Lost Restaurants of Knoxville
“What are you??” We were about a quarter way through one of my recent tours when a guest called out this question to me. Now in this part of Tennessee, that question might have been an opening for a merciless teasing - a way locals show their affection for one another. But I turned around to a very sober, serious inquiry from an out of town visitor. “Are you a historian?” He looked as if he had just had a rare snipe sighting. “Well, you might say I am an accidental historian,” I smiled.
It has been a great experience for me to present the history of Knoxville through my many years of hosting tours around town. Being an East Tennessee native, I already had a home field advantage. Imagine my excitement to be asked to write the Lost Restaurants of Knoxville! The subject inspired me to delve even deeper into Knoxville history as it relates to dining and restaurants.
I knew right away that I wanted this book to be a chronological journey through the history of dining in Knoxville, beginning with the early taverns of this frontier town. The arrival of the railroad in the 1850’s prompted much trade and commerce and the hotels of the time competed for guests for overnight lodging as well as dining in their fine restaurants. Knoxville’s bawdy saloons were wildly successful until being shut down by prohibition in 1907, Tennessee being the first state to implement prohibition laws.
The 1900’s saw the arrival of a large community of Greek immigrants who introduced a new kind of restaurant and dining experience based on their principles of providing quality food at a good value, excellent service, and the utmost in cleanliness. The Regas Restaurant even advertised to guests an opportunity to examine how food was prepared in their kitchen, “at all hours,” of the day and night. The long popular eatery, The Brass Rail, operated by Frank Kotsianas, was one I had heard about over and over from my local tour guests and had an opportunity to learn more about as well as the prevalent influence of this and many other Greek restaurateurs throughout Knoxville.
Big business of the TVA, country music, and tourism brought thousands to and through Knoxville and launched the success of lunch counters and the mega S&W Cafeteria as well as a kosher style deli.
Eateries had always been a fixture around the University of Tennessee, but business really began moving west in the 1970’s as the allure of space for new construction and parking drew people out of downtown. The Half Shell at Homberg and Western Plaza was another favorite mentioned by many tour guests.
Knoxvillians began to crave a bit of sophistication which was evident in the rise of continental, outdoor and waterfront dining. Kristopher Kendrick founded the Orangery as a chic refuge for his upscale clientele, and his role as a restaurateur and preservationist is noted throughout this book.
The 1982 World’s Fair was an effort to bring business back to downtown Knoxville. I attended the World’s Fair as a child, but I’ve always been curious about the specific dining details. And I found them. Knoxville’s World’s Fair wound up being a smorgasbord of eating and drinking. Want to know what was being served in those repurposed buildings of the Candy Factory, the Iron Foundry, and the L&N Station, or even the inspiration for the servers’ uniforms in the Sunsphere Restaurant? Find it all in Lost Restaurants of Knoxville!
After the World’s Fair an almost forgotten neighborhood on the periphery of downtown began to gain popularity. Learn how Knoxville’s Old City got its name and grew, spearheaded by the former spouse of a Pulitzer prize winning author with her namesake, Annie’s - A Very Special Restaurant.
Knoxville continued to embrace new dining options with its first Vietnamese restaurant and the Bearden District boomed with the brief, creative spirit of Kenny Siao and his cross-cultural cuisine.
Mention the name Lula in certain circles and you will get a knowing nod. Mahasti Vafaie‘s vision of the southwest style of cuisine set in motion a chain of events that led to the revitalization of the heart of downtown Knoxville, our historic Market Square.