Susan Danner often talks to her customers at The Longhorn Restaurant in the North Shore like they are her own kin.
"Goodbye, Precious," she says as a regular walked out after his meal on a recent Monday morning, probably headed to work.
"Oh sure, honey!" she says to a woman in need of a straw.
It's that personal touch that keeps customers coming back for another plate of eggs and grits or country fried steak. For the past 59 years, Longhorn has served up home-style hospitality. Danner and her husband, Charlie, have been at the helm for the past 10.
Situated in the Town and Country Shopping Center at 129 N. Market St., Longhorn has one of the most visible locations in the now-burgeoning neighborhood, and it looks like a step back in time compared to the newer restaurants that have popped up around it since the area started reimagining itself more than a decade ago.
Inside of Longhorn are the wagon wheel light fixtures that have been hanging from the ceiling since its opening in 1959 and only 28 seats with several at the long counter, like at many old-fashioned diners. The only thing Longhorn shares in common with the contemporary restaurants in the plaza — Taco Mamacita and Milk and Honey — is the parking lot between them all with too few spaces to go around.
With its angled roof, red bar stools and vintage style, Longhorn isn't the only restaurant in Chattanooga or the metro area to experience a surge of residents and popularity in what used to be a less-populated or lower-income area. Gentrification has taken hold of many local neighborhoods, several of them surrounding downtown, and some older restaurants and businesses are learning how to adapt while still staying true to their roots.
From Long Horn in the North Shore down to Mr. T's Pizza & Ice Cream in St. Elmo, local favorites look juxtaposed next to the newer construction and renovated buildings in the neighborhoods now. Off Tennessee Avenue in St. Elmo, Mr. T's stands out with its large ice cream cone situated on the roof and embraces its image as an "unassuming spot" with a "cool 1980s feel," as one Google reviewer noted. The pizza spot opened nearly 30 years ago and is the oldest left in the neighborhood.
Back on the north side of the river, outside of Longhorn is a green, WAITR delivery app sign stuck in a flower bed, which is just one way the restaurant has tried to get innovative with reaching new customers. Danner said they are looking into adding UberEATS delivery next.
But while the ways they get food to people varies now, many of the plates are still the same.
"I think you have to retain what we have retained," Danner says. "There are plates here and dishes here that we've been making since the day it opened — the recipe hasn't changed and the way we make them hasn't changed."
Danner said they have experimented with some new items as she has watched new customers walk through her doors. For example, a sign outside their door advertises a breakfast burrito with scattered hash browns.
For 73-year-old Lynn Rice, the Longhorn is a nice spot to hang out with his friend, Al Clark, a few days a week. The two sat at the end of the counter on a recent Monday morning waiting for their tee time to start. Rice said he's been frequenting the diner since 1964.
"We get a lot of answers to life's questions here," he says. "We solve a lot of the world's problems at this corner."
Danner owned T-Bone's Cafe in the Southside before that closed and then purchased Longhorn because the two spots shared a lot of the same customers, she said. To Danner, Longhorn is a landmark for the area.
"I think what is wrong today is that we don't preserve and we don't respect the landmarks that we have," she says. "We want to be so innovative and so change-oriented and you have to remember the people who are new in the business ate at places like this and got their love of food from places like this."
The story is not much different for ZarZour's in the Southside — a local favorite on Rossville Avenue that celebrated its 100-year anniversary this year.
Shannon Fuller took over the daily operations for her mother-in-law, Shirley ZarZour Fuller, 20 years ago. She and her husband, Joe "Dixie" Fuller, moved back to the area from Nashville nearly 23 years ago when the neighborhood was a place that Fuller didn't like walking around in at night, she said.
"If you would have told me that yuppie millennial women would be pushing a $500 baby carriage down Rossville Avenue 20 years ago I would have laughed at you," Fuller says. "This whole neighborhood has done a major transformation."
The single-story building, just under 20-feet wide and 60-feet long, looks a little old and rundown, which Fuller said might scare some people off. ZarZour's is only open three hours a day, five days a week for lunch.
As Fuller puts it, "There's a new restaurant every 20 feet" in the Southside, but she thinks her interest in customers' lives and home-style cooking is what keeps them coming back for more.
"There is no sound sweeter to a human being than their name off of somebody else's lips — to be recognized and appreciated and known," Fuller says. "It's just very important to people. That's the kind of atmosphere we have here."
While there are restaurants on every block in the Southside, Fuller said they focus on serving the comfort foods, like Aunt Rose's chili, burgers, hamburger steak and mashed potatoes — food that reminds men of their mom's cooking and simpler times, as Fuller puts it.
Living right next to their restaurant, Fuller said the couple will go out and try the other new restaurants in their neighborhood when they open.
"There's a special Southside camaraderie," Fuller says. "Everybody likes to think they were on the ground floor and nobody was on the ground floor before us."
Contact staff writer Allison Shirk at email@example.com, @Allison_Shirk or 423-757-6651.