Weidmann's: Mississippi's Oldest Restaurant
By Brandi Perry
Felix Weidmann, a Swiss immigrant, made his way to America aboard a steamship, whether to New Orleans or Mobile. Probably a chef aboard the vessel, Weidmann knew only one way to make a living, and the newly flourishing city of Meridian was about to give him a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Meridian was established in 1860, at the junction of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad and Southern Railway of Mississippi. It didn't take long for the new Mississippi town to build an economy based on the railways. Due to this, the Lauderdale County seat quickly became a strategic trading center.
Weidmann saw how successful a restaurant could be, so he opened a lunch counter with just four seats directly across from the train station in the Union Hotel in 1870. The individuals traveling by train flocked to his spot and it quickly garnered the nickname of "The Restaurant". Felix experienced great success for 15 years until his death in 1885. His son, Phillip, took over and moved the restaurant to 24th Avenue and 5th Street and changed the name to Taft and Weidmann's.
Many believe that Weidmann's has always been in Downtown Meridian, but that is only partially true. During World War I, Weidmann's actually moved to Hattiesburg for two years to better serve the soldiers stationed at Camp Shelby. Upon its return to the Queen City, the restaurant made its final move and found its permanent and current location at 22nd Avenue in 1923.
Aviation history made its way to Meridian in 1935 when Fred and Al Key broke the endurance flight record with a time of 653 hours and 34 minutes. This record stood until 1973 when it was broken by NASA astronauts. The national attention was not only turned onto the spectacular event, but the restaurant too, as a party held in the Key brothers' honor was hosted there.
The famous peanut butter crocks came into existence in the 1940s when there was a shortage in butter. A guest suggested serving peanut butter and crackers instead and the tradition stuck. Henry Weidmann loved the practice so much that he found a potter in Louisville, Mississippi, to make them. Today, guests can take a crock home with them and they are now made by a local potter.
Even with a storied past and a world-wide reputation, time has not always been good to Weidmann's. The recession in 2010 forced the heavy wooden doors of the historic restaurant to close, hinting at a bleak future. Later that year, Charles Frazier took over the restaurant and just 6 weeks later the doors were opened.
"I had a goal of returning this place to its historic roots, but we had to do it in six weeks. I think we did a good job maintaining the culinary history of the dishes that have been on the menu for a hundred years while also introducing a few classic southern dishes," Frazier said. Even though 150 years have passed since Weidmann's opened their doors, the clientele is still relatively the same. Interstate 59 brings visitors in from all over the world, just like the railroad did and Weidmann's is still serving up the best of the state’s Southern cuisine.
Any visitor to Downtown Meridian has seen the revitalization going on and the new businesses and restaurants popping up throughout the city. "The Riley Center was definitely the genesis for the revitalization in town. But when we came in, revised the menu and increased the foot traffic here, a lot of other people realized that there was something to downtown Meridian. I would like to think that our growth and the growth of the city goes hand in hand," Frazier remarked, "I hope this is a trend that continues for many years."
When asked what legacy he hopes Weidmann's leaves in the community, Frazier didn't hesitate to say, "It's important to understand that I'm just the steward of this incredible piece of history. This community owns this restaurant."
Today, regardless if you order a seafood or fish plate, shrimp and grits or any other dish, there is a good chance that the ingredients were sourced just a few miles from the restaurant.
"We truly believe in all the wonderful things that Mississippi has to offer and we do our best to utilize Mississippi products every chance we get," Frazier remarked while discussing where their milk, grits and honey for the restaurant come from. A huge part of Weidmann's success has been because they embrace every part of the state and the produce and goods found in each region. The restaurant also prides itself on carrying only Mississippi draft beers and being as much of a farm-to-table restaurant as they can, regardless of the season.
Weidmann's longevity is just a small part of what makes the restaurant so special. Through the years, the restaurant has been featured in more books, magazines, cookbooks and television shows than one could actively count. Each piece continued to solidify Weidmann's place in not only Mississippi's restaurant history, but in the rich culinary history of the south.
Weidmann's should be on every Mississippian's culinary bucket list. There's definitely a sense of stepping back in time when you enter the restaurant and the wall of celebrities that have eaten here is further proof of Weidmann's world-wide reputation. Frazier and his staff practice a hands-on approach and because of that, guests not only feel honored to have enjoyed a meal in the historic space, but they also feel as though they were the most important guest in the building at the time. Such characteristics are why Weidmann's will be around another 150 years.
There are several things you need to look for when you make the trek to Meridian. One such thing is the possible event taking place within the restaurant if you visit on a Friday. The Lacy Bottom Chowder and Marching Club has been meeting every Friday for lunch for more than 40 years. Even though several of the famed story tellers have passed on, there are still a few that keep the tradition alive. One likes to share the story of the late Mississippi State Senator and U.S. Congressman Sonny Montgomery. Even during the busiest part of his life as a politician, he still made time to meet his friends for lunch on Friday's. The story goes that on more than one occasion, Montgomery was interrupted during lunch at Weidmann's by a phone call from President Lyndon B. Johnson.
When it comes to the menu, there are so many long-lasting recipes that still amass a lot of attention. The steak, pasta and seafood dishes are freshly prepared and the shrimp and grits may be the best you will find in the entire state. But, if you have room left for dessert at the end of your meal, there are so many choices of homemade delicacies that you simply cannot go wrong. However, their world-famous black bottom pie is an absolute must. Tracing its history back to the 1940s, the recipe hasn't changed and still offers visitors a sweet surprise with a classic chocolate bottom and a heavy dose of homemade meringue. The historic sweet is topped off with chocolate shavings to bring the dessert together and deliver a spectacular flavor and texture.
A trip to Weidmann's and Downtown Meridian should be on everyone's list. You may come in as guests, but you will leave as part of Weidmann's family.
Learn more at www.weidmanns1870.com.