Reports of the demise of Willie Moore's Family Restaurant have been greatly exaggerated.
So Willie Moore's, long a soul food institution on Third Street in South Memphis, burned early this year. It closed, and it wasn't clear for a bit whether it would reopen.
But in March, Willie Moore's moved to the former Leonard's space on North Main, and it's been serving up homestyle meats and vegetables since then.
And while the address is the new one at urbanspoon.com, there's a red banner across the top reading "Sorry, Willie
Moore's is closed." Truth-o-meter: Willie Moore's is open, serving lunch every day except Saturday.
The food is still good, still simple, stick-to-your-ribs grub. It's likely a good move, because there's been a steady flow of diners coming through both times I've been. The old place would've seen little foot traffic, and a lunch business in Downtown is all about the passersby.
But the great vibe of the old place -- dark walls, red leatherette chairs and a jukebox that was always playing -- is gone.
The new place looks just like the old Leonard's. Food is served cafeteria style ("We're like a Piccadilly now," Moore said), but the steam pans are fairly small, and there's a brisk enough business to keep food turning over (with the possible exception of the liver and onions, which seemed to languish).
A meat and two vegetables, with your choice of cornbread or a roll, is $7.99, and portions are enormous.
The meat is served on a plate by itself, and vegetables in small bowls on the side. On my first visit, a man in line before me ordered ribs. They were cooked down in sauce, and smelled divine. I watched as the server piled a plate with not one, two or even three, but four sections of ribs. They were small, perhaps as few as four bones, maybe as many as six, and there was a good deal of exposed bone. But still. The portion was huge.
I'm sorry to say that I didn't try those ribs, which I planned to do on my second visit. The menu varies, though, and there were no ribs that day.
It's interesting that Willie Moore's restaurant is more about the meat than the sides. Most homestyle or soul food restaurants load up our plates with vegetables, and we do love our Southern-style sides. Here the meats stand out for more than the portion size. The fried chicken is a solid example of plain old good chicken. It's crisp, appropriately salty, but not spicy -- there's no gimmick to it.
You get three pieces when you order dark meat, which is a lot of food. But the two-piece order of white meat delivers a wing and a freakishly large breast. Somehow, the kitchen manages to cook it so that it's tender and moist despite the size.
Salmon patties are large and hearty, with a thick but crisp crust. These are a large departure from the typical salmon croquette that has only the barest crunch to the outside. They come two to an order, and we found them delicious, though a coworker said she tried them and they were very salty.
I wouldn't typically report on someone else's experience, but this is worth mentioning as the same thing happened to me with the green beans.
These seem to be canned -- they're the typical cut green beans that you find in dozens of places. But they were tasty the first time we ordered them, seasoned liberally with red pepper. I liked the flavor so much I encouraged a friend to try them the second time, and they were very salty.
The smothered pork chop brought up a discussion of country fried steak versus chicken fried steak. The pork chop, which was excellent, was prepared in what most agree is the country fried method: Dredged and fried, then simmered in gravy.
It sprawled over the plate, was fork tender, and was thoroughly satisfying.
Greens are good and not as smoky as I recall them being at the former place. They call the corn "fried," but it's buttery and thick, more like creamed corn. It's slightly sweet and very good.
Willie Moore's isn't the same -- that much is true. The old place was a treasure, and it's gone. The food is about the same, though. There seems to be less emphasis on pig parts (Moore said he'd like to start serving chitterlings again, but in consideration of his neighbors he hasn't) and more daily variety. At least a half-dozen meat selections were available at both visits.
Willie Moore's is open, the food is good, the people are as friendly as ever, and folks are eating there.
--Jennifer Biggs: (901) 529-5223
Willie Moore's family Restaurant
Address: 109 N. Main.
Telephone: (901) 521-4674
Hours: Open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday.
Reviewer's choices: Smothered pork chops, fried chicken, salmon patties, creamed corn, pinto beans. Plates lunches are $7.99 for a meat, two vegetables and bread.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars