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VOL. 126 | NO. 60 | Monday, March 28, 2011

Edwards Shifts Gears With Elegant Farmer

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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Forget everything I wrote about Mac Edwards and the Bon-Ton Café back on Oct 11. That was the story in which Edwards, owner of the well-known McEwen’s on Monroe from 1998 to 2008, talked extensively about being in a partnership to revive the moribund Bon-Ton, a Downtown institution whose roots went back to 1904, with a target opening of late December or early 2011.

Mac Edwards is opening a restaurant near the University of Memphis called the Elegant Farmer. The restaurant, 262 S. Highland St., features comfort food.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

That didn’t happen.

“Basically the money wasn’t there,” Edwards said last week. “(Tommy Peters) and I had struck a deal, and I talked to you and different people, and the idea, the concept seemed terrific, and then there was no money.”

So, Edwards is out of the Bon-Ton project, which continues without him – more on that later – and is now consumed, as only Mac Edwards can be consumed by the excitement of a new project, with putting a restaurant in the space behind Wellford’s Antique Collection on Highland where the lunch-and-afternoon-tea English-themed Crumpets resided from mid-2005 until it closed Christmas Eve 2010. (Chef at Crumpets was Stephan Sciara.)

“I was Christmas shopping and I found out about Crumpets and I went and talked to Alex and Karen Wellford, and we struck a deal. It’s a great location.”

Can it be possible, asks the skeptic, that the stretch of South Highland between Poplar and Central is a great location for a restaurant? Isn’t Highland really used as a thoroughfare for people in cars traveling north and south to and from other major streets?

“Really,” said Edwards, “between Grove Grill and [Restaurant] Iris there isn’t another nice restaurant. I mean I enjoy Pho Saigon and Campadres and places like that, but there’s not a better sort of restaurant in that whole area. Midtowners won’t cross Highland going east and people in East Memphis don’t want to go to Midtown, but we’ll be right in the middle. Poplar and Highland is the geographical center of town. Easy to get in and out of, with great parking.” And in the slightest crack in his eternal optimism: “It better work or I’ll be in deep s---.”

The new, renovated restaurant, which will seat 50, will be called The Elegant Farmer and of course – as the name implies – will emphasize local and seasonal ingredients.

“I’ve had the farm-to-table thing in mind for a while, using fresh and local as much as we can,” Edwards said

The chef?

“I’m going to be in the kitchen at the beginning,” Edwards said. Chef de cuisine will be Gannon Hamilton, who has worked at Hunt-Phelan, Grove Grill and Mesquite Chop House. Edwards described the food at The Elegant Farmer as “elevated comfort food, nothing crazy.”

Edwards sees The Elegant Farmer as a neighborhood restaurant.

“Look, we have Chickasaw Gardens, Belle Meade, the whole University of Memphis area and all sorts of residential back-up right behind us,” he said. “We’re 10 minutes from everywhere.”

Lunch only at first is the plan Monday through Saturday, and dinner to come later. Lunch prices about $9 to $12, dinner $16 to $20. A brief wine list, maybe 20 wines, nothing over $30. A service bar but not a sit-down bar.

“I’m up for this,” said Edwards. “Hopefully it will go great, and I can fade away in a few years.”

“We’re thrilled,” said Karen Wellford. “We think the world of Mac. My husband worked in the First Tennessee building, and we would walk around the corner to McEwen’s.”

She called Crumpets, with its ladies-who-lunch ambience, “my charity. It never broke even. Men were scared of it.”

Wellford agreed with Edwards that The Elegant Farmer could become a neighborhood restaurant, but the establishment needs have an amendment to its permit allowing it to stay open at night. When Crumpets opened, it was with the understanding that it close at 4 p.m.

“I don’t think that will be a problem,” Wellford said. “I think people close by would be happy to walk to a restaurant like The Elegant Farmer.”

There’s space outside for patio dining in nice weather and also a garden.

“We grow all our herbs and flowers,” said Wellford. The antiques business has been at the location, a former Tudor cottage from 1925, since 1998. The Wellfords added the back portion, which houses the restaurant, in 2005.

Meanwhile, back at Bon-Ton…

Peters, who is president of B.B. King’s Blues Clubs and managing partner of the Cadre Building at Monroe and Second, took a slightly different view of things.

“It wasn’t a matter of there not being any money,” he said. “I mean we had never set up a partnership. Mac came to me and said that he wanted to do whatever he’s doing on Highland, and I said sure. Our parting was amicable. I wish him the best of luck with this project.”

Peters hopes to open Bon-Ton by May or June.

“We’re making progress,” he said, “but we’re having to redo a whole lot more than we thought at first and bring it up to code. I don’t know if you’ve been in the restrooms here” – um, no – “but we’re doing a lot of construction and totally upgrading the plumbing.”

The plan is still for breakfast, lunch and dinner in a family-style setting.

“We’ll have a bar, but we’re not after a bar scene or anything like that,” he said. “We see it more as a home-cooking diner where you can get a drink too.”

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