Although I'd say many longtime Chattanoogans are familiar with Bea's Restaurant, its location is a bit out of the way for tourists. So, if you haven't been, is it really worth it? Is all the good buzz swarming around Bea's down-home Southern cooking legit?
4500 Dodds Ave.
Chattanooga, TN 37407
11 a.m.-8 p.m.
An epic dining experience: world-class service, décor and menu options.
A superior dining experience: high-quality attributes you'll want to come back for again and again.
A solid dining experience: great characteristics but also some minor issues.
A mediocre dining experience: may have a few good highlights but major flaws.
A terrible dining experience: stay far away unless it's the only place left to eat to avoid starvation, and even then, question if it's worth it.
The original queen bee of Bea's, Beatrice Steele, founded the restaurant in 1950 along with her husband, Bill, and this family-owned establishment has been passed down through four generations. I roamed in last Friday night to see if they were maintaining Bea's established hive.
Atmosphere and service
The restaurant was packed when I walked in, with the workers busily buzzing around stocking up the Lazy Susan stations on the tables—and calling people "honey" in true Southern charm. The Lazy Susan spinning platform is used as an all-you-can-eat buffet at the center of each large table ($12.50 per person), and it is an interesting experience, to say the least.
On this occasion, my party and I had a table to ourselves, but on previous visits, I've been seated with other people. My first Bea's experience a few years ago was highlighted by an older guy telling us some elaborate, outlandish life stories. The. Entire. Meal. Although I didn't mind much because I like listening to older folks talking about their lives, the prospect of sharing a table with strangers could be bothersome for people who like to keep to themselves.
The menu rotates each day to different dishes on the Lazy Susan, and the servers come around and refill the dishes as needed. Water, strongly sweetened tea pitchers and coffee are included with the meal, and a soda machine in the front offers $1 "Cokes" (as we in the South call it, no matter what soda it is, even though this happened to be a Pepsi machine). My server was pleasant and constantly checked on the station, but with only two of us DJ-ing this massive turntable, we didn't need much help.
The interior was lackluster, with boring brown walls and low ceilings. There really wasn't any decoration at all, other than the centerpiece Lazy Susans (with glass shields so high up they wouldn't do much good unless you were dining with sneezing giants). So, without further ado, let's give one a spin and check out the dishes, shall we?
The first item I sampled was their trademark fried chicken, and the pieces consisted of only breast meat. The meat was juicy, and the spices in the breading had a good, savory flavor. Although many people have said that Bea's fried chicken is "the best in the city," I wouldn't go that far, but it is very good fried chicken. It has a distinctive flavor that also packs a lot of nostalgia for many longtime Chattanoogans.
For this Friday menu, they also had fried catfish (although the concept of serving fish on Fridays has roots in Catholicism during Lent, it has also become a year-round secular tradition in many restaurants). While I liked the fried chicken, I actually enjoyed this moist catfish even more.
The fried breading on both the catfish and chicken was certainly on the greasy side, but not overly so. You aren't coming to a Southern buffet like this—where you don't even have to get up from your seat to fill up your plate—to eat healthy, anyway.
The hand-pulled pork barbecue was heavily coated in a very sweet barbecue sauce. It was OK, but certainly my least favorite of the meat dishes. The warm, soft yeast rolls served with the meal also doubled as a good housing to make a little barbecue sandwich with this pork, balancing out the sweetness of the sauce. And although I enjoyed the yeast roll, I wasn't crazy about the cornbread muffin, which was a bit dry for my liking—but most cornbread usually is for me.
In my march of the starches, the mac and cheese was smothered in a sharp Velveeta-style cheese sauce and was a down-home, belt-loosening, good comfort food dish. Mac and cheese like this is a guilty pleasure of mine—I grabbed a second helping.
I then ventured to the potato starches, beginning with the new potatoes in a white cream sauce. These whole peeled potatoes were boiled to a perfectly soft consistency, and the buttery cream sauce was very lightly seasoned. The seasoning in the potato salad was much more intense, with the mustard, black pepper and onion giving it a very strong bite.
The coleslaw was extremely heavy on the mayo, and I didn't care for it much, but I don't generally like most coleslaws done in this style, anyway. The pinto beans were straightforward and enjoyable. With the light seasoning on most of the dishes, the middle of the Lazy Susan had a host of sauces and condiments—including chow-chow—to jazz things up however one would fancy.
As the server saw we were getting close to finishing up, she brought out a blueberry cobbler. This steaming-hot cobbler was fantastic, with the sweet, molten blueberry sauce decimating the pastry dough into ooey, gooey goodness. I also tried their banana pudding, which was thick and creamy and loaded with bananas and vanilla wafers. So many banana puddings become a runny mush, but this delightfully chunky one was mighty fine.
I am giving Bea's Restaurant 2 stars. The novelty of the Lazy Susan is a neat experience—unless you are a complete introvert—and the food is above average for a home-cooked, buffet-style meal with some major high points. Bea's has been a historical institution of Chattanooga Southern dining for many years and is certainly worth a visit, but it is a bit on the pricey side.
Roman Flis is a wandering writer, focusing on Chattanooga's food scene. You can find him at romanflis.com or on Facebook and Twitter, or you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.