The Tennessee Hospitality Association recognized Jeff Messinger, owner of the 55-year-old Mt. Vernon restaurant on Broad Street, as its restaurateur of the year for 2009.
Messinger credited the recognition to his restaurant's legendary amaretto cream pie and his cheerful staff.
"It doesn't appeal to me when people brag about themselves," Messinger said. "So I won't say I'm more capable than anyone else, I've simply been blessed with opportunities."
Messinger and his wife, Cindy, took over the landmark eatery from her parents in 1977. He is the third-generation owner of the restaurant that has served as a gathering place for Chattanooga's movers and shakers since 1955.
Although he started his professional career as a buyer for Lovemans department store, Messinger learned the food business from his wife's parents, E.A. and Helen Evans, a lesson that he jokingly said lasted about 10 years.
"I'm a slow learner," Messinger said, but he added that he discovered how to cherish the basics under their tutelage. "When you try to get too smart and fix what's not broken, it doesn't work out."
What really matters is good old-fashioned customer service, especially during an economic downturn, he noted.
"It all starts with a good attitude. If I have a good attitude, that filters down to the customers," he said. "And we're spoiled with good customers."
Messinger's regular customers are entrepreneurs, politicians and ordinary people who enjoy Southern food with a new American flair, as head chef John Lopopolo refers to the cuisine.
"I'm an Italian chef who was trained as a French chef, but I came here and started cooking Southern," Lopopolo said, before hurrying away to prepare for the 300-customer lunch rush.
Messinger's ultimate goal is to continue serving the food that customers love, while also responding to America's changing tastes for healthier fare. But in the end, he's not out to please everyone.
"We don't want to be so sophisticated that we kill off our roots," he said. "You've got to remember who brought you to the dance."
Greg Adkins, CEO of the Tennessee Hospitality Association, said that despite Messinger's humility, the award is a substantial indication that Mt. Vernon is more than just a simple restaurant with a traditional American theme.
"The award is to recognize a manager who has demonstrated leadership and service in a community, and for outstanding performance for the establishment, the guests and to the community," Adkins said. "It's basically going way above and beyond normal job responsibilities."
Mt. Vernon is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday, and is known for its Southern fried chicken, turkey and dressing, fried green tomatoes and amaretto cream pie.