Regas, 1919-2010

The culinary and architectural saga of an (almost) infinitely adaptable American restaurant

The city is mourning the impending loss of its oldest restaurant. Regas, which has been open in one form or another since the Wilson administration, will close at the end of the month, after a 91-year run. Bill Regas, the 81-year-old son of Frank Regas, the Greek immigrant who co-founded the restaurant, announced his decision to the large staff on Saturday.

It's a loss to the city, and most longtime Knoxvillians have fond stories of the place, but Regas also makes a case study of adaptation to a radically changing environment. Its history is almost Darwinian.

When the Greek-immigrant Regas brothers opened their first restaurant, it was a simple place: a casual cafe with 18 stools at the counter, plus six booths and six tables. They served sandwiches and steaks and relied heavily on pedestrian traffic. Its origin is a little more complicated than most folks assume, and a little murky in some particulars, but here's what's known: By 1919, Greek immigrants Frank and George Regas, born in the port city of Patras, were working at what was known as the Ocean Cafe, on South Gay Street near what's now the tourist welcome center. Soon they were running the place, and by 1924 they had opened a diner called the Astor Cafe in the Watauga Hotel on North Gay. The city had just completed its broad new Gay Street viaduct across the railyards, and the busy Southern Railway passenger attracted development hard to picture today. The intersection of North Gay and Depot Street was then a cluster of six or seven hotels, some of them rather large.

This Tuesday, in his customary blue blazer, 81-year-old Bill Regas was once again the gracious host, strolling around the series of adjoining rooms that is Regas. At high lunchtime, people approached him to offer their wishes and condolences and thanks, and to, once again, get directions to the bathroom. He can recall when each dining room was a different business facing North Gay.

"That was a fruitseller," he says, "and all the way down at the end, that was Gordon's Drugstore." Standing in one room, he points to three steps up to the next dining room. "Those steps went up to the lobby of the Watauga." The hotel offered interior access to the restaurant; the Watauga hosted some permanent residents, who were regulars.

"We were open seven days a week, 24 hours a day," says Regas. "The only day we closed was Christmas." And not for the whole day. On Dec. 25, Regas was closed from about 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. "They couldn't afford to be closed all day. It shows you what humble beginnings we had."

Frank and George learned a hard lesson at the Ocean Cafe, which had closed for a renovation and lost most of their regular customers. They determined never to take that risk again. By the mid-1930s, the duo were so well known they changed the name of their cafe to Regas Brothers.

For 30 years or so, their hard work paid off. This 24-hour neighborhood of hotel guests and railroad pedestrians, with thousands of residents within walking distance just to the north, may have been the best spot in East Tennessee for a cafe. And nearby was the phone company, in the days when it employed scores of manual switchboard operators. Regas expanded within the building, as opportunities emerged.

Some of the early stories are foggy. Frank and George Regas, who worked hard keeping a 24-hour business going, both died in the 1950s before retiring, and never set down memories on paper. Recently, school teacher Susan Witt became fascinated with the Regas story. Intimately involved with the restaurant for some time, she just this fall started working there as a hostess. She's inviting anyone with memories or information to contact her via the restaurant's website, regassquare.com.

The man in the blazer began working here during World War II, at the age of 12. The war drew away several of Regas' employees, without a corresponding decrease in the customer base. There were times when Regas was flooded with soldiers on troop trains, bearing government meal tickets. The Regases filled in some of the shortages by hiring their own kids. Bill Regas encountered soldiers arriving on late-night trains when he worked the 8 p.m. to 6:30 a.m night shift, when he also started dealing with unusual orders for workers heading for a little-known place called Oak Ridge.

"At about 2 in the morning, we'd make about 100 sandwiches to go with the Oak Ridge workers," he says. They'd arrive at 4 a.m. for breakfast, and buy some lunch for later on. (The Manhattan Project was not known for its cuisine.)

By the 1950s, for the first time in history, most Knoxvillians had cars, and were enjoying the ride. They started patronizing suburban restaurants. And they stopped riding trains.

With that change in habits, the American-restaurant ideal changed to the opposite of what had worked for the Regases for so many years. By the 1950s, the model American restaurant was one that appealed to motorists, not pedestrians. It was a freestanding, single-use building with a big parking lot at the front door, preferably near a highway. Regas was, at the time, none of these things, located in a declining old hotel in a dense, declining old neighborhood more and more off the beaten path.

The story goes that Frank Regas, perhaps through his friendship with Gov. Frank Clement, persuaded the city's first expressway to come right by his building. Once supplied with a Gay Street exit, the highway that became the downtown link of Interstate 40 was known as the Frank Regas Expressway. The adjacency of an interstate was, at the time, seen as purely an asset.

The Watauga had fallen on hard times in 1963 when the city condemned it. It likely would have been torn down like its neighbors, but the Regases proved they could save the lower part of the building by removing the offending three upper floors of hotel rooms. In 1963, the demolition of most of the old Watauga Hotel wasn't considered controversial. Many were still around who remembered when the Watauga and Atkin hotels opened; it was hard to think of them as historic, especially in a city still tearing down genuinely historic buildings from the 18th century, like Chisholm's Tavern. Today, the handsome old buildings would have been redeveloped as $500,000 condos, but historical redevelopment with adaptive reuse was all but unknown then in Knoxville.

Remarkably, remembering the lessons of another generation, Regas kept the restaurant open throughout the upper-floor demolition. "Today, people would think you were crazy if you did that," he says.

Soon afterward, the Atkin's owner chose to demolish the once-famous 200-room hotel. He said he hadn't decided what to do with the property, but thought it would be "more valuable if put to some other use." It turned out to be especially valuable to Regas, as a big free parking lot like those of the new restaurants on Kingston Pike. By the 1970s, what they had left was a larger and modernized first floor, eventually reoriented toward the Depot Street parking lot. To lure people in from the suburbs, Regas says, "We figured we had to upscale, get people down here for something special—an evening to remember, candlelight, chandeliers, kind of romancing it a little bit."

The menu went upscale, too—though he prefers to avoid the phrase "fine dining" because it might sound expensive; today's entrees range from the $13 hamburger to the $39 Delmonico ribeye.

Things changed again. The interstate, which seemed an asset in 1955, lost its Gay Street exit in 1981, and then got taller and uglier and louder. Fewer businesses and residents cared to be near it, and the interstate's corridor saw decades of neglect and blight.

Then downtown took a surprising turn: pedestrian proximity became important again. But it tended to happen in nodes far from the highway, and Regas. In its final month, Regas makes for interesting architecture: from its south, a modern suburban-style restaurant. But from the North Gay Street sidewalk, the lower part of an Edwardian-era hotel, its grand arched entrance still discernible.

So what's the oldest restaurant in town now? As recently as the 1990s, there were several rivals to that claim, or runners-up; they've all since gone out of business. After this month, the answer to that question won't be clear.