Diners aren't usually so highfalutin: They're typically known for the greasing of spoons, the slinging of hash, and the kissing of grits. It's not necessarily the kind of place where a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America is in the back preparing herb-infused mashed potatoes. But such is not the case at King Biscuit Diner.
The graduate in question is Paul Willis, chef and part owner of the diner, which opened in December in a Cordova strip mall. Willis admits that the name is a calculated attempt to lower expectations. However, he also maintains that the King Biscuit Diner does indeed share something with the great diners of America: "We offer good-tasting, quality food for an affordable price."
The restaurant also does its best to maintain the impossibly long hours of an all-night diner. They are closed for just four hours, from 3 to 7 a.m.
Despite his established pedigree, Willis, 41, is never too snobby to relate to the tastes of his customers. He was, after all, once the personal chef to would-be everyman, truck-pitching country singer Toby Keith. Of Keith, Willis recalls, "He's the kind of guy who would probably be just as happy with a fried-bologna sandwich, but he does appreciate good food."
Willis owned a number of boutique restaurants in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Willie Nelson and his backing band became regular customers, and Willis was introduced to Keith through Nelson. Willis developed a positive reputation among country recording artists and helped Keith design and create his I Love This Bar restaurants in Oklahoma City and Las Vegas.
Willis soon came into contact with Thomas Pak, 31, a longtime Memphis resident who was born and raised in Hawaii. Though Willis still maintains a residence in the Dallas area, he agreed to move here and help start Swanky's Taco Shop with Pak and several other investors in East Memphis. Willis and Pak then split from Swanky's to start a new place. The pair -- along with Rob Carter, Steve Fleming, and Greg Harper -- decided on the King Biscuit Diner.
The Cordova location was selected because, as Willis says, "The whole area of Cordova has a huge population, but they are underserved in regard to restaurants." Chain restaurants constitute the majority of the culinary landscape in Cordova, so the group created King Biscuit as a way to appeal to as many people as possible.
The popular breakfast, which is served from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., features the hearty staples of a traditional Southern breakfast (including the delicious titular biscuits) with a few twists, like the Migas Con Chorizo and the wickedly enticing Cheesesteak Omelette.
There are, however, some healthier options available, such as a wide selection of smoothies, egg-beaters, fresh fruit, chicken sausage, and turkey bacon. And while it seems that a lot of diners serve weak coffee, Pak made sure that King Biscuit paid attention to that particular detail. "We serve our own blend that is made by a local company, Lambert's."
Other items on the menu are well-served by that careful, deliberate approach. The lasagna, for instance, is a simple dish but is enhanced greatly by the fresh, homemade pasta, and the sandwiches, especially the savory marinated rib-eye, are complemented perfectly with freshly baked bread. And while the menu is mostly up to Willis, Pak did manage to sneak in some items from his birthplace, like the hearty Hawaiian BBQ Beef Rice Bowl.
The interior of King Biscuit Diner is both cozy and cosmopolitan. It's got Wi-Fi, a couple of flat-screen televisions, and an inviting fireplace along one wall. "It's got a lot of character for a restaurant in a strip mall," says Pak.
A little after 9 p.m., one of four DJs begins playing some easygoing music -- Marvin Gaye, Lena Horne, classic Motown hits. Around 10 p.m., the staff rearranges some of the tables, the music becomes louder and more dance-friendly, and King Biscuit transforms into a hip nightclub. They serve food until 2 a.m. and close at 3 a.m.
"We wanted to keep it open for 24 hours, but it takes four hours to clean everything up and get the place ready for the breakfast crowd," says Pak. "Sometimes we have customers who were in here partying at night and then come back the next morning for breakfast and almost don't recognize the place."
King Biscuit Diner, 8050 Dexter Rd., Cordova (754-6344)