This was the year you were finally going overseas, but Bernie Madoff had other plans for your money. Never mind. Save the air fare and overpriced hotel rooms and enjoy most of the other stuff you’d be doing. Knoxville has a lot of good international restaurants and bars, several with authentic atmospheres, too many to list in this space. Most are worth a visit. But most require getting into an automobile, which after a couple of authentic drinks is often inadvisable.
For a safe and legal round-the-world international night of sampling exotic beverages, you’ll have to come downtown, where there are also buses and taxis and hotel rooms. A few blocks of sidewalk will take you far. In an evening you can cover several continents afoot.
The Crown & Goose, the rare-in-America English “gastropub” which opened early last year, is owned by an Englishman and almost over the top in its Englishness, inauthentic in one detail that only Brits notice, and some of them, upon thinking it over, find it forgivable. They have table service. At any self-respecting pub in England, the patron bears fully the responsibility of going to the bar for his beer. At the Crown and Goose, that remains an option. A couple of very British ales are crafted just for this one unique spot, including an IPA, but the most English of beers is the bitter. They have some grudging lagers, but don’t ask for them here. Their full bar offers a full complement of British whiskeys: Scotches, Irishes, and Englishes.
The most exotic travel destinations, of course, are the forbidden ones. Americans can’t go to Havana, so we go to Little Havana. With whimsical Cuban commercial art on the walls and the ragged beat of Cuban mambo in the background, the brick-lined restaurant offers the broadest menu of Cuban specialties we’ve ever seen in this town, and as laid-back a Caribbean vibe as you can expect on Gay Street.
No beverages actually bottled in Cuba are allowed in the particularly touchy nation where Little Havana is licensed. But Little Havana does offer the next best thing, a light, fresh-tasting beer from the next island over, the Dominican Republic, called Presidente—plus the more familiar Red Stripe, which is obligatory in any restaurant with a Caribbean theme, and other Hispanic standards. They don’t serve liquor or wine, but do offer a beer-legal bottled Mojito. Above the cool bar, the big screen shows silent travelogues of Cuba. Street scenes of a country where we’re not allowed can be hypnotic, and the effect is enhanced with each successive Presidente.
Don’t leave without a chaser of sweet and stimulating Cuban coffee.
Japan and Cuba are both island nations which have caused the United States some anxiety over the years. They don’t exist next door to each other anywhere except on Gay Street. Nama, in its original location, is at 135 S. Gay. Not sure what it is about sushi that makes us crave sake—rice wine to go with our rice—but there it is, and Nama has the best selection of sakes in town, more than a dozen of them, served hot or cold in authentic katakuchis. If you’re not ready for sake, Kirin beer is almost as authentically Japanese, and like Presidente next door, discounted during happy hour.
At the other end of Gay, Cairo Cafe is the underappreciated ruby of the banking district. Step into the gorgeously furnished room, and you’re a few thousand miles due east of Gay Street. The furniture of hand-made wood and copper is authentic eastern Mediterranean, the cushions are on the floor, the bellydancers and the aroma of shish kebab are almost equally distracting. Even the big screen TV shows Egyptian movies, and the multi-flavored hookahs, which come out after 9 o’clock.
The Arab world isn’t awash in alcoholic beverages, as you may have heard; Islam is a sober faith. But Cairo Cafe sports a full bar, including a couple of different varieties of Arak, a Lebanese liqueur similar to Ouzo. Or, to be halal, and sober, go for the Turkish coffee, served properly in a long-handled copper ibrik. Bring your own fez.
Le Parigo, the intime French bistro on le avenue Clinch, offers a sidewalk cafe, and is known among wine sophisticates for their selection of bordeaux. Le Parigo is mainly a place to eat a full meal with companions ($35 prix fixe) on tableclothed tables, but they do have a very small bar, with four chairs, and folks who come just for a wine, ranging from an $8 glass to a $145 bottle. They also offer some imported beers, all for $5: they’re all European, but none are British or German.
Bottles of wine are half-price between 5 and 6. But a more intriguing attraction may be the one from 10 to 2, when desserts are half price, and appetizers only $5.
There’s no place that seems Frencher. There you’ll hear the occasional French accent, and the locally rare sounds of French pop music, mixing with and the aromas of quiches and creme brulee and a general air conducive to a Gallic smirk you didn’t know you had in you.
And Other Points
Le Parigo is a word for Parisian, and some have observed that downtown as a whole is going Parisian, with sidewalk cafes popping up faster than champagne corks in a Maurice Chevalier movie. Oodles on Market Square probably has a bigger selection of French, Italian, Spanish, and Australian wines than any restaurant does, and a bigger sidewalk cafe, and the World Grotto has a deliberately international theme. Just across the way, both Shonos and Koi Fusion, vaguely Japanese-Chinese and Thai-Chinese, respectively, in intent, offer Asian beers; Koi has a full bar with a variety of Asian drinks.
And on the way home, Downtown Wine & Spirits offers wines, liqueurs, and high-octane beers imported from Poland, New Zealand, Israel, Croatia, Holland, Russia, Japan, Peru, Lithuania—perhaps literally, most of the countries in the UN. You know it’s what you’d be doing there; you can do it here.
Then catch a bus home. It’s tres European.