There's always been a link between late-night diners, inhibitions subdued, and late-night menus filled with fried foods and other junk. But the Night Owl Cafe in the Old City, open since February, is proving that food in the wee hours can be high-quality, tasty, relatively healthy—and sustainable.
Night Owl doesn't even open until 5:30 p.m., and is serving what co-owner Dwain Marchant calls "thoughtful dishes cooked with a lot of love and patience" right up to 12:30 a.m. weeknights and 2 a.m. Thurs.-Sat. "We've got a good late-night crowd that has opted out of bar food," says Dwain. They're definitely in full swing with Knoxville's burgeoning movement towards local food and homegrown ingredients, with a menu revolving around produce from Organicism Farms, Mountain Meadow Farms, Cruze Dairy, Laurel Creek Meats, and Smiling Hara Tempeh. The restaurant has a BYOB policy, so diners can enjoy their preferred alcoholic beverage with theirs meal at no extra charge, and Night Owl also sells locally-distributed beverages, like naturally sweetened tea and soda.
Dwain and his wife, Jodie Marchant, both got degrees from the University of Tennessee—Jodie in photography, Dwain in pottery—and were working late shifts at other local restaurants when they started fantasizing about cooking really good late-night fare, usually while they fixed food at home after work. They first tampered with ideas like running a mobile food truck. About the time they realized such an endeavor involved an endless amount of regulations, they learned of a vacant location in the Old City (which Pasta Trio had vacated).
"This place just fell into our laps," says Dwain, who designed and made the restaurant's mugs and plates, along with the pieces of art that line the walls.
Jodie, who used to bake for the Tomato head, makes the Night Owl's bread fresh every morning, and delights in creating sugary goodies like a double-layer, chocolate, Cruze Farm buttermilk cake iced with vanilla buttercream and topped with toasted almonds.
Like the sweets, the entire menu often changes—according to what seasonal foods the couple can get their hands on. It's handwritten on a chalkboard that hangs above the ordering counter in the storefront a couple of doors down from Crown and Goose. A sample menu in October included, among 30 or so other items, Walnut Orange Hummus with Italian bread; a Pumpkin Sandwich of pan-seared pumpkin cake smothered in arugula pesto, Gruyere cheese, and spring mixed greens; a burger with grass-fed beef topped with Gruyere cheese and fried leeks on a toasted bun; fried okra with a curry dipping sauce; dark chocolate cookies with dark chocolate chips; and vanilla ice cream with Muscadine grape syrup.
The menu items are hard to categorize. "The food has some Indian influence but is mainly based off classical dishes; but we still have the comfort of Southern food, but not just mashed potatoes and beans," says Dwain.
The restaurant has a New Age coffee shop vibe, with alternative music playing in the background and retro black chandeliers hanging in the two front windows. Night Owl has accumulated a core of regulars, some partiers, and some workers on odd shifts, though it has neither website nor restaurant phone number—the Marchants rely on drawing people in off the street. Diner Tony Cheatham says a "helter skelter" schedule brings him in a couple of times a week, and he appreciates having a place near where he lives that is open late and serves healthy food. "There's always people I know here, locals that live close-by, people who are socially-conscious about what they eat," he says between bites of miso-glazed scallops, adding that Knoxville has needed a late-night restaurant serving healthy food for a long time and he hopes that the next step will be a 24-hour place.
Such an idea would be impossible for Dwain and Jodie, seeing that the two are already putting in 80-90 hours a week. Jodie is at the restaurant by 9 a.m. and stays until midnight, while Dwain comes in during the afternoon and leaves around 3 a.m. On top of dedicating a majority of their waking hours to the restaurant, Dwain says the biggest challenge is "keeping up with paperwork and taxes and all the little things you don't want to do when you go home."
Ironically, the two are so busy they have a hard time fitting in meals for themselves, eating whatever's on the menu when they find the time. Says Dwain: "We eat for survival."