In the last couple of years, we've witnessed some stark examples of the hazards of patronizing chain restaurants. As my family and friends will attest, I'm almost pathologically opposed to chains, so you may want to take what I say with a grain of sea salt. Some of them do serve pretty good food, especially if you like various sorts of colorful and savory hot goo drizzled atop it. But to me, no restaurant meal is, in itself, worth what I pay for it. I mean no disrespect to professional chefs, but I don't mind saying I can make an excellent meal of a can of beans and a piece of toast, plus a few herbs and spices and maybe some onion or fresh tomato, for less than a dollar. When I go out, I go for the whole experience, and accept that most of what I pay for a meal is an investment in my city, and a vote for some establishment—some permanent place—that I think is unique and worth keeping around.
A year or two ago, the Green Hills Grille seemed to be becoming a Knoxville icon, a place to see and be seen, a gathering spot for both politicians and professors and, surprisingly, at least a few intellectual or literary groups. Sure, it was in a strip mall, and most patrons couldn't easily explain the final e (I doubt even wig-wearing, Brit-loving Gov. William Blount spelled grill with an e). And most knew, I imagine, that it was part of a chain, first based in Nashville, then part of the Applebee's empire, then part of some LLC based in Florida. But in spite of all that, Knoxville people seemed somehow proud of it, as if it was our own.
I know people who would go out of their way to have lunch or dinner there, some even dubbing it a "tradition."
Over the years, Knoxvillians gave Green Hills our all. We spent millions of dollars there, millions that, if applied to a worthy local restaurant, could have gone a long way toward establishing a genuine landmark.
But we can't really know chains, and don't have much to say about their fate. Green Hills Grille, the Western Plaza restaurant, was popular. But Green Hills Grille, the regional chain, closed. Somebody down in Florida decided it had run its course, like a video game or an energy drink.
Something similar happened to what was, for years, the most popular restaurant on Cumberland Avenue. The Strip was once known for creativity, idiosyncrasy, and general interestingness. When I was a kid, the Strip supported places like the Roman Room, the Cat's Meow, the Last Lap. But in the '90s and early '00s, the most popular restaurant on the Strip was, mysteriously, an O'Charley's. Open late with a sidewalk cafe jammed as if it was the Cafe de Flor or the Deux Magots in Paris, it was a fashionable destination like no other O'Charley's in the world. To a generation or so of UT students, their fondest memories of a youth in Knoxville will be of a youth spent at O'Charley's. It was popular, but it closed. It was profitable, but it didn't make any sense to corporate. That was one thing that corporate and I had in common.
In both cases, these chain restaurants closed for reasons unassociated by any lack of business at their Knoxville locations. Corporations have their own reasons, and they never have anything to do with what's good for Knoxville. Go somewhere else tonight.
A few weeks ago, I ragged on Knoxvillians for griping about gas prices while still preferring buying gas and driving to work alone in a car to all alternatives, like carpools or buses.
Despite some increase in ridership, especially on some of the suburban routes, KAT buses can be pretty lonesome, especially when UT's out of session. Several of the main lines are dominated by UT people, mostly grad students and professors—not so much undergrads, who still somehow favor the SUV. But all in all, UT people do take advantage of public transportation more than anybody else. On the bus, I've met UT scholars in medieval literature, information technology, nuclear physics, Jacksonian America, evolutionary biology. People in their 20s, people in their 70s, people with big salaries and no salaries, people who don't have anything in common except that they ride the bus. It's enough to start a conversation.
Of course, UT does subsidize bus passes for faculty and students, who ride much cheaper than the rest of us do. Still, riding the bus is still pretty damn cheap for everybody. Never mind however expensive gas is this week, a lot of commuters pay more just to park their cars downtown than they would to ride a bus round trip.
The other day, a downtown businessman told me, "Some of our people are having to ride in carpools." His face contorted in real pity, he offered that sad news in a tone he might have used if he'd told me he had to sell them into prostitution.
There's one aspect of alternative transportation that does seem to be gaining, though. A couple years ago, when the Transportation Planning Organization began installing bike hitching posts around downtown, it seemed to me, frankly, quaint: a well-meaning but naive idea. Especially when they put four of them in front of Lawson McGhee Library. Four? For years, there had just been two plain bars there, bolted into the concrete and only hypothetically compatible to bikes. Often the only bike parked there was mine.
But I've noticed almost all of them are used at least occasionally. Even those library posts. The other day, after lunch—it was a Thursday afternoon, about quarter of two, not what you'd think of as a boom time at the library—I counted 11 bicycles chained there. Doubled up on the hitching posts, some on the 15-minute parking sign. Of course, I've been to some cities where there are more than 100 bikes chained outside the main library—but to me it looks like progress.