Have a look at the new Steamboat Sandwich Shop at No. 7 Market Square, in the striking old building with the recessed second-floor portico. I hope it’s not a moral hypocrisy to enjoy this one while, at the same time, mourning the loss of the original Steamboat location on North Central. It was in a classic old corner building I always liked, fronting right on the street, as a decent building should. It was also the sort of shamelessly local institution I see in other, prouder cities more than we do here. Not every restaurant can sustain a Roy Orbison Room, but Steamboat did, named for the singer who once did some motorcycle shopping on that block. The Roy Orbison Room was always my refuge in all sorts of lonesome circumstances; after an awful day spent in a hospital or a lawyer’s office or on the interstate, Steamboat was an agreeable return to the good world.
The new location’s different: a simpler space, an oblong rectangle, but its host building is worthy of Steamboat’s heritage. The long brick-front building’s age is hard to prove; whether the current building dates back to the days when Mankel’s Saloon stood on this spot, I don’t know. The building here now was definitely an early location of longtime local retail stalwarts Hall’s Clothing, and later Emery’s 5 & 10.
Some aesthetically savvy friends of mine have issues with the new Steamboat’s interior color scheme, which can hurt your ears. They’ve improved it with lots and lots of framed photographs of historic Knoxville scenes and pop-culture icons. I’ve always admired that approach, in some other cities, of covering an entire wall with intuitively random framed pictures, kind of like the artsy walls in Gertrude Stein’s Paris apartment. They can get your synapses firing in ways you didn’t know they knew how. I’ve never seen anybody do it here until Steamboat. You can spend a couple hours poring over this wacky museum of cultural history before you even bother to order any food. You may even forget it’s lunchtime. One of the pictures, toward the front, is like a talisman, a framed portrait of their old location.
If you do have time for a meal while you’re looking at the pictures, the fresh sandwiches are awfully good, too, with homemade bread, and they sell bona fide Mexican Coke and other beverages you won’t find at Sonic.
Downtown Knoxville’s got a better array of restaurants than it has ever had. Never before in East Tennessee history have there been so many good and different restaurants within walking distance of each other. Some I can’t afford very often, but still there are about 20 restaurants downtown that all I have to do is walk in the door, and a proprietor or waitress is likely to say, “Where the hell have you been?” And I can never answer truthfully.
But ever since Harold’s Deli closed, downtown has sorely lacked one distinctively local place with modest prices for specialties categorically different from anybody else’s, a place that’s simple but startling, with its own sense of style unlike any other place in the world. A place that yells “Knoxville” whether guests know or like that prickly concept or not. Steamboat comes close.
Speaking of that quarter of the Square, there’s a brand-new photographic collection you might find interesting. Published in Europe, originally in French, it’s called Henri Cartier-Bresson/Walker Evans: Photographing America, edited by Agnès Sire and Jean-Francois Chevrier. It lays out some of the best work of transatlantic rivals Cartier-Bresson and Evans from 1929 to 1947. Evans’ association with James Agee, of course, is part of the reason this book might belong in a complete library of Knoxville history, and in fact there is an Evans photo of Knoxville-born Agee on one of the book’s first pages. But about halfway through, you’ll see two photos by Cartier-Bresson, the best photographer France ever produced, of Knoxville itself.
Cartier-Bresson came to America soon after World War II and spent a few months traveling; these photos are from the same tour of the South that yielded famous photos of William Faulkner and Truman Capote. I’m not sure why Cartier-Bresson came to Knoxville, except that his friend Jean-Paul Sartre, who had spent a few days in Knoxville in 1945, may have observed that Market Square offered some subjects different from what he knew on the Place St. Michel.
One of his images I’d seen before in a photography magazine and liked so much I talked my publisher into buying the right to use it in my book about Market Square. It’s the one of the bored-looking beautiful woman in a fashionable coif, her fur-coat ensemble only enhanced by the fact she’s wearing a medical eyepatch, and by the fact that she’s at the wheel of a beat-up pickup truck, unable to drive it because there’s a chicken crate on the hood. It seems a complex metaphor for my home town, and I think it’s my favorite photo of Knoxville. As I figure it, she must be parked right in front of the building that’s now Steamboat.
On the next page is another photo by Cartier-Bresson, also dated 1947, showing 20 or 30 men milling restlessly in front of a business with a neon sign in front that says something-ngston’s. The sidewalk’s so broad you figure it must be Market Square. There was a dry-goods store called “Langston’s” at 13 Market Square in 1947; I bet that’s what you can almost read in the window behind. Among its wares, displayed on the sidewalk, are Jungle-Jim-style pith helmets. It’s possible Cartier-Bresson stood in about the same spot to take both photos.
In the morning sun, most of the faces are in shadow of broad-brimmed fedoras, as if they each have something to hide. They might be bootleggers, they might be Chet Atkins’ sidemen, they might be your granddad, they might be Cas Walker, but it’s pretty obvious none of them suspected we’d be looking at them in another century.