A Bearden Developer Throws a Culinary Hail Mary in Highlands Row

The bottleneck at Kingston Pike and Forest Park gives drivers and passengers more time to look around. The nearby new development, Highlands Row, takes its name from an old roadhouse once familiar to cross-country motorists. Before Ashe's was here, even before Long's and Mayo's, before there were any strip malls at all, the main thing in this neighborhood was the Highlands Grill. The restaurant was in a sturdy brick house fashioned to look like a homey Southern place.

It's always hard to explain how it worked in those days, but back then Kingston Pike dog-legged to cross the railroad tracks on a short perpendicular bridge. In 1940, if you were in a DeSoto traveling west on 11 from Washington to New Orleans, or south on 70 from Chicago to Florida, you'd see the Highlands Grill straight ahead. It drew locals, too; a couple of generations of Bearden kids, and Neyland-era UT students, took their dates there.

There was a wink and a nod to it, because it had a roped-off area where, if they knew you, you could have a drink. During its era, Knoxville was a beer-only town; wine and liquor were illegal. Its country setting cut down on the cops. Highlands was actually just outside of city limits when it opened, in the late '30s. As some restaurateurs in town were experimenting with Italian and Chinese cuisine, Highlands concentrated on Southern country fare.

Highlands lasted here until around 1960. By then, it was no longer a landmark you couldn't miss. Screened by a new strip mall, Kingston Plaza, and forsaken by the Pike's main route, it became the location for Andrew Morton's posh gift shop. But its memory has lasted half a century.

Tom Weiss, who recently built the adjacent office/retail development he calls Highlands Row, aims to please prospective clients, but he's stubborn about this spot, historic by Kingston Pike standards. "The old building was built as a restaurant," he says, "and it always seemed to me that the best use would be to put it back in service as a restaurant."

Now, as crews rebuild the old concrete bridge across the tracks, Weiss means to reopen the Highlands Grill this May. Actually, this being the 21st century, when the preposition at is a sign of quality, it'll be called the Grill at Highlands Row. He named his new development after the old restaurant, it's only fair the he should rename the old restaurant after the new development. "I'm hoping people just call it the Grill," he says.

"I never had any ambition to be in the restaurant business, but here I am," he admits. His timing might have been better. As he was finishing Highlands Row, the economy crashed, and traffic engineers announced plans to wreak a major highway improvement project that would isolate this corner for many months. Commitments have been slow coming. Two successive restaurant tenants, each of which seemed promising, evaporated.

"When I first decided to have a restaurant, and realized nobody else was gonna do it, my involvement got deeper," he says. He justifies the restaurant development as a chance to showcase Highlands Row: "to show Knoxville what we'd done there."

Few interior traces of the old eatery remain, just the holes in the brick wall where stovepipes used to pass through. It's been 50 years. The old dining room is discernible, though, and offers seating for 110. He expects significant bar business, and a lounge will take the space of the old Highlands Grill's kitchen; the new kitchen will go into a latter-day addition. A new patio, on the Kingston Pike side of the building, will be open in warmer months.

"Knoxville doesn't really have a great local steakhouse," says Weiss. "Some will take exception to that. But Knoxville doesn't have a non-formulaic local steakhouse. I want to make this a distinctively Knoxville and East Tennessee restaurant. A steak and seafood house with a Southern flair. Many items on the menu would be distinctive: different, a little bit better than can be found elsewhere.

"Knoxvillians want to embrace their Southern roots whether they have them or not," he adds, which sounds odd and plausible. They're still working on the menu. He's stingy with hints, because he doesn't want to give culinary plagiarists an advantage. But about 40 years ago, in Nashville, he encountered something he hasn't seen since. "We'll have one signature staple item, cornballs," he says, a spherical sort of cornbread, deep fried. As if suddenly reconsidering the sound of that, he says, "Actually they may or may not be named cornballs." He insists it's something very different from hushpuppies. "Nobody's mom or grandmother makes them."

About a prospective grits recipe, he offers no hints. "Other people will start making it, I'm sure. I want to be sure we're the first."

His chef is Shane Moore, who's owner of Mancino's Pizza and Grinders in deep West Knoxville. The restaurant's general manager will be Chad Barger, formerly of Copper Cellar, who's a partner in the venture. Between them and a third partner in New York, they've got enough capital to open it with cash alone.

Weiss means to riff on the legends of Thunder Road, the bootlegging route celebrated in movie and song. "That was Thunder Road," Weiss says of what we now know as Old Kingston Pike. "A particular hairpin curve in Thunder Road. We're going to recall that era in a fun and updated way."

Updated often means expensive, and this is a business near Sequoyah Hills and Cherokee Country Club. But nearby Long's, which has been in business since Eisenhower's first term, offers one of Knoxville's cheapest lunches. For those who might have been wishing for a Long's that's open at night, his promise of no entrees over $30 may not be much consolation.

He acknowledges that it's a challenge. "The rest of it's a chapter yet to be written," he says. "All the good business minds thought me a damn fool. I hope to prove them wrong."