So what’s Knoxville’s oldest restaurant Now?
Some years ago, soon after the final closing of the venerable Regas Restaurant, I wrote a column in Metro Pulse pondering the question of what might be its successor as Knoxville’s Oldest. With something less than absolute certainty, I posited that it might be Rankin’s, the little breakfast and lunch diner on North Central. I claimed they were even older than the 1953 opening date they claimed, because they seemed substantially similar to a previous breakfast restaurant that had opened at the same address in the late 1940s.
But as you may have heard, Rankin’s closed recently, to be replaced by a place called Twisters, which is known for shakes and other frozen desserts, but also has a lunch menu.
What’s the oldest restaurant now? That’s a good question. A friend from up north asked me recently why Knoxville didn’t seem to have any old-school diners, places a few generations old as still thrive in some cities. And I don’t know the answer.
We’ve lost so many contenders in the last couple of decades, the old-line cafes like the Southern Grill, Ruby’s, Helma’s, Harold’s, Blaufeld’s, Brownie’s, the original Sam & Andy’s / Roman Room, the Sixth Avenue Sandwich Shop, Peroulas/Gus’s, the Court Café, the Amber Café, Smoky Mountain Market, Scruggs Barbecue, the Tic Toc, Dot’s, Ott’s—those were all places where I once enjoyed both sandwiches and atmosphere, and all of them seemed heirs apparent to one day be hailed as Knoxville’s oldest restaurant. But they all closed forever, most of them in the last 25 years or so. Often not long after I wrote about them.
Why we’ve lost so many culinary landmarks around the turn of the century is a good question. Is there something about our era that hates locally owned, unpretentious, inexpensive dining, in places whose history was obvious in their worn tile floors and counters so well polished the finish is gone, a waitress with last decade’s hairdo, known to everyone by name?
They all seemed popular, even if they weren’t major profit centers. In some cases, they were labors of love, and the final proprietor simply had no one to hand it off to.
Corporate chains have made their mark, and proven that East Tennessee customers are willing to sacrifice authenticity or price and convenience. When I meet another member of an old men’s breakfast group who are proud that they’ve met weekly at the local Hardee’s for 15 years, I restrain the impulse to ask: Why? How come you can’t use your resources to support something local?
Maybe the smoking ban affected some of them. Like it or not, cigarette smoke was characteristic of all those places, and as newer places banned smoking, the older places, welcoming chain-smoking refugees, became smokier than ever, so much so that nonsmokers became smokers when they walked in the door. Maybe that dilemma did some of them in.
Whatever the cause, so many erstwhile contenders have closed that it’s becoming a challenge to consider what’s oldest.
How to rate the “oldest” business of any sort relies on several subjective choices: does it have to be in the same space in the same building? Have the same name? Be run by the same family? Retain roughly the same menu and/or atmosphere? Have a tenure unbroken by shutdowns and reorganization?
A certain beloved restaurant in town tested those formulae with a claim “since 1939”—without overtly acknowledging that the 1939 restaurant was run by a different family, had a different name, and was in a different building up the street, and had a very different atmosphere. But there was one item on the menu—mettwurst and beans—that that seemed enough to carry the heritage through the decades.
By some criteria, maybe you could say the Bistro (renamed Bistro at the Bijou ever since the later opening of Bearden’s Bistro by the Tracks, which of course is no longer near any tracks) is Knoxville’s oldest restaurant, because its room has an 1850s heritage as a saloon. But its restaurant heritage is a fragmented thing. The Bistro’s room has been a restaurant of some sort for most of the last 170 years, but they had different names (one was the Pagoda, Knoxville’s first Chinese restaurant, in the 1930s), and a few periods when it was not a restaurant at all. Still, as the Bistro, it’s without question the oldest restaurant downtown. It’s been there, by that name, since 1980, and I have it on good authority that the naked lady behind the bar has witnessed its entire history.
In a similar category, perhaps with a little more continuity but much less depth, is the Corner Lounge. It opened on North Central as the Corner Grill in the late ‘30s, and has been a bar with food for most of the 85 years since, always with the word “Corner” in its name—but it has also closed for years at a time.
Some of Knoxville’s oldest-seeming restaurants are “drive ins,” although that term has different meanings, as evidenced if you have lunch at the Pizza Palace on Magnolia and supper at Louis’s Drive In on Old Broadway. At the former, you’re likely to eat in your car. At the latter, at a proper table in an air-conditioned restaurant. They’re both associated with the Chronis and Peroulas families, and both are more than 60 years old. Louis Restaurant dates to 1958, and borrows a much-older tradition associated with colorful restaurateur Louis Chronis, who ran a network of “Louis” barbecues and steak houses, mostly downtown, beginning around 1929, but Louis himself had died two years before this restaurant was founded, so the association is honorary. If the origin of a name and tradition counts for something, though, Louis gets at least an asterisk.
We can get a little older than that.
For unfragmented venerability, Long’s Drugstore has a claim. The old drugstore soda fountain in Kingston Center, the little shopping center alongside Old Kingston Pike in near-Bearden, has been operating in the same room, with the same name, since 1956, when Clarence Long, a well-known druggist in the UT area, opened it. To my knowledge, it has stayed open continuously except for holidays. The exterior has been extensively modified by fashion, for better or worse, and for that reason its host development, Kingston Plaza, looks like a 1980s strip center rather than the 1950s shopping center it is. But Long’s interior has changed very little since the Eisenhour years, when Miss Eugenia Williams herself, famous and rich but unrecognized, would come in for a quick and economical lunch.
Yes, it’s a pharmacy. It may be Knoxville’s last survivor the once-common mid-century custom of incorporating a soda fountain in the same room where they fill prescriptions. But Long’s has enough of a restaurant to have a menu of sandwiches and salads, and a wait staff.
It opened during Eisenhower’s first term, when Coach Neyland was athletic director at UT, and Cas Walker was on City Council, and TV was new—WBIR started Channel 10 that same year. And Batman was just a comic book that you could buy from the rack near the counter.
Long’s gets extra points because it has changed very little. The pharmacist is still in the back right. They still sell Sundries, if you know what those are. The lunch counter—the same one, as far as I know—is on the back left. It’s unquestionably authentic.
Although Clarence Long was killed in a Kingston Pike car accident in 1966, his restaurant and lunch counter remains a place he’d readily recognize. By the strictest standards—same name, same place, gastronomical continuity, and indoor seating, Knoxville’s oldest restaurant may be Long’s.
But there’s another contender, and it’s a bit of a wild card. Actually two, and they’re both wild cards.
Ray’s Place, which is much better known to UT students than to anybody else, is an independent café located on top of the Hill, in the basement of UT campus’s oldest building, 1871 South Hall. Not officially part of UT’s dining network, it’s part of a 1936 federal initiative known as the Randolph-Sheppard Act, which as reinterpreted by state government, has created a continuum of cafes in government-owned buildings that have been reserved for blind proprietors. UT has hosted a place in accordance with that act since the 1940s.
The current proprietor is Raymond Mowery, who has a very long legacy of selling concessions through Randolph-Sheppard facilities downtown; he had a place in the courthouse in the late 1950s, and later had a café at TVA. At their current landmark on the Hill, he and his wife pride themselves on their home-cooked meals.
Although he’s been on the Hill since 1987, much longer than most professors, Ray’s not the first proprietor of this place. By one account, UT’s first Randolph-Sheppard snack shop opened in 1949, first known informally, in a less sensitive era, as “Blind Richard’s.” But it was originally in Ayres Hall, and it sounds like it didn’t move into its current basement location until about 50-60 years ago, by which time it was known as Arnold’s, and later Ray’s. Different name, different place, it may be too different to call it the same restaurant. But it gets points for thriving in a 151-year-old building.
So maybe we’re back to Long’s. However, Long’s isn’t quite as old as another place not far from Rankin’s. It’s the Original Freezo, at 1305 North Central, at the sign of the happy ice-cream cone, on the northwestern lip of Happy Hollow. It’s a soft-serve ice-cream place that also serves hot dogs and, in season, tamales and chili, which they still call the Full House, in the old Knoxville fashion. Is it a restaurant? They have no indoor seating. All their customers remain outside, ordering from a window, and most then take their food to enjoy somewhere else. But they do have a couple of concrete outdoor tables that are perfectly hospitable on a summer day.
It’s the sole survivor of a small, loose chain that once had at least three locations in Knoxville, with others on Magnolia and Broadway, and later Halls, each run independently. But this one on Central was the first, the flagship of the chain, putting the Original in “Original Freezo,” and by some accounts, it’s been there since 1942, 1947, or 1948. My research suggests it opened in spring, 1951, which is plenty old enough, and older, in fact, than Rankin’s was. Back then, Happy Holler was still mainly a business district for the thousand-plus factory workers who were between shifts at Brookside Mill or Dempster Brothers. In those pre-interstate days, it was also part of some national routes, like the Dixie Highway, so its intent was likely partly aimed at tourists heading to the Smokies or, farther, to Florida.
The first ads for it that I’ve seen, from May, 1951, indicate it was aimed mainly at kids, who were then what we know as Baby Boomers. “Hey, Kids, eat Freezo – a Taste Thrill!” But a 1958 ad for the North Central location is aimed at the Father’s Day trade, advertising “foot-long hot dogs, dip dogs, hamburgers, and Coney Islands.” With a “Delicious Chocolate or Fresh Frozen Strawberry Sundae Free to Every Dad.”
In the early 21st century, the menu has broadened just a bit to include breakfast biscuits and chicken and fish sandwiches—and nachos, a word unfamiliar to Freezo’s original owners.
So, until another contender little changed since the Truman administration emerges, my bet is that Knoxville’s oldest and most durable restaurant is the Freezo of Happy Holler.
Most big cities have restaurant or bar traditions with heritages that extend beyond living memory. Consider San Francisco, a city newer than Knoxville, often America’s cutting edge in terms of the latest cultural and technological developments, but it still supports the best of its old traditions, with at least a dozen restaurants that are more than a century old. We’ll know we’re all grown up, and proud of our past, when we have a few that are that old, too.
– Jack Neely