On the site of a building originally intended to serve as a church, Earnestine & Hazel’s may well be the patron saint of dive bars, a Memphis institution opened as a bar in 1992 but living on a history much deeper than its opening date implies. After the would-be-church burned down, a new structure was erected on the same sight in 1918 and converted into a Pantaze Drugstore. The owner of the building, Abe Plough, eventually worked himself into being a multi-millionaire and creator of Coppertone skincare products. Plough’s success inspired him to either sell the building at a low price or give it outright (the history is unclear) to cousins and hairdressers Earnestine Mitchell and Hazel Jones who had been renting out the top floor for their business.
The sale in the 1950s sparked new life for the space on the first floor, reimagined as a jazz club and after-hours bar that benefitted from Mitchell’s husband Sunbeam (real name) who opened up Club Paradise nearby. With a capacity of 3,200 people, Club Paradise was no joke and Sunbeams music connections meant that playing the club was a big deal, drawing names like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry and countless others who would head to Earnestine & Hazel’s after their shows to unwind. It should be mentioned that a brothel was run out of the second floor of the building so unwinding is a loaded term here, but the steady flow of customers and performers from Club Paradise kept the jazz club afloat.
Once the 1970s arrived and downtown Memphis entered a handful of dark decades, the city’s fortunes eventually resulted in the closing of Club Paradise and the reduction of Earnestine & Hazel’s to a smaller set of regulars, some of them still drawn to the space by the brothel upstairs. In 1992, with Earnestine & Hazel both aging (they would eventually pass away in 1998 and 1995 respectively, the building and business were sold to a group that included Russell George, Delmer George and Bud Chittom.
Russell took on much of the management of the space, reopening officially on St. Patrick’s Day 1993 with a new, one-item menu consisting of the Memphis dive bar’s now famous Soul Burger. And Soul Burger is an appropriate name for a space called one of the most haunted dives in the country, the site of 13 known deaths (unfortunately a tally that includes the self-inflicted death of Russell upstairs in 2013). Numerous “ghost hunting” shows and podcasts have visited the Memphis dive bar for that reason. Most stories center on the jukebox playing specific songs at very opportune times, adding to the bar’s haunted reputation.
Ownership eventually fell from Bud Chittom to daughter Caitlin who helped renovate the structure before closing in 2020 due to the global COVID-19 pandemic and ultimately deciding to sell the bar. A new ownership group took over, reopening the space in 2021 again with minor changes, preserving the original charm of the space. Downstairs, live music cycles through a stage in the corner of the space, the weight and history of the building allowed to shine through in the decorations and lack thereof.
Upstairs, in place of the brothel, a second set of rooms is opened on weekend evenings, activity centered around so-called Nate’s Bar, tended to by Nate, once the only place in the joint to get liquor (the first floor used to be beer only but now serves a full bar). Preserved and treated as the Memphis icon that it is, Earnestine & Hazel’s looks remarkably similar to not only its 1992 opening but its decades of operation as sundry store, pharmacy and jazz club, contributing to what is no doubt one of the best dive bar experiences in America.