The Brewpub at 20: Was the Opening of One Unusual Bar the Beginning of Downtown's Revival?

 

I stood in line that summer afternoon. I never stand in lines for the opening of new businesses, but I had a little inside intelligence that this place was going to be different.

Any business analyst in 1994 would conclude that Knoxville had plenty of bars. We had all the different kinds. We had the beer joints, the low-down dives, the sports bars that if you walked into with a tie or a book or a wife, you’d stick out. We had the college bars, where you’d draw stares if you were over 26 or knew who the mayor was. We had the pick-up bars, where you could sense the gravity of collective discouragement when you walked in the door. We had the fern bars, pretty, well-polished places where you’d sit only until your table was ready. 

In most bars, music was too loud for the kind of conversation that calls for both subjects and predicates. I knew there were other possibilities but suspected maybe they weren’t likely in my home town. I’d been to England and Ireland, and over there, it was a revelation to see something kind of like a bar, but called a pub, attended by old men and young men and sometimes even women. Sometimes pubs had music, but not loud music. You could talk, and if you sat at the bar you would meet interesting strangers and learn about the town, about bubble and squeak, about the difference between reggae and ska. In the same room, the same night, you could talk to an old man about the Blitz, or to a young man about hiking in Nepal. 

Back home, I told my friends tales of these wonders, of these “pubs” where people had long, interesting conversations. My friends in Knoxville bars cupped their ears and said, “What?”

I didn’t know the pub concept was on the ascendant in America. Or that one particular kind of pub was known as a “brewpub,” because, like some local saloons in the always unbelievable 19th century, they actually brewed the beer at the same address where you drank it. That word was new to me in 1994.

This brewpub was to be called the Smoky Mountain Brewing Company, run by a youngish couple, Pat and Beverly Lucas, who had had lots of unexpected trouble turning a century-old furniture store into a brewpub, building the biggest mahogany bar in Knoxville, fitting out the place with their giant kettles.

So, outside this Gay Street building that had been Woodruff’s furniture store, where I’d once bought a dining table that looked like it could stand the insults of two small children, I waited. There was a line outside, in the late-afternoon August sunshine, 40 or 50 people who wanted to see what a brewpub looked like, and nobody was complaining.

They opened the doors about 5 p.m. and we flowed in, around the gorgeous bar, the biggest bar I’d ever seen. The bartenders wore white shirts and black bow ties. There was a giant statue, like a papier-mâché Mardi Gras float, called King Gambrinus, and a mezzanine, wrapping around above, with a cigar lounge. It was, more or less, Oz. 

It was crowded that night, and for a few nights after, and then mainly on weekends. But it was, after all, 1994. Maybe 53 people lived downtown, and almost all of downtown’s retail was aimed at the commuters, the lawyers and bankers who weren’t keen on surprises. Market Square, a half-block away, was mostly closed after 2:30 p.m. There was no such thing as a downtown movie theater, and live music in auditoriums was an every-once-in-a-while thing. The other buildings on the 400 block, then considered one of the city’s impossible problem blocks, were big and empty. Arby’s closed at 6. 

Here was this exception, and it was wonderful. But after a few months, only a few people came into the brewpub on a random Wednesday night.

Maybe the fact that it wasn’t popular every night played a role in its importance. When there were just a dozen of us at the bar, we got to know each other. An architect, a city official, a bassist, a professor, a judge, an engineer who worked mostly in China, another professor, a newspaperman, a guy who plays steel guitar on the sidewalk, all the same height at that lovely bar. People came in alone, not in groups, pulled up a stool, and quickly found a place in the conversation.

In that room I met musicians, artists, a couple of biographers, a cross-country bicyclist, a celebrated bat expert. I spent an evening with BBC documentarians and an interesting afternoon with an editor for an Italian Communist newspaper. Just because I was in there at the right time, I met Garrison Keillor, who had turned me down for an interview. He bought me supper. And I met several of the folks who, over the next 20-plus years, would transform downtown. Architects met developers who met city directors of one thing or another.

Would downtown have happened without the brewpub? I’m not sure. Aug. 8, 1994, seems as accurate a birth date for downtown’s renaissance as any other.

Within 18 months of opening, though, it was getting around that the place was in trouble. The original owners, who’d spent millions transforming this old furniture store, lost everything and left. A second group tried to run it as Great Southern, and ran into similar trouble. A third group ran it as Citybrew, and eventually quit. 

The current incarnation, the Downtown Grill & Brewery, is the fourth of the brewpub’s incarnations and by far the most durable. It may be the most popular spot in central Knoxville. But despite name and ownership changes, it’s about the same place. I still pop in now and then, but never because I think they need me.

It’s past time that we acknowledge those heavy casualties in the front lines, all the pioneering developers who lost everything but left something inspiring for others to build on. They never saw their dreams realized, but somehow their dreams hung around.

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