted for its popovers, entrée and dessert crepes, Hungarian goulash, steaks and to-die-for Kahlua-Mocha Parfait Pie on the skids?

“The numbers may not have been what they were in the ’90s,” said Falls, “but we weren’t hurting. It was a combination of two things. Our landlord, who lives in Denver, wanted to raise the rent. And the owners of River Inn, out of the blue, in early December, suggested that we move Paulette’s down there. That was just a bomb dropped on me.

“And, you know, the building’s getting rundown. The roof leaks. It rained so hard New Year’s Eve I thought the roof was going to fall in. And the landlord doesn’t want to put money into it.”

Falls’ route to restaurant ownership wasn’t circuitous, but it wasn’t completely obvious either. He was born in Clarksdale, Miss., went to the University of Mississippi and graduated in 1959, worked briefly in advertising for newspapers in Jackson and Laurel, Miss., and moved to Memphis in 1960. He was with Holiday Inn for 24 years, in advertising and public relations first and then in franchise and site approval.

“During my time at Holiday Inn, motel sites went from 100 to 1,700,” Falls said. “Because of the job, I got to travel all over. I worked in New York from 1965 to 1968. I couldn’t have had a better life in the corporate world.”

Intrigued by The Magic Pan crepe restaurants, started by Hungarian immigrants Lazlo and Paulette Fono in San Francisco in the mid-1960s, Falls and Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson flew to California.

“We met Paulette, and we loved the concept,” said Falls. “We negotiated for six months but couldn’t work out a deal, and she sold to Quaker Oats in 1970.”

But there was that quaint little house on Madison. Falls contacted Paulette Fono, and she agreed to come to Memphis and start a crepe restaurant.

“I had a little interest in it,” Falls said, “but then I got out. It was Ben Woodson” – one of the developers of Overton Square – “who asked me to buy back in. Frank Flautt and Jeff Mann and I bought the restaurant in 1979, and in 1984, I bought them out.”

He took a few of the crepe dishes off the menu and added entrees like chicken, fish and steaks. That was Falls’ last year at Holiday Inn. His second venture into the restaurant trade was Three Oaks Grill, which opened in Germantown in 1995 and closed in 2008.

Falls, 74, takes the long view about the decline of Overton Square, dating the first chink in the façade as early as 1976, when Burkle’s Bakery, a well-known home-cooking restaurant, was forced out by a rent increase.

“That was an old, traditional family-owned restaurant,” he said. “Everybody ate there, politicians, lawyers, city and county administrators, businessmen, workers, students, people from the neighborhood. Some of the life went out of Overton Square then.”

The crushing blow, he said, was the closing of T.G.I. Friday’s in 2003.

“I don’t mean that there aren’t any other restaurants here,” Falls said, “but look around. Retail is dead in Overton Square.”

The move from Overton Square to Harbor Town means that Paulette’s will become, in dining parlance, a “chef-driven” restaurant. Scott Donnelly, chef of Currents, will pilot the stove at the new Paulette’s, and while the menu will feature what Falls characterized as 70 to 75 percent of the old menu – “We want to keep the things that made us famous” – Donnelly will be responsible for the more creative side in crafting nightly specials and event menus. Moving to the River Inn Paulette’s will be Faye Jones, who cooked at the Overton Square restaurant for 30 years; she will be the lunchtime chef.

Will Paulette’s longtime customer base drive the extra miles across the Auction Street Bridge onto Mud Island?

“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?” Falls said. “Of course, I think they will. The challenge is in directing people in the right direction. People know about the change, and they come into the restaurant now and say, ‘We’ll see you in Harbor Town. We’ll be there.’ That’s what I want to hear.”

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