The closing of Regas sends winters' chills through a certain demographic of Knoxvillians. Claiming a 1919 founding date, Regas has long been celebrated as Knoxville's oldest restaurant. Its passing raises a pertinent question: Who's oldest now?
If Regas had closed 20 years ago, several heirs would have been apparent. Some restaurants had champions claiming that, by one criterion or another, they were already the oldest. Market Square's Peroulas traced its roots back to the ca. 1908 Gold Sun; even though there were some family ownership shifts, they were all Greek, and some of them were kin. Some argued for Harold's Deli, just because it had changed much less in the previous 50 years than Regas had. But they've both closed. As have Ruby's, Dot's, the Torch, the Varsity, the Amber, the Quarterback, the Southern Grill, the Glenwood Sandwich Shop. Sad to think, in the years since I began writing this column, occasionally celebrating them, all those old-Knoxville institutions have closed. Every single one of them.
We talk a big game of community pride, but Knoxville has a poor record of supporting its most distinctive institutions.
Now that the big dog is out of the Oldest fight, there aren't many contenders. But a few culinary correspondents have suggested nominees.
I like the Old College Inn, and you'd expect any 200-year-old university to have at least one joint that's been there at least "Since 1939" in the neighborhood, but the OCI's pre-1980 heritage requires some acrobatics that might leave a principled librarian disoriented.
Litton's leaves some visitors with the impression it dates way back to some sepia-tinged era. Litton's did have "beginnings" in 1946, but back then it was a market in rural Inskip. It first opened in Fountain City in the late 1970s as Litton's Meat Market, but apparently didn't come across as a restaurant until even after that—accidentally, as the story goes, when butcher-shop customers began demanding sandwiches.
Sam & Andy's was a Cumberland Avenue landmark from 1946 to 1997. Forced out of its original street corner location at Cumberland and 18th, the deli had already spun off a suburban location in a strip center in Farragut in 1988. Soon after the original closed, another young family member started Sam & Andy's Fountain City. The sandwiches are comparable, rare survivors of the old steamed-sandwich tradition. Whether we can consider these suburban delis the same Sam & Andy's that was founded in 1946 is up to the customer.
The place known as King Tut's has been a restaurant more or less continuously since the 1950s. But if you've ever been there on disco night or Egyptian night, you know King Tut's is not much like Dot's.
Long's drugstore's still-busy soda-fountain cafe has been doing the same thing in the same room since 1956. In terms of continuity, it has few rivals.
Wright's Cafeteria listed itself as Wright's Diner in 1962, but at an address that had been a restaurant—Murphy's Lunch—since about 1954. The Original Freezo at North Central and Oklahoma dates to about 1954.
Naples in Bearden might qualify, if you trace it back through Alberti's, the 1960s Italian-American institution that it strongly resembles, and thence back to the Wayside Inn, the durable burger-and-beer joint that it doesn't resemble much at all. Though it was radically remodeled or rebuilt at least once, there's been a restaurant of some sort at that address since about 1930.
On Old Broadway, Louis'—formally known as The Original Louis' Drive-In Restaurant—has a complex heritage. Like most of Knoxville's early Italian restaurants, it has always been run by Greeks. It's been in its current building only since about 2000, but for decades it was right across the street. In fact, there were two rival Louis', which were both popular Greek-run Italian places, next door to each other. Tracing the heritage of old Greek-run restaurants is a complicated proposition, involving brothers and cousins and uncles, many of them sharing the same first names. But Louis' was named for Louis Chronis (ca. 1902-1956) who, back in the middle of the century, made a minor industry of pleasing hungry Knoxvillians. The Greek immigrant arrived in Knoxville around 1920, and by 1928 was running a place on the 100 block of Gay Street called the Oriental Sea Food Cafe. In partnership with his brothers John and/or Nick, he opened Louis' Barbecue on West Cumberland, about 1932; then Louis' Steak House on Gay, around 1937; then Louis' Chili Parlor, near the Steak House; then Louis' Barbecue Haven on Henley. Around 1960, John Chronis, proprietor of the Dixie Gardens Restaurant on North Broadway, reinvented it as Louis', apparently in homage to his recently deceased brother. Whether the Louis' that's there now can claim a heritage linking it to the Louis', the steak house, chili parlor, and barbecues of the 1930s, is not for me to decide. The fact that Louis' unusual pizza seems similar to the pizza at the Quarterback, formerly Louis' Barbecue, offers at least a tasty red herring. That is, anchovy.
The Bistro at the Bijou first opened by that name around 30 years ago, but in a space that has been a restaurant of some sort—the Lamar House Saloon, originally—for at least two thirds of the era since the 1850s. And there's ca. 1888 Patrick Sullivan's, if you overlook the technicality that it was closed for about 80 years.
The Highlands Grill and the S&W have both been reborn as upscale 21st-century in-situ homages.
Here's my working theory. By the strictest criteria, the oldest restaurant in Knoxville as of 2011—same building, same name, same basic culinary philosophy, and continuity—is on the corner of North Central and Quincy. It opened as "Rankin's Waffle Shop" in 1953. Then a 24-hour place, it had already been known as the DeLuxe Waffle Shop since about 1945.
But to be on the safe side, we'll just date it to the Rankin's era. Fifty-eight years is not very old to count as the oldest restaurant in a 220-year-old city, but we're lucky we have at least that.