Blue Ridge Country - March/April 2018 - 60
Fred Sauceman's latest book is
"The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An
Appalachian Family's Life in
Tipton's. Romie Britt's special bean blend continues at
The Bean Barn just outside downtown. The Brumley
Hotel eventually became The General Morgan Inn, and
although fried mush is a menu extinction, you can still
get a meal in the building that dates to 1884.
Greeneville's Big Top lives on, too. Sort of. Its former
location on Summer Street is an empty lot. The building has been bulldozed away. All evidence of what was
once the town's busiest drive-in is gone from there.
Half a century ago, The Big Top was so popular that the
Greeneville Police Department had to hire auxiliary officers to direct traffic in and out of the parking lot. For me,
in the back of the family's 1964 Chevrolet Bel Air station
wagon, a trip to The Big Top was big-time entertainment.
When he opened The Big Top in the early 1950s,
Sonny Paxton started out with a no-name restaurant
and a no-name sandwich. He solicited ideas for both
through a contest in the town's newspaper, The Greeneville Sun. That contest yielded the names Big Top and
Chipburger. Sonny ordered a lighted top to mount on
the restaurant and a concrete, plaster-coated rooster to
greet customers as they entered the lot.
Sonny's signature sandwich, the Chipburger, consist60 BlueRidgeCountry.com
The Little Top's architecture is much
different from Sonny Paxton's
original Big Top restaurant, and
the location has changed. But the
Chipburger has held on. Paxton
is pictured below, at his Summer
ed of pork shoulder, sliced with a Rube Goldberg-type
contraption he invented. Diners placed orders on telephones, which were hooked up to a switchboard.
"You had a headset, and you could talk to two or
three customers at a time and even ring the phones next
to their cars," remembers Sonny's son Keith, a member
of Greeneville's Board of Mayor and Aldermen.
Keith's brother Don believes their father was one of
the first East Tennessee restaurant owners to offer peanut butter milkshakes.
"Dad created a drink called Orange Slush," adds another brother, Ron. "It was made of orange juice and
slushy ice, a pretty healthy drink for its day."
As Greeneville's economy started showing signs
of decline, Sonny Paxton closed his restaurant in the
late 1970s. A Chipburger famine followed, before Keith
Paxton opened a scaled-down rendition of his father's
popular restaurant in 1986, across town on North Main
Broasted chicken went by the wayside, as did baskets
of shrimp and oysters. But the Chipburger returned, at a
place Keith called The Little Top.
There are no phones. The rooster is owned by another family. And the drive-around Little Top building,
with six seats inside and a few picnic tables outside, is a
diminutive version of its ancestor.
Keith misses the feel of his father's old place, a gathering spot for the city's luminaries and loafers. "Here,
it's just hit and run, three minutes and they're gone,"
Keith says of The Little Top. "While it's fast-paced and
quick, we still serve high-grade food."
Although the meat-slicing technique is essentially
the same, Keith has refined his father's famous sandwich, adding homegrown tomatoes in the summer and
buns that have to be specially ordered. In my book,
his Double Cheese Chipper ranks among the grandest
sandwiches of the South, on equal footing with the New
Orleans muffaletta, the Tampa Cuban sandwich, and
the Kentucky Hot Brown.
The Chipburger and its cheesy variation are flavorful reminders of a remarkable era in Greeneville's past.
Greenevillians are grateful that this edible evidence of
the community's history continues to survive.
The Little Top, 507 North Main Street, Greeneville, Tennessee; 423-639-9800