Our Culinary Doppelgangers

And other puzzlements of local restaurant nomenclature

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Secret History

by Jack Neely

When I heard Riverside Tavern was going to be something else, a national chain, I couldn't avoid a twinge of regret. Besides employing some very inventive chefs since Regas first opened it, seven years ago, it's one of the most gorgeous restaurant interiors built in Knoxville in my lifetime. Its sweeping view of the river and the mouth of First Creek lent itself to a nautical theme; I always thought its woody interior looked like it was converted from a racing yacht built for giants. I don't think I ever went there without ordering fish.

But now it's going to be a steakhouse. A very swank steakhouse. To be precise, a Ruth's Chris Steakhouse.

It's an upscale chain, based in Florida. They have a following, and I don't doubt steaklovers will go nuts about it. But does anybody ever look at that sign and not wonder what it means? Who is Ruth, and why does she have a Chris? Is Chris happy about the arrangement? And what is Chris's precise association with the steakhouse? Is he a variety of steakhouse?

Their website sheds no light. Restaurant names sometimes seem deliberately befuddling. Lots of puzzles are homegrown. A few months ago, a place called â“Trioâ” opened on Market Square. It's a nice place, a lovely spot for an unusual breakfast on a sunny morning. I've been there several times. But the name stirs confusion.

Everybody who hears of it, so far, thinks of another well-established place just four or five blocks away. â“Oh, is it connected to Pasta Trio?,â” they ask. No, it's not, but as long as both restaurants exist downtown, people will assume they are.

Except for those two, I've never been to any other restaurant that had the word â“Trioâ” as the title's main noun, but I see by the web that there are several. Charlotte, Cincinnati, Little Rock, Jackson, Washington, all have some sort of Trio restaurant. It's usually attached to advertising that includes the phrase, â“casually elegant.â” For all I know, downtown Knoxville may be the only neighborhood in the world that has two.

Trio is the latest illustration of a historically stubborn duality; confusable names is an old Knoxville tradition. For well over a decade, there were two Pete's downtown, one on Union, the other just around the corner on Locust. Like most downtowners, I have stories about planning to meet someone at â“Pete's, downtown,â” only to have my lunch date show up at the other one. Pete himself always pointed out that one was a â“coffee houseâ” and the other a â“café.â” Which is French for â“coffee house.â”

Mercifully for those of us who could never remembered which was the café and which was the coffee house, the Pete's on Locust, run by Pete's brother, is, as of this year, officially Sam's.

Lots of cities have bistros, spelled with small b 's. Knoxville has two utterly unrelated places known to their loyal regulars â“the Bistro.â” First, in the early '80s, there was a place on Gay Street called â“the Bistro.â” Then there was a place in Bearden called â“Bistro by the Tracks.â” The current one is a good block farther away from the railroad line than the original, but the restaurant kept â“by the Tracks.â” It sounded more distinctive than â“Bistro by the Road.â”

Their mutual existence seemed to demand prepositional-phrase suffixes, and the old Bistro downtown was obliged to add to its name, â“at the Bijou.â” Still, after all these years, people still assume the restaurants are related.

Patrick Sullivan's is another illustration, with a twist. There are two of them, in different parts of town, with different menus and unrelated managements. The first opened about 20 years ago in the historic Sullivan's Saloon in the Old City, a place built around 1888 and named for the Irish saloonkeeper who built the building and ran his saloon there.

If you don't recognize the name â“Sullivan's,â” by the way, it may be because most Knoxvillians, for reasons of their own, prefer to call it Patrick O'Sullivan's. It has even appeared under that name in print, in our daily, in more than one article by more than one reporter. My darkest suspicion is that Knoxvillians go there and fantasize they're not really at a locally owned, bona-fide, century-old saloon space, but are really at one of those national-chain O'Irish fern bars. Just so they can say, â“What? You don't have an O'Sullivan's in Chattanooga yet?â”

But the bar's named for Patrick Sullivan , never any O' about it. If you want to check the spelling, the real Patrick Sullivan is buried in Calvary Cemetery, the old Catholic graveyard hardly a mile away.

Anyway, there are two of them now. The story goes that one proprietor got fed up with something or other and moved out west. Because they had developed a good reputation as Sullivan's, they took the name with them. However, the original Sullivan's Saloon was still there somehow, and had at least a claim on the name of the place, and reopened under new management. The one in Rocky Hill is listed in the phone book as both â“Sullivan's Fine Foods at Rocky Hillâ” and â“Patrick Sullivan's at Rocky Hill.â” The one in the original saloon built by Patrick Sullivan is generally listed as â“Patrick Sullivan's,â” â“Patrick Sullivan's Saloon,â” and â“Patrick Sullivan's Steakhouse .â”

The two Sullivan's have no association with each other, but are both named for the same guyâ"who, incidentally, never had a reputation as a restaurateur. If he was like most saloonkeepers, he specialized in hard-boiled eggs and pigs' feet.

Of course, it's not quite as befuddling as when there were two Louis's Italian restaurants on Old Broadway in North Knoxville, right next door to each other. Both sold similar old-fashioned Italian food, and flat, crisp, spicy pizzas that were distinct from most restaurant pizza but very similar to each other. Both were run by factions of the same big Greek family. The main difference, as far as a naÃve customer could tell, was that one offered drive-in service, and the other didn't. I liked them both equally.

The staff at each claimed their restaurant was much better than the other. One sunny day at lunch in the late '90s, I asked around and couldn't find any waitresses who had ever been to the other. They were both torn down for a highway-widening project. One of them rebuilt. So now there's just the one Louis's. I like it, but I can't remember which one it is.

Maybe Ruth's Chris picked their odd name out of kindness for the easily confused. Maybe all the other names were taken.

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