New Restaurants Leave Imagination Wanting

What we need now is a Quackadero

There's news of another restaurant, and another. They all sound great. Downtown alone, we now have restaurants with Italian, British, Cuban, Japanese, Arabic, French, Thai, Mexican, and Spanish themes. Not counting the cereal bar, and three ice-cream places, each with its own specialty, and the gorgeous art-deco S&W Grand. Plus a lot more restaurants that are vague about themes. I'm glad they're all there. I cherish each one, and would mourn any loss. And I wonder if now it's enough for a while.

It's not just Knoxville. It's the way we build cities these days: boutiques, clubs, bars, cafes. It's what we do, as human beings, and travel guides suggest that every city is made up chiefly of restaurants. I'm tickled my hometown finally has a broad diversity of eating and drinking establishments to show off.

However, on video recently I saw the early Ang Lee movie, Eat Drink Man Woman. It gets its title from one line that's likely to occur to every mortal at some point. Chu, the aging master chef, confesses, one miserable day: "Eat, drink, man, woman. Basic human desires. Can't avoid them. All my life, that's all I've ever done. It pisses me off. Is that all there is to life?"

Do you have to be middle-aged to ask? I don't know, but you'd like to think there's something else to occupy us during our brief stay on this planet, perhaps something on the frontiers beyond ingestion. And therefore to consider developing in downtown Knoxville, for people who aren't even hungry. The non-hungry are an underserved minority.

There's lots of live music, and that's great—but what else? Our art and history museums are interesting, but they're both small, and they close early. The library offers a lot, if not in terms of evening hours, and it's mainly oriented toward taking stuff home. Churches offer some fine architecture and musical diversions. None of these things work on a nightly basis.

Also, it has always bugged me that Knoxville development tends toward the imitative. For once, I'd like us to be the first city to try something.

Something about walking into the renovated S&W last week made me think of an old art film with a cultish following when I was in college, "Quasi at the Quackadero." Quasi was this peculiar duck-like character, and the big thing in his life was every chance to go to the Quackadero, a bizarre sort of psychedelic art-deco arcade where you could do almost anything: have a cup of coffee, have your mind read, go back in time.

What we need, I think, is a Quackadero.

That is, a different idea for urban development. Like Gay Street's Hippodrome, a century ago, a roller-skating rink that doubled as a movie house and basketball court, and that occasionally featured rousing speeches by Teddy Roosevelt. Or the Lyceum, which had an open-at-night art gallery, a hall for scientific lectures, a conservatory, and a ballroom. Or something altogether new.

• Maybe telescope bars. No downtown is ideal for astronomy, thanks to the ambient lights of the city. But maybe if it were up in the Sunsphere or one of the taller buildings, we could pay a buck to spy on LeConte, or Lonsdale.

• Karaoke's a huge international success, but why stop at music? Why not karaoke acting? It seems to me that, on a hard day, it might be relaxing to spend an evening as Lady Macbeth or Terry Malloy. Actors often enjoy plays more than audiences do. Seems selfish not to let the rest of us have a turn at it.

• Giant terrarium. The Worsham-Watkins plan, as proposed (can it be?) 10 years ago now, was arrogant and overblown in many ways and threatened to spoil some fine old things, like Market Square. But it did offer some good bathwater that got thrown out with the bad baby. One was a downtown cineplex, an idea that turned out to work. Another, more ambitious proposal was the "winter garden," a giant terrarium for humans, where we could walk around and look at an encyclopedic variety of interesting plants. In a region famous if only to scientists for its botanical diversity, it seems perfect. I wish I could go there today.

• Immersion studios. Where you can pick a country, or an era, and experience it authentically, maybe via modern-day stereopticons. (Quick, while there are still differences; the New York Times' Sunday travel sections seem to suggest that the whole Third World is more or less turning into downtown Knoxville, with funky boutiques and specialty bars and buskers and coffee shops.)

• A nap service. Some days, at lunch time, I'm sleepier than I am hungry. Sleeping in the office, I've found, is not always apropos. What if there were a little dormitory, operated quietly like a British WC, in which we could pay, say, three bucks for a half-hour of shut-eye?

• A medical amusement park. Where you'd get weighed, get your blood pressure taken, even get an EEG or a CAT scan, but in such a way that it would all be great fun. Compare your blood pressure to the blood pressure of celebrities. How big is your brain, compared to, say, Paris Hilton's? Identify your epidermal hue in terms of Michael Jackson's career. Is your eyesight as bad as Tina Fey's? Do you weigh as much as Elvis? Since our bodies are always changing, it might be a repeat attraction.

• A news arcade. In several cities, some main news organizations—newspapers or television studios—are downtown, and serve as lively information centers, flashing the latest news, Times Square style, to the public on the sidewalk. Knoxville newspapers did something similar, 100 years ago. Maybe here, in the childhood home of Adolph Ochs, we could offer television and print and Internet news in a cafe or arcade setting. It would be our gathering place for every war, disaster, or celebrity crisis.

I admit some of those may make another restaurant sound like a good idea. Just want to mention that some exciting new ideas may not be edible.