Greg Tucker, Murfreesboro Post, November 8, 2014
Two years after the first City Café closed, a former competitor claimed the name.
The origins of Cantrell’s Restaurant, later known as the City Café, are unclear, but deed records confirm that it was operating in 1920 at 11 South Side Public Square in Murfreesboro. As far as can be documented, the Cantrell family from the Salem community in Rutherford County started the restaurant in a storefront owned by the Spence heirs.
(For almost 150 years, most of the south side of the courthouse Square was owned by Spence family descendants. These holdings originally extended from the corner of Church Street west at least to what is now 21 South Side and south to West Vine Street. In 1933, the Spence heirs transferred these properties to the Spence Estate Co. Within the last decade what remained of the South Side properties were sold out of the Spence Estate, but Spence descendants still control several properties on South Church and East Vine.)
In the 1920s, Henry and Dorsey Cantrell operated Cantrell’s Restaurant and the Salem Pike Dairy. They hauled raw milk to the back door of their restaurant. The milk was processed and bottled upstairs over the restaurant.
In the early 1930s Henry and the milk bottling moved to a facility on College Street, leaving the South Side restaurant to Dorsey and Tom Funk. (In addition to the restaurant on the square in the early 1930s, there was Cantrell’s Little Café at 119 West College, possibly managed by Henry Cantrell.)
Attempting a connection between the county’s leading industry and the South Side restaurant, the name was changed from Cantrell’s Restaurant to “City Café” and promoted as “Rutherford County’s Pride…City (calf) A”. The upstairs became a gambling and drinking venue. “We never went upstairs,” notes John Womack, one of many who enjoyed a sandwich at the City Café in the prewar years.
In July 1936, George Snow, Albert Dubois and several others were gaming above the café. Patsy Henson remembers that her uncle (Snow) was a skilled gambler and that he was said to be winning big on the evening of July 12, 1936.
“Uncle George left the game for a break and Dubois followed him out,” recounts Henson. According to newspaper accounts, a “cutting fray” resulted and Snow was mortally wounded. Dubois was eventually convicted of manslaughter and served 14 months of a 10-year sentence.
It was also in 1936 that the City Café hired its first waitresses— sisters Audie and Sara Overall and Peggy Brown. (In prior years, Cantrell relatives filled the waiter ranks.) Billy Henson, son of Sara Overall Henson, remembers that his Aunt Audie married Ben Tarpley, another City Café employee. “My mother and Aunt Audie always spoke fondly of their employer ‘Uncle Dossie,'” recalls Henson.
The City Café had about two dozen competitors on and around the Square during the years before World War II. Most of these avoided the “upstairs activity” that was characteristic of the Cantrell establishment. Notably popular in the late 1930s were Andrew’s Café on East Main, restaurants operated by Sam and John DeGeorge around the square, the “coffee shoppe” run by Kenneth and Bessie Shipp, Lamb’s Café and McKnight’s Sandwich Shop.
In the mid-1940s a local newspaper reported that Cantrell sold his business to Manley Brothers. (Dorsey Cantrell died in 1949 at the age of 70.)
In 1947 C. L. Hall purchased the business from Brothers, but traded it within a year. According to the Rutherford Courier (April 16, 1948): “Lester Mason, former farmer in the Mona community, is the new owner of the City Café on the Public Square here, having acquired the business this week from C.L. Hall, the former owner. Mason swapped his farm at Mona for the café, it was announced.”
Despite Mason’s restaurant experience while living “in the North,” his café business did not prosper. For by 1950 the City Café was again owned and managed by Hall with a new partner from the insurance and real estate industry, Sewell Manley. Within a year, however, Hall closed the café and terminated the lease on the South Side address.
With only two restaurants left on the square in 1952 (the relatively new L&M Café started by Lytle and Marguerite Arnette at 125 South Church and DeGeorge’s promising “spaghetti and meat balls every Tuesday”), casual dining was centered on the north side of the 100 block of East Main: Andrew’s Café at 107 East Main, Kenneth’s Snack Shop (Bessie Shipp owner) at 113 East Main, DeGeorge’s Soda Shop at 121 East Main, and Cook’s Café around the corner at 108 North Spring Street.
Andrew Tamburo, an Italian immigrant, opened Andrew’s Café at 121 East Main in or about 1924. In the mid-1930s this successful enterprise moved to 107 East Main. In 1954, after three decades as Andrew’s Café, Tamburo changed the name of his restaurant. He took what was then an unused and unclaimed name—City Café!
In 1956 after Tamburo’s death, the new City Café was operated by Pauline McKnight. In the same year the Shipps’ restaurant moved across the street and became Shipp’s Wagon Wheel Café. (Many still believe that during this period “Mrs. Shipp had the best food in town.”)
Ernest and Ethel Watson took over the City Café in 1958 while the former Shipps’ location at 113 East Main became Pat & Mike’s Café operated by A. J. and Mildred Warnke. Shipp’s tenure as a local favorite ended in 1964 when the Wagon Wheel Restaurant was taken over by Raymond Lowery.
The Watsons’ 23 years with the City Café at 107 East Main ended in 1981 when Frank and Helen Cooper acquired the business. The Coopers were succeeded in 1986 by Gary and Pat Simpson who moved the restaurant to its current address, 113 East Main (the former Shipps’ location).
“Our landlady at 107 East Main, Steffanino Tamburo, was not willing to make some much needed renovations,” explains Gary Simpson. “So in 1992 I bought the two buildings at 111 and 113 East Main and moved the restaurant.” The move almost doubled the restaurant capacity.
“We had a number of ‘long table’ regulars,” remembers Simpson. “I can’t remember all the names, but among those we served almost every day were Nelson Smotherman, Jim Averitt, Bill Nelms, Marvin Briley, Herschel Mullins, David Loughry, Norris Lovvorn and Jim Laughlin.”
For health reasons, the Simpsons sold the business and property to Scott Perkins, a Riverdale High School graduate, in 2007. “I think Scarlett Jones, Perkins fiancee, took over management of the restaurant,” recalls Simpson. According to the Daily News Journal (Oct. 2, 2014), Rusty and Cindy Perkins “took over in 2012” when their son Scott “ran into tax problems.” The Perkins sold the business to Tammy Greer and Teresa Kellogg effective Oct. 1, 2014.