Standing room only. At Regas Restaurant? For much of its 90-year-history, you'd say that like it was a bad thing—customers waiting too long for white cloth covered tables so they could celebrate that engagement or Mother's Day with steaks and red velvet cake.
But June 5, 2009, a house so packed there weren't enough seats was a very good thing—it marked Regas' first foray as a gallery for First Friday, strategically placed at the north end of Gay Street. They displayed works like Katy Smith oil paintings and Amy Lee fabric art, had open seating (and standing) in the Gathering Place section, and segued quite effectively into the role of downtown Renaissance business supporter.
"We're just trying to keep up with Knoxville, and downtown Knoxville—the progress has been incredible," says Grady Regas, grandson of one of the Greek immigrant brothers who first started the restaurant (albeit in another building, with a different clientele) in 1919. "They're all exciting things, like the Magnolia Corridor, and the North Knox Redevelopment District, and Rod Townsend having Old City Live the next 13 weeks once Sundown is over. We're trying to keep up, to keep our place fresh and enticing and appealing."
They're also trying to add an appeal for a cost-conscious customer base and tap into the many Knoxville diners who don't like to dress up to eat out.
"This is the most challenging economic time most of us have seen in our lives," says Grady's father, Bill Regas, "People have lost jobs or lost their savings, and that makes them more conscious of getting a good value for whatever money they spend. Here, you can still get steak and lobster in the classic dining room experience, or get other items that don't cost nearly as much and still enjoy the service and the warmth."
Along with adding flat screen televisions and live music to the Gathering Place, where dress is so casual you might spot shorts and flip flops, the Regas team has come up with a Sharing Plate menu for the bar area. It includes nachos, and pizza, one room away from the coats and ties, Boston Schrod, and celebratory strawberry shortcake.
"You have to adjust to shocks in this world—it's like Hallerin Hill says on the radio, ‘It's a brand new day, a clear canvas, do anything you want with it,'" Bill says cheerfully. "That's the way it is with the pizzas, you can get anything you want on them."
Bill is senior among family members still participating in Regas operations, though the restaurant's now managed by Connor Concepts, with Jeff Roberts as managing partner, and Bill and Grady Regas as investors, along with Dave Thomas' estate as represented by Rick Richards. (The Wendy's founder is one of dozens of restaurant greats who got their start with the Regas family.) "I'm not real involved day to day, but more of a consultant investor and trying to carry on a fine tradition," says Bill.
He started working for his father and uncle sometime during World War II. "All the Regas children of Frank and George grew up doing odd jobs, peeling shrimp, washing potatoes, washing dishes," he says. "We started when we were 12 years old." He laughs. "Of course, you didn't have those child labor laws then, but we were only working after school."
Grady entered the business as a teen, and remembers the very day. "My dad put me on potato prep—I wasn't as tall as the counter," he recalls. "I was to brush and wash each potato twice, and wrap them in foil. Dad told me when it was time to come home, he'd come and get me. He went through his whole work day, and left. I just kept working, probably prepped a week and a half worth of potatoes before my mom asked him where I was. He had forgotten me, so he had to come back."
Astute observers note that both Grady and Bill are more visible at the restaurant in recent months, greeting the folks, solicitous of the diners, enquiring about family members back home—and, in Bill's case, asking one and sundry how they like the new Sharing Plate menu.
"We try to keep up with the trends, and we're thankful we've survived the ups and downs," he says. "We've been through the Gay Street Bridge being closed, we got that open. The interstate was closed for about a year, and now it's open and we're more accessible from any part of town. We're happy about that.
"Our friends have always stuck with us, but it's easier now."