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Sunday, May 18, 2008

John George Morris and the Riviera Grill

Posted By on Sun, May 18, 2008 at 9:07 PM

faa7/1243822009-rivieragrill1.jpg In the April issue of Memphis magazine, I told the interesting story of John George Morris, who opened a restaurant on Poplar called “The Old Master Says” and even planned on topping the building with a 14-foot replica of his own head. Oh, just read the column; don’t make me repeat the whole story here.

Anyway, I had expressed some doubt that the plaster head was ever installed atop the restaurant (since none of my friends can recall such a sight), and I also had a few other questions about this short-lived venture. So I few days ago, a nice packet of materials arrived in the mail from George J. Morris, attorney-at-law in Charleston, South Carolina, who just happened to be John George Morris’ son and had read my original article.

Though he is still searching for a photograph, the younger Morris assures me that the giant head was indeed placed atop “The Old Master Says” restaurant, an establishment which, in later years, became home to the Dobbs House Luau. He also says the restaurant stayed in business for several years longer than I said it did, though I believe Memphis city directories listed “The Old Master Says” for only two years. Still, I believe he knows what he is talking about, so it is possible that Dobbs House, which is shown in later listings, continued to operate the restaurant until they finally converted it into the Polynesian-themed Luau (which had its own giant head — an Easter Island-styled one) by the front door.

In the April column, I also casually mentioned one of Morris’ other restaurant ventures, a place on Jackson called the Riviera Grille, and his son tells me that was actually a very successful establishment. He sent along quite a few photos of the place (above and below), and it was considerably swankier than I ever imagined. Just look at that fabulous neon sign, which (if you look very closely) also has the slogan “The Old Master Says,” which Morris tells me his father actually copyrighted. I’ve posted some other photos of the place below; you can click on any of them to enlarge the image slightly. The Riviera Grill was located at Jackson and North Watkins; there’s not a trace of the building today.

His son also told me this in his letter: “As I stated, other than his restaurant ventures, my father was the first Greek-American lawyer in Memphis, and probably the first in the state of Tennessee, having been admitted to the bar on September 15, 1934. He practiced law with a noted criminal lawyer in Memphis named A.B. Galloway. He married Margaret Gazes Morris of Charleston, South Carolina, who was the first Greek-American schoolteacher to teach in the Charleston public schools. Both of my parents were born in this country — my father in Memphis in 1911 and my mother in Sumter, South Carolina. My father passed away at age 50 from heart failure, not long after we moved to Charleston. He also practiced law here for a short time prior to his death.”

George J. Morris concludes his letter by observing that his father “was truly a colorful, dynamic, and unforgettable individual.” I certainly agree.

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