The Krystal suddenly boarded up on Cumberland Avenue was no architectural marvel. Its functionalist building had been completely rebuilt, perhaps more than once, in its half-century on the Strip. I won’t argue it was historic. Still, it was a real, authentic Place, in a way that fast-food chains rarely approach.
For those of us who lived in Fort Sanders during a certain era, it was our closest approximation to a 24-hour cafe, still a rarity here. And it had a little bit of a legend attached to it. Back in 1978, quite a few customers stopped chewing sliders one late night when a post-concert entourage of musicians dropped in. One bore a startling resemblance to Bob Dylan. At Krystal. I wouldn’t believe it unless my friend Jack Rentfro swore on a copy of Blonde on Blonde it was true. I don’t know where I was that night, but it was the wrong place.
It was remarkable that I wasn’t there. For me, the Krystal was a 3:30 a.m. refuge for a late supper or early breakfast. After seven or eight pints of Stroh’s, you need some cheese and bacon.
Lines were longest just after the bars closed. Sometime late in the Carter administration, I worked for The Daily Beacon and wrote a mini-column called “Old News.” It might seem like a precedent for Secret History, if you squint your eyes. The column was kind of offbeat historical, though rarely about Knoxville. I tried to make it loopy and unpredictable, to pick subjects concerning, say, assassinations in czarist Russia or British misadventures in Afghanistan that resonated with current events and campus politics. Old News was meant to be a filler, to provide cushion for the main columnists who hadn’t learned how to write to fit. It was usually very short, and its author was officially anonymous. But Old News had a following. It was fun to hear my history profs railing about it without knowing I was the author.
One night after my colleague Gary Rotstein and I had been at the Last Lap or Dan and Gracie’s a little too long, we were standing in a long line at the Krystal. Less shy than I was, Gary tried to start up a conversation with a couple of very cute girls in line right in front of us, without success. Thinking it might be our biggest opportunity of the month, Rotstein mentioned that we wrote for the Beacon. One girl said, with a gorgeous hauteur, “There’s nothing worth reading in the Daily Beacon except for Rotstein’s column and Old News.”
My companion responded, “Well, you’re in luck. I’m Gary Rotstein.”
Taking my cue, I spoke up. “And I write ‘Old News.’”
She was not going to swallow that one. With a lovely roll of the eyes, they turned their backs on us. “No, really,” I slurred.
It went no further. But for a undergraduate frat dropout without a GPA to brag about, athletic achievements, a girlfriend, or post-college prospects, that was plenty. Being recognized by a beautiful young woman at Krystal, by my work if not my name or face, may have been the high point of my college career.
Speaking of old-school eateries, this year has seen a surprising development in the story of an old West Knox favorite. Almost a decade ago, in this space, I bemoaned the closing of Ott’s Barbecue. Located in an unpretentious hut on far Kingston Pike at Dixie Lee Junction for exactly as long as I can remember—that is, since the early 1960s—Ott’s was the most durable local purveyor of spicy, vinegar-based barbecue, a distinctive flavor that was ostensibly based on Paducah-style pork. Since I’ve never had a sandwich in Paducah, it always reminded me of low-country Carolina ‘cue.
When I was a little kid, my dad used to bring some Ott’s takeout home. Many years later, when I was a dad, myself, I used to make a point of dropping in at Ott’s once or twice a year when I found myself out in that part of the county, usually shopping for fireworks.
It wasn’t that Ott’s was better than any other barbecue place. They were just the only ones in Knoxville who did barbecue that sharp-tasting way. Sometimes you feel a need for it.
Ott’s did close, I wasn’t lying. The original proprietor, Otto Merlott, died back in 1981. His family ran it until they gave it up in 2003.
But after an interval of maybe four years it reopened, in a completely rebuilt and modernized building on the same site, and under new ownership. The latter-day proprietors weren’t kin to the original Ott, but were confident they had cracked the code of the secret recipe. I dropped in only a couple of times, but they could have fooled me.
I heard word that they’d closed again, and was sorry to hear it. But right after that, some personal business brought me to the vicinity of that odd back-lot strip mall in Bearden, near Northshore and Papermill—and right next door to the aficionado’s beer mecca known as the Casual Pint—heck, there was something called Ott’s.
Was it a mirage? I’d already had lunch, but I had to go in and give it a try. It was Ott’s, sure enough. They’ve moved to Bearden. Their pulled-pork sandwiches are about like I remember. I’m not sure I recall the choice of six barbecue sauces, some of them pretty hot, served in a six-pack carton, but it was hard to complain about. I was obliged to try all of them.
I admit I do miss the flyswatter ambiance of the original joint. There’s something about pulling up in the gravel parking lot of a rundown roadside stand by the highway that makes you feel you’re on vacation, or a kid, or both, even when you’re not. Maybe that’s generational, and I’m in a vanishing minority.
But I invite old fans of Ott’s to try the new place, and let me know how you think it measures up.