Okay, I’m not going to lie. I was a little bit grumpy about going here. The thing is….the last time we went we didn’t like it. It was five or six (or maybe even more) years ago and I don’t really remember what it was that we didn’t like but we didn’t. When family is in town, though, you have to go with majority rules, and since I couldn’t think of anywhere that I thought everyone would be happy with we just went. And it was all good, because whatever was the problem last time apparently wasn’t an issue this time. Hmmmm.
Bea’s is a Chattanooga institution. Located on Dodds Avenue (wayyyyyy downtown), it’s been around since the fifties, when an all-you-can-eat meal was $0.75. I didn’t catch the cost this time around since my parents were paying…but it was more than that.
The concept at Bea’s is likely quite different than what you have encountered at other restaurants. It’s all you can eat, sure, but there’s a limited menu. That is, it isn’t a buffet…you don’t get a tray and walk through a line. Instead, you sit at a round table with a lazy Susan in the middle. Your server brings out baskets and bowls of food-whatever is being served up that day-and places them on the lazy Susan, along with sweet tea and water and various “extras” like pickled beets, onions, and some relishy stuff that I didn’t recognize (chow-chow perhaps?). Here’s the catch: depending on how many people are in your party and how crowded they are, you may end up sitting with people you don’t know. This is not our idea of a good time (I haven’t made a secret of this in the past: we avoid Ichiban unless we are with a large group for this exact reason) but luckily (a) it wasn’t crowded; and (b) we were with a large group, so we did not have to sit with strangers.
Please forgive me for the terrible, blurry photos. The lighting was NOT good!
Today’s meats were fried chicken (famous city-wide and served every day) and barbecue. The chicken was quite tasty today, hot but not burn-your-mouth hot, crispy, and seasoned just right. My picky-eater 7-year-old nephew gnawed two pieces of chicken till he got every bit of the meat and coating off of them. The barbecue was not quite as attractive….a reddish color, very sweet. Philip said it reminded him of something you might get in school cafeteria, although he did comment that he liked that there was just a hint of spice to it. There was also chicken and dumplings, southern-style (flat dumplings, very thick gravy-like sauce, and shredded chicken mixed it). I liked the chicken and dumplings a lot, though the sauce was thicker than what my mom, my sister, or I make (my gold standard…I’ll share that recipe sometime).
The vegetables were new potatoes, fried okra, coleslaw, potato salad, and pinto beans. I don’t typically eat potato salad, so I have no comment on it. It just isn’t my thing. I also didn’t try the coleslaw….my mom liked it, but Philip felt like it needed “something”. The new potatoes needed some salt but didn’t have a bad flavor. We ate about three dishes of fried okra. I couldn’t decide if the okra was made there or frozen. It had the thick “jacket” coating which usually means it was previously frozen, but I can never tell because maybe other people know how to get that thick coating on their okra (?). I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I like fried okra whether it’s freshly made or frozen. So shoot me. The pinto beans were quite good, well-seasoned and just the right texture (not hard but not mushy). Often pinto beans served in restaurants are virtually tasteless. These were great.
As far as bread, they serve rolls and cornbread muffins. The rolls were extremely buttery (or maybe margarine-y, since there was Land O’Lakes buttery spread on the table…..waaaaaaahhhhhhh) and I am guessing they are probably packaged. The cornbread was southerny (that is, not sweet), which we appreciated….while we will eat sweet cornbread if it is all that’s available, I personally would rather stab myself in the eye than add sugar to my cornbread. It wasn’t as tender as my cornbread, though. You can’t have it all. I did enjoy the cornbread crumbled on top of a little bowl of beans (pinto beans & cornbread is an “easy” meal in my house, one that I plan for those days when I know I’m going to have too much going on to have any inclination to really cook anything).
There’s one dessert on the menu each day at Bea’s. For this day, it was peach cobbler, which was basically canned peaches swimming in a thick topping. That sounds like a slam, but it isn’t. My mom makes her peach cobbler like that (except that her topping is thicker…theirs was a bit liquid-y) and it’s definitely a comfort food for me (except that she always serves ice cream with it, so this felt incomplete). It was very, very sweet (as was the tea) and Philip and I were definitely having a sugar crash on the way home. The sweetness didn’t stop us from each eating two of the little bowls of it, though.
So, here’s the verdict. Bea’s isn’t a high culinary experience. I am sure that many foodies (you know how much I love that word) would shun them for their cuisine. Like I said, though, it’s a Chattanooga institution. The fried chicken is crispy, the tea is sweet, and the staff is very, very friendly. Our server was so nice, and the cashier was joking with my mom as he ran her card. It’s hard to get a table some nights. It’s been around forever, and it’s not going anywhere soon. The delivery of the food is definitely different…good or bad, that’s up to you and your personal feelings about it. Since I was dining with family, I was okay with it.
Bea’s is located at 4500 Dodds Avenue, Chattanooga, TN 37407. You can call them at 423-867-3618.