When I recently met a friend at Copper Cellar on our way to a play on campus, there was such a crowd in the vestibule, I figured we'd be lucky to make the play by intermission. However, when I uttered the magic words "Copper Cellar," the crowd parted, and we walked serenely through the throng.
You see, there are two restaurants at 1807 Cumberland Avenue. The Copper Cellar, established in 1975, was originally entered via stairs from The Strip. When the Cumberland Grill was added in 1981, a joint side entrance was created.
Once downstairs, black iron gates opened the way into a quiet, dark room—a marked contrast to the lively, well-lit scene upstairs. It turns out we had walked through "Burger Night." Every Wednesday night Cumberland Grill offers any burger on the menu for $4, roughly half the regular price. The Grill's student-friendly lunch and dinner menu emphasizes appetizers, salads, sandwiches and six kinds of burgers, including a black bean burger. The most expensive items are the Friday and Saturday Prime Rib Special and Grilled Steak and Shrimp, both of which cost $17. Judging from the crowd, Burger Night is a big success—and not just with UT students. However, the ambience in the Cellar was much more appropriate for the leisurely dinner we desired.
We entered the room slowly, letting our eyes grow accustomed to the sudden darkness. Bob Crouch, the deep-voiced manager, welcomed us with warmth and charm. The Copper Cellar really is a cellar, but the room seems less cavernous because of the cozy booths lining the room and the lighted, recessed spaces along the walls. The long copper bar also adds some gleam to that end of the room.
Since my friend and I both wanted red meat, we happily anticipated a carnivorous feast as we sipped glasses of red wine and buttered our bread, which was delightfully crusty on the outside and soft on the inside.
I'm not usually a fan of iceberg lettuce, but this time it added to the cool crispness of the salads, which also included carrot strips, red cabbage and tomato chunks. The blue cheese dressing was good, but I prefer a stronger blue cheese taste than this had.
My friend ordered the Steak and Cake special ($27), filet mignon with seafood cakes and a sauce of sun-dried tomatoes and shitake and portobello mushrooms, which was absolutely delicious. The soft tomatoes soaked up the deep richness of the mushrooms. The moist, mild seafood cakes tasted like crab cakes. The Spinach Maria with Artichokes was spicy and creamy. To my relief, the filet, ordered very rare, was served just as my friend likes it. Even slightly overcooked steak makes her irritable.
My 12-ounce cut of prime rib ($20) was plenty for me, but if you want more, they offer a 22-ounce cut ($26). My perfectly cooked medium-rare beef was accompanied by a tasty au jus and a piquant, but not overpowering, horseradish sauce. The side dish of Blue Cheese Grits was too tame for my taste. The blue cheese-to-grits ratio probably pleases most palates, but I really love blue cheese, so I wanted a less timid touch.
For dessert, we split a piece of Key Lime Pie. The graham cracker crust was well made, and the generous meringue topping was soft and only slightly sweet. The filling was disappointing; I like a thicker filling with the tart lime taste dominating the flavor of the custard, especially if it was made with sweetened condensed milk. Afterwards, one of the servers raved about the strawberry shortcake, served in season. I'll go back during strawberry season and see if it's as good as she said.
Service throughout the evening was impeccable. Our server was attentive but not intrusive. The entrees arrived after the salads were removed, so not only were we able to avoid the annoyance of "crowded table syndrome," but we also did not feel rushed.
Hearing the restaurant's recently resurrected jingle from 30 years ago—"It's a lovely night/Everything's alright/Out stepping with your lady/At Copper Cellar"—reminded me I hadn't been there in a long time. In 1975, there were significantly fewer restaurants in Knoxville. Dinner out was a special treat in those days. At Copper Cellar on Cumberland, it still is.