When I learned from Martha Bogg's husband David Patterson that she was to celebrate her 20-year anniversary at the Bistro on Aug. 1, it was tempting to mark the occasion by insinuating myself and my recent memories of edamame hummus and hot tea and this Brussels sprout sauté and a beer pairing prepared by Anthony Fowler that we both attended once.
One call to University of Tennessee architecture professor Mark Schimmenti, though, and I realized it was not my place, but his.
He's been coming to the Bistro since 1995, about a year after I stopped showing up almost daily for happy hour, and I would describe him as a man after Martha's plain-spoken, fun, but hardworking heart. Most importantly—and not to take anything away from the legions of fans who poured out support when Boggs denied state Sen. Stacey Campfield brunch service in 2011 for being a bigot—Schimmenti's been there before and after that historic event, in the days before Martha bought the place four years ago, or started the brunches the year before that. But I'm going to let him tell it:
"I've been coming to the Bistro since I got to Knoxville. I don't eat out all that much, and I'll tell you right now it's my definition of the go-to place for two reasons: It's comfortable, and the food is excellent. And if you go there, no one will bother you. The staff, and Martha herself, have a sort of comfort zone.
"What's my favorite there? Almost everything. Of course, my cardiologist won't let me eat all of it. The special board is of particular interest. The fried chicken she does every other week is fabulous. You can take any kind of person there—someone who is vegan, someone who is vegetarian, someone who wants to eat half an animal. And they have the best poached eggs you would ever find, and I've been all over the world and parts of Georgia. You know how hard it is to poach an egg? You can't do better than theirs; they're perfect every time.
"I walked in there two years ago and there was Bill Haslam sitting in one corner and Don Bosch in the other—one a prominent Republican and the other a Democrat and both eating exactly the same food at the Bistro. Don had actually bought lunch for his entire staff that day, which I thought was nice.
"I lived downtown from '95 to 2007, in different locations. When I first arrived here I worked a lot downtown and the Bistro was the go-to place for lunch. We would meet and talk about saving the S&W or whatever was on the agenda. I stopped going for a while, and then architect David McCord reminded me how good the food was a few years ago. I struck up a friendship with Martha—well, we started talking because of her tomatoes. Half my family is Northern, and half is Southern, and Southern families love to talk about tomatoes. The Bistro tomatoes are really good, and I asked Martha where she gets her tomatoes and she answered, ‘My backyard.'
"And she likes baseball. A baseball fan is not easy to find in Knoxville. I eat there on average three times a week. It's to the point where at brunch Saturday I almost always eat there, and then one or two evenings a week. I like to sit at the counter and talk to Heather, and to Martha. If you go when it's not so busy, you get a chance to talk.
"All you have to do is look at Martha's staff. I go regularly enough that I've met them all. They work hard, and they work pretty cheerfully. You know, to have that many good people working there, someone pretty special has to put that place together."
All that said, I think Martha would be the first to appreciate Schimmenti's parting words: "And besides, the food is really, really good."
Here's to 20 more, Martha.