The closing of the Market Square Kitchen, in the large, well-lit corner space of the historic Kern building alongside Union, ends an era of sorts. Hossein Ghodrat, the friendly man at the cash register, had been there for seven years himself, but his restaurant resembled the old Soup Kitchen, which was a mainstay there for 30-odd years before that. It’s the only space on the Square that hasn’t changed much since the Carter administration. I dined there daily in the early ’80s, when I worked for a lawyer. Hossein kept the former restaurant’s basic setup, with its decor and tall wooden chairs, and a cafeteria line and a variety of soups, as well as the unusual jalapeno cornbread that actress Patricia Neal, who often stayed in the St. Oliver, raved about.
But he also expanded to add several specialty sandwiches, aiming to please his nostalgic clientele: the Reuben, barbecue sandwiches, and even the fried-baloney sandwiches that old men still associate with Market Square as it was in the middle part of the last century. He also added breakfast, making the place one of only three places on the Square that opened as early as 7:30 a.m. He served the best hash browns downtown, plus several fancier dishes like Eggs Benedict and a few variations on the omelet, for not too much money. Even with all the exotic new choices on the Square, there were customers who strongly favored the homey flavors of the Market Square Kitchen.
One of my fondest memories of the restaurant is having breakfast there with my daughter one Sunday morning six years ago, the perfect place to spot the frontrunner in the first Knoxville Marathon, a lone Kenyan trotting coolly through the old Square, a lonesome stretch ahead of the others. It was a rare place that was open that morning, and I was grateful it was such a good one, a well-catered box seat on what seemed at the time a historic event.
I hear the building’s current owners didn’t renew the lease because they want something that will better serve the hotel clientele, something that’s open and busy all the time. Hossein didn’t serve beer, and rarely stayed open past lunchtime. It’s the owners’ prerogative, of course. Number 1 Market Square is a space with quite a heritage. Peter Kern’s elaborate soda fountain and confectionery, about a century ago, was often busy until midnight, and I trust that whatever follows there will be worthy.
But a lot of folks will miss the Kitchen. When people complain that downtown lacks simple, basic meals for not much money, Market Square Kitchen has always been one of my top three or four rejoinders. Hossein, who runs another restaurant in Oak Ridge, was looking for other downtown options, and I hope he finds one.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a long story about the remarkable Civil War and Reconstruction juggernaut Parson Brownlow, who lived to witness the construction of 1 Market Square. His legacy peeks out at us daily in small and large ways.
One Brownlow legacy I didn’t mention is not necessarily the weekly Knoxville Journal itself, but a claim it makes prominently on its front page. “Knoxville’s only locally owned newspaper since 1839.” The statement’s syntactically troublesome; in that long stretch of time, there have been many locally owned newspapers here, including this one, until Scripps bought us four years ago.
But the claim that they were founded in 1839 is based on Brownlow’s heritage with his old weekly, the Whig. It’s not for me to decide whether the modern Knoxville Journal has a legitimate claim to Brownlow’s pro-slave, pro-Unionist paper—or to the heritage of the old daily Journal, where a lot of my friends used to work. I recall there was a spell of a few years there when the Journal didn’t exist at all. But I do think they need to adjust their “since” date, at least if it’s used in conjunction with Knoxville. In 1839, the Whig wasn’t a Knoxville paper at all; it was the Elizabethton Whig, published 120 miles from here. A little later, Brownlow’s paper was the Jonesborough Whig. It became a Knoxville paper for the first time in 1849.
Another thing I didn’t mention in that story is the suggestion that without Brownlow, the University of Tennessee might not be in Knoxville. As many have observed over the years, it doesn’t necessarily make sense, in such a long state, for the university’s flagship campus to be near one end of it, being that we’re 400 miles from the state’s largest city. From Memphis, Knoxville’s about the same distance as Terre Haute or Tulsa. It would make sense to establish a state university in a more central part of the state—and ideally, in a small town it could kick around without having to worry much about traffic or zoning.
At the time of the Civil War, Knoxville was already home to a small regional college, but so were a lot of towns and cities. Our college on the Hill was called East Tennessee University.
In 1862, Sen. Justin Smith Morrill, of Vermont, pushed through a federal-lands-for-college-funding proposal. Its original intent was to benefit only the non-rebelling states. After Tennessee’s early readmittance, thanks to the unusually hasty work of Governor Brownlow, Tennessee got the Morrill advantage in 1869—21 years before any other Confederate state’s university did. And when the Brownlow Unionists were directing the funding, they favored the part of the state that was the home of Tennessee Unionism. Specifically, they favored the home town of several of Tennessee’s first Republicans, including the Parson, and its little college, ETU.
So ETU got Morrill status, which gave it a funding advantage above other public universities in the state. Though political winds were changing by 1879, state authorities pragmatically acknowledged ETU, the college with the advantage of Morrill-Act status, as the official state university. The Parson never went to college, but maybe there should be a hall named for him.