Remember When, Chattanooga? A Broad Street restaurant let customers set prices

News-Free Press archive photo via ChattanoogaHistory.com / The Drake Restaurant on South Broad Street is pictured in this 1954 newspaper photo. The restaurant was attached to the Drake Hotel Motor Court, a popular 20th century stop for visitors to Lookout Mountain attractions.
News-Free Press archive photo via ChattanoogaHistory.com / The Drake Restaurant on South Broad Street is pictured in this 1954 newspaper photo. The restaurant was attached to the Drake Hotel Motor Court, a popular 20th century stop for visitors to Lookout Mountain attractions.

Time was, the Drake Hotel Courts and Restaurant on South Broad Street was a popular stop for overnight tourists visiting Lookout Mountain attractions such as Rock City and Ruby Falls.

The 72-room motor inn at the foot of Lookout Mountain opened in 1954 and hearkens to a pre-interstate era when state roads and United States highways were major tourist arteries.

The accompanying 1954 photo of the Drake Restaurant, at 3515 S. Broad St., is from the News-Free Press photo archives and is catalogued at ChattanoogaHistory.com, a local history website.

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When it opened, the Drake Restaurant offered one of the most novel pricing strategies ever attempted in Chattanooga: It allowed customers to pay whatever they thought was fair for meals. A Dec. 16, 1954, article in the Chattanooga Times was headlined: "Fixed Prices Dropped at Drake Restaurant." The article noted: "Drake Hotel Court Restaurant has inaugurated a new polity under which diners pay what they think they should for their meals."

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The newspaper reported the Drake management had menus printed without prices. Meanwhile, a Drake restaurant manager was quoted as saying, "It's new. It's different. There's no charge for our food. If you enjoyed it and it was good, you pay what you think you should." A few days later, the newspaper reported the restaurant management was "impressed with the results" of the experiment.

Interestingly, the Drake had a reputation for international cuisine, especially German and Chinese dishes, according to various news reports. Its chef, for a time, was Leo Holtz, a naturalized U.S. citizen who immigrated from Germany. According to the newspaper report, "He jumped a German ship to come to the United States in 1933." An article said Holtz had previously been a chef at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.

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At some point, the Drake Restaurant re-instituted traditional pricing. A 1967 newspaper ad noted a Southern fried chicken dinner was $1.45, a roast beef au jus dinner was $1.55 and a meatloaf dinner was $1.45. In the 1960s, the restaurant billed itself as "featuring the finest chicken, seafood and char-broiled steaks." Live organ and piano music was part of the ambiance of establishment.

The restaurant's Carousel Room, which seated up to 100 people, was often the site of civic club meetings, wedding showers and other functions, according to various newspaper notices.

Newspaper mentions of the Drake Restaurant continued until 1981. The Drake Hotel Motor Court later became the Travel Inn. By 2002, the abandoned buildings were demolished by court order, according to a news report.

Read more installments in this series at ChattanoogaHistory.com or visit the "Remember When, Chattanooga?" public group on Facebook.

Remember When, Chattanooga? is published on Saturdays. Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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