The iconic Four Way restaurant was still this week. The normally crowded parking lot was empty as the eatery closed to mark the passing of Jo Ellen Bates, 74. Daughter, Patrice Bates Thompson, broke the news of her mother’s passing on social media.
“I tried to make you laugh,” Thompson wrote, “but I knew you were hurting inside…I won’t be sad because you have made me who I am.”
Mrs. Bates passed from an extended illness. She and husband, Willie Earl Bates, bought the Four Way Grill in 2001, returning the historic eatery at Mississippi Boulevard and Walker Avenue to its former glory. Mr. Bates passed in 2016. Thompson has been managing the restaurant since her mother’s illness, and made the decision to close in tribute to her mother.
Four Way Grill opened in 1946 by owners, Clint and Irene Cleaves. Those early days were meager, a pool hall with only a couple of tables for serving food. In time, word of mouth billed the spot as cooking the best soul food in the city. Four Way was a favorite spot of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he came to Memphis. It was widely known that Dr. King was partial to the fried catfish, fried chicken and peach cobbler.
Clint Cleaves was the chauffeur of “Boss” E.H. Crump. He passed away in the early 1970s, and Mrs. Cleaves continued the restaurant’s success until illness prevented her in 1998. When she passed in 1999, Four Way Grill closed for approximately two years.
Willie Earl and Jo Ellen Bates purchased the business in 2001, along with business partner Tyrone Burroughs, for the sale price of $70,000. Bates and Burroughs comprised “B & B Associates.” The business partners kept the establishment closed for renovations until August of 2002 when the couple hosted a grand re-opening of the restaurant. With long hours and lots of hard work, the Four Way quickly regained the reputation for having the best home-cooked food to be found anywhere.
Mrs. Bates’ death closes a memorable chapter of the historic landmark.
Final services are set as follows: A visitation is scheduled for Friday, June 14, at Metropolitan Baptist Church, 767 Walker Avenue, from 4 p.m. until 7 p.m. Saturday, June 15, a funeral service is slated for 11 a.m. Four Way will remain closed through Sunday, June 16. The family will then announce reopening plans and hours of operation.