A Soulsville USA tradition, the Four Way Restaurant has served some of the city’s best soul food for decades.
Walking through the front door of the Four Way Restaurant is akin to entering a museum dedicated to the history of Memphis' oldest soul food restaurant.
Each wall is covered in photographs and news clippings, detailing the family members who have served up meals throughout the years and celebrities and community members who have eaten there.
Opened in 1946 under the name The Four Way Grill, it was a quarter of its current size. When Willie Earl Bates bought the building in 2001 with a friend, he spent a year renovating it and combining four separate business spaces into one to create the Four Way Restaurant. Bates said the he grew up in Soulsville USA and wanted to stay there because of the community.
"It's a very loving community, individuals here help one another and look out for each other," he said.
The original owner of the Four Way worked as Boss E.H. Crump's chauffeur. Bates said there are multiple accounts of that relationship helping to protect the restaurant in the early days.
He recounted a story that was shared with him, the accuracy of which is unclear, about a policeman who was harassing the restaurant by going in and turning off the jukebox. The story goes on to tell how the officer found out the Four Way was connected to Boss Crump and returned to load up the juke box with enough coins to last the whole day.
The previous owners are not the only people of note in the history of the Four Way; numerous celebrities, politicians, musicians and athletes from all across the county have stopped by for a meal.
Martin Luther King Jr. ate at the Four Way on his fateful visit to the city in 1968 when he was assassinated. Don King, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Jesse Jackson, B. B. King, Penny Hardaway and many more have enjoyed southern cuisine in the heart of Soulsville. Sitting at a table in the Four Way, customers can see plenty of photos chronicling guests of all kinds.
The walls are not only adorned with celebrities, but also community leaders and family members. Bates said the Soulsville community has a very strong support system and he was quick to mention those that have helped him along the way, including his family.
For 13 years the Four Way has been operated as a family restaurant by Willie Earl Bates, but guests might notice some changes soon. Recently Bates' daughter, Patrice Bates Thompson, took over the management of the business.
"What is needed here at the Four Way is a determined, committed, hardworking person with insight. I can't think of a better person to take on this challenge and to continue the journey than Patrice," said Bates.
Thompson is not a newcomer to the restaurant or the neighborhood. She's stepping down from an office manager position at a Soulsville USA neighborhood church to take on the role that her father has played for over a decade.
"I'm very excited," Patrice said when asked how she was feeling about the change. "It's bittersweet because I have been planning things for years with my older brother when this time came but he passed away in 2013. I know he's looking down on me, encouraging me right now though."
The history of the restaurant that her father is so proud of has been passed to her and Thompson looks forward to bringing the Four Way even further. She said that one thing she really wants to see is the revitalization of the area, especially the businesses, to help the community.
"Things were picking up there for a while and changing but then the community started stagnating. There are already a few businesses popping up here and there but I want more to move to the area."
Thompson said to look for a few changes at the Four Way now that it's under her management. She wants to make some additions to the menu, including adding some healthier options and more variety in the form of a daily special. To Thompson the main focus is not on changing what is set but in maintaining consistent quality of food and service.
"I want my customers to have good service every day, all the time, that's my number one goal," Thompson said.
Thompson relies on her family to assist with the restaurant. The family ties at the Four Way Restaurant are hardy; Thompson, her parents, her children and several cousins work there day to day.
"We're a family and we love helping each other out," said Thompson. "Everyone that works here loves it."
The Bates family has given a lot to their community, and they believe in Soulsville USA. Bates senses good things for the area his family calls home, "I see change happening right before my eyes. It has been delayed for too long."
The Four Way Restaurant is located at the corner of Mississippi Boulevard and Walker Street in Soulsville USA.