Downtown's Restaurant Boom

An influx of eateries highlighted by the S&W Grand shows no sign of slowing

This week's long-awaited opening of the S&W Grand Cafe in its historic Gay Street setting marks a major milestone in downtown's remarkable resurgence, which seems to be recession-proof.

Developer John Craig's faithful replication of the S&W's ornate interior from a bygone era makes it an aesthetic showcase. And the brother-sister team of Brian and Stephanie Balest who will operate the restaurant promise to make it a culinary attraction as well, drawing upon their success as proprietors of the acclaimed Northshore Brasserie.

What makes the S&W's opening all the more remarkable is the fact that it's only one of 10 or so new restaurants to spring up downtown in this past year of national economic downturn. The long-vacant buildings on Gay Street's 500 block that Craig has restored adjacent to the new Regal Riviera cinema now (or soon will) feature two other new eateries, Coolato Gelato and Lenny's Sub Shop. And next door to them in the lobby of what was once the Farragut Hotel, the French Market is serving crepes and other delicacies.

All these sproutings on Gay Street have by no means stifled more of the same on nearby Market Square, whose redevelopment the new cinema was originally intended to spur. The Spanish cuisine of newly-opened Sangria, the "third place" mantra of Cafe 4, along with niche eateries such as Soccer Taco, Steamboat Sandwich, and Marble Slab Creamery have all augmented the square's stake as Knoxville's restaurant row.

Also close by on Clinch Avenue, Le Parigo has added haute French cuisine to downtown dining diversity, as has the distinctive English gastropub, The Crown & Goose, on Central.

What may be even more remarkable is that all these comings haven't resulted in a lot of goings—in a line of business that's notorious for its turnover. Nearly all of the establishments that brought vitality back to Market Square earlier in the decade—Preservation Pub, Oodles Uncorked, Shono, Trio, Koi, and La Costa—still seem to be going strong. And, of course, the square's grand dames, Tomato Head and Market Square Kitchen, remain as fixtures.

The new cinema has no doubt contributed to all of this success, but it's only one of several factors. Downtown's residential building—or rather, restoration—boom heads the list. Loft dwellings in historic buildings have become a vogue that has brought well upwards of a thousand new out-and-about residents to downtown over the past decade.

Then, there have been the promotional efforts of the city administration ("Downtown: everybody's neighborhood," has been a Mayor Bill Haslam catch phrase) and of the Market Square District Association, which is also headed by John Craig. Its hosting of First Fridays and the Farmer's Market, ice skating in the winter, Shakespeare on the Square in the summer, and outdoor movies in the fall, not to even mention spring's Sundown in the City concerts, have all attracted lots of people to the square. So much so that one now hears mutterings about hyperactivity from some of the same people who used to lament its being moribund.

The housing market has probably been the hardest hit sector of the economy over the past two years, and downtown's residential boom has slowed apace. One of its pioneers, Leigh Burch (he of the Sterchi lofts) reckons that on the order of 100 existing condominiums are on the market which he calculates to be a four-year supply with sales having dwindled to about two per month. But another pioneer, David Dewhirst, while acknowledging that the condo market has dried up, is going full steam to fill what he perceives to be a big demand for rental housing. The 55 units he recently completed in the JFG building on Jackson Avenue are almost fully rented, and he's starting work on 40 additional units via renovation of the Daylight Building on Union Avenue. Beyond that are plans for renovation of one of Knoxville's gems, the Arnstein Building at the corner of Union and Market, and the Tennessee Armature & Associates Building on Jackson.

To be sure, there's an indefinite hold on other developers' heralded plans for new high-rise construction—the Sentinel Towers on the News Sentinel's former State Street site and an even more ambitious $84 million Metropolitan Plaza on the former State Supreme Court site across Henley Street from the Knoxville Convention Center. But a Nashville developer claims to be pushing ahead with plans for construction of a 120-unit apartment complex at Volunteer Landing on which work is due to start in February.

If other categories of retail were keeping pace with the restaurant boom, downtown Knoxville would be on a full-fledged roll, but unfortunately that is not the case. While the Mast General Store on Gay Street and a handful of smaller shops on Market Square that opened earlier in the decade are reportedly doing well, there haven't been many recent additions to the mix.

An economic recovery may provide a needed spur, and next year's completion of the $3.5 million streetscaping of Gay Street's 100 block should beget an attractive new shopping venue. While the upper stories of that block's many historic buildings are just about full of residents, much of its ground floor remains vacant with the street closed for construction. Imminent streetscaping projects on a block of Union Avenue and Market Street will also provide wider, tree-lined sidewalks that should contribute to making downtown a more inviting place.

In the meantime, Bon Appetit.