Public House Offers Its Downtown Neighbors a 'Third Place'

The new watering hole is a no-smoking, no-television, no-live-music bar

"Give the people what you want" sort of sums up the attitude for the newly opened Public House, a block or so equidistant from Regas Restaurant and the Greyhound Bus Station at 212 W. Magnolia.

"All the places in Knoxville were starting to feel the same—more of a music venue, and there are so many other places you can go if you want to watch a game," says co-owner Eric Ohlgren, whose "real job" is as co-owner of the commercial interior firm Heuristic Workshop. "Everywhere else drives me nuts. I wanted a no-smoking, no-television, no-live-music bar—a neighborhood place where you can come in and know exactly what to expect, every night."

The Public House is all that: airy, and easy, with a collection of roomy booths, art-topped tables, walls of saturated red, a deep bar with custom counters and can lights rescued from the Arnstein Building. Behind it is the obligatory oil painting of a nude, only this one's pretty mod, and she looks down on items like a meat cutter for the Public House's signature sliced meats, and bins of marinated beans and jars of McClure's pickles. It can be reached by bike or on foot by denizens of downtown, the Old City, Old North Knoxville, and Fourth and Gill.

Ohlgren—one of the originators of Nama, with Gregg White—and his wife, Tina Rosling, already owned the space and he was planning a beer joint when a couple of enhancements became possible with the addition of two partners, David Sneed and Laura Sohn. "I couldn't have put the money in to make it this nice," says Ohlgren. "This is three times better."

Sneed, a smiley redhead whose work in Knoxville in the decade previous has been in computer security and networking, will manage day-to-day. He knew Ohlgren "on the periphery" and then really bonded with him over a 5-5-5 motorcycle trip about two years ago—meaning 2,500 miles on pre-1975 motorcycles valued under $500 and with under-500 cc engines. "You get to know someone really well when you do a knucklehead trip like that," Sneed says.

The two bonded further when they literally built out the inside of the bar, from welding chairs to installing the panels that made the conversational acoustics what Ohlgren deems "highly tolerable."

Sohn, who also knows the two from "around," upped the ante on the menu when she signed on. She's worked for AC Entertainment and now owns Mockingbird Events and says, with a characteristic wry humor, that "it would be kind" to say she's a "self-taught" chef and menu artist. Perhaps best known locally for as co-creator and standard bearer for BaconFest, Sohn's outdone herself on the seasonal menu, which she hopes to change up every three months or so.

"The food concept is to feature either regional, fresh local products like cheeses from Blackberry Farms, or things you can't get here at all, like goodies from Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City," she says.

The menu is itself cozy and instructive; a representative couple of items include prosciutto from nearby Benton's Country Hams; locavore beet pesto; Arbequina olives (small, brown, and from Catalina), and Fiore Sardo, which has Sohn's signature foodie-ness all over its menu description, beginning with "from Sardinia's rich pastoral land of Logudoro, produced by smaller shepherds who age wheels for a month on site."

The Sunsphere is Not a Wigshop blogger Cullin Spellings, who walks over from his place near the City County Building, has already been in five times in the bar's first eight days. He's a fan of the smoked trout dip, and the $2 popcorn with white truffle salt that he says "punches you right in the face. The food is great, especially at the price—the popcorn would cost more at the movies! And you're not getting cheese dip and chicken wings."

They serve the full menu right up until midnight, but it's not meant to be dinner. And Ohlgren doesn't expect patrons to stick around all night. "It's a stop," he says. "A good place to start or end your night. You can go elsewhere to get your ya-yas out."

In all, people are liking what the three owners like, very much. The second Friday they were open, Sneed notes, there was standing room only, and Ohlgren told him he counted just three patrons who didn't live within walking distance of the place. The following Saturday evening, by 6 p.m. the bar is already half-full. Long-time downtowner Steve Dupree shows up in overalls and backwards baseball cap and gets an appreciative laugh from several patrons when he quips, "I don't drink any more—or any less," before ordering a beer from Ohlgren, whom he calls by name.

"It's a place to hang out and shoot the shit; a grown-up bar," Ohlgren says. He knows better than to have people check their cellphones at the door, but, he says, "I would if I could."

There won't be any changes like that, but the bar will soon start serving liquor, in mixed drinks created by Sohn. "We're going to ease into it," says Sneed.

And while Sohn's commitments won't leave her much time to actually preside over the Public House, she does plan to be there to introduce new elements.

"I definitely hope to have some events there, Mockingbird-specific and also some Public House events," she says. "I can picture bourbon tastings, that sort of thing. And we'll try to continue to do things outside the box—not everyone wants to be standard."