Felix Weidmann came to the United States in 1868 from Zurich, Switzerland, arriving in Mobile, Alabama, aboard an ocean liner on which he served as chef. He and his wife, Clara, a native of Bavaria, settled in Meridian a year later and sold produce in Chimneyville. In 1870 they opened a four-stool café, European House, in the Union Hotel on what was then Hale Street (now 22nd Avenue). The Weidmanns moved the restaurant to the corner of Hale and Front Streets in 1884, expanding to include the thirty-six-room International Hotel. When Felix Weidmann died in 1885, the hotel closed and his son, Phillip, took over the restaurant.
A skilled baseball player and bricklayer, Phillip had an eye for innovation, changing locations and shifting food options. He moved the restaurant to the corner of 24th Avenue and 5th Street and renamed it Taft and Weidmann, maintaining a coffee shop atmosphere. Phillip then launched Weidmann’s Delicatessen opposite the Grand Opera on 5th Street. He employed European pastry makers, whose chocolate éclairs became popular afternoon treats for workers on break. Patrons also enjoyed the oyster loaf—a crusty loaf of bread with the insides scooped out, toasted, and filled with fried oysters topped with celery and pickles. Phillip enlarged the business in the early twentieth century, opening an eatery in Hattiesburg to cater to the soldiers stationed at Camp Shelby during World War I as well as a nightclub, the Egyptian Room, and a Chinese restaurant. Weidmann’s moved to its present location on 22nd Avenue in 1923.
Phillip died in 1927 and was succeeded by his son, Henry, who developed what have become the restaurant’s familiar specialties, including black bottom pie and garlic boiled shrimp. During World War II Henry Weidmann replaced the butter on dining tables with homemade peanut butter; when he tried to return to using butter after the war, customers demanded that the peanut butter remain. Henry also began displaying pictures of famous visitors and local personalities, keeping a special section for photographs of Meridianites who died in World War II. He brought in a treasure chest filled with candy and small prizes, allowing children to select from the box after finishing their meals. The restaurant’s long counter and dining room expanded to include two more dining rooms under Henry’s tenure, and by the 1950s the restaurant could seat up to two hundred people. Until Henry’s death in 1956, Weidmann’s stayed open twenty-four hours a day.
Henry’s daughter, Dorothy Weidmann, presided over the restaurant after his death. Weidmann’s continued to serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner but no longer stayed open around the clock. The restaurant employed black waiters but like other public establishments throughout the South did not admit African American patrons, and in 1965 the US Justice Department sued Weidmann’s and other Meridian restaurants for failing to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Rather than fight the suit, Weidmann’s and twelve other eateries announced that they would integrate. After Mississippi repealed statewide Prohibition in 1966, the restaurant added a bar.
Former Mississippi State University football star Tom “Shorty” McWilliams, whose wife, Gloria Weidmann McWilliams, was the great-granddaughter of Felix Weidmann, bought the restaurant in 1967. McWilliams’s celebrity attracted more attention and added to the collection of photographs on the walls. His daughter,
Gloria Chancellor, and her husband, Poo, controlled the restaurant from 1989 to 2001, when they sold Weidmann’s to a group of local investors. While the building was under renovation in February 2002, Weidmann’s new owners sold off much of the restaurant’s interior, including kitchenware, waiters’ jackets, photographs, menus, and furniture. Nostalgic patrons snapped up peanut butter crocks for forty dollars each.
After being closed for more than a year, the new Weidmann’s opened on 31 December 2002 under the management of Nick Apostle, owner of a Jackson restaurant, Nick’s. About one hundred photographs from the old main dining room were moved to a new bar upstairs, but the rest of the interior was gutted and the menu was overhauled to feature more upscale entrees and wine selections. In addition, Weidmann’s no longer offered lunch. The restaurant failed to attract the following of its predecessor, and in September 2004, Apostle decided to focus on his Jackson establishment and sold the operation to general manager Willie McGehee. Under McGehee, the restaurant became profitable for a time, but by 2009 the economic downturn that had started two years earlier had taken a severe toll. Despite a campaign by the Alliance for Downtown Meridian to save the restaurant, it closed on 17 April 2010.
Just three months later, Weidmann’s reopened under the ownership of Charles Frazier, who sought to restore many of the features of the original Weidmann’s that had been lost with the renovation, including the peanut butter jars, the photographs, and the treasure chest. He also restored many dishes from the original menu, again began serving lunch, and rehired some employees from the old Weidmann’s, creating an atmosphere of familiarity that diners have welcomed.
Carter Dalton Lyon
St. Mary’s Episcopal School, Memphis, Tennessee
Chris Allen Baker, Meridian Star (24 February 2002); Jennifer Jacob Brown, Meridian Star (2 May 2010); Lindsey Brown, WTOK Television website (2 August 2010), http://www.wtok.com/news; Tametria Conner, WTOK Television website (18 April 2009), http://www.wtok.com/news; “Meridian Cafes to Integrate,” New York Times (1 May 1965); Mississippi Business Journal (5 May 1997, 9 July, 17 December 2001, 2 February 2003); Jack Shank, Meridian: The Queen with a Past (1985); Stan Torgerson, WTOK Television website (27 September 2004), http://www.wtok.com/news; Mary Dorothy Weidmann, The Restaurant, Weidmann’s: Since 1870 (1970).