Celebrity Sitings: Brushes With Fame at Knoxville Restaurants

Liberace! Gene Simmons! Mr. Chekov! Tall tales of celebrity visits to local eateries.

Bob Dylan's late-night visit to the Cumberland Avenue Krystal in the 1970s was once the stuff of legend. Garrison Keillor and his staff enjoyed a two-hour dinner at the brewpub on Gay Street—his back to the crowd, he was happily unrecognized. Bestselling murder-mystery author Patricia Cornwell had her detective, Kay Scarpetta, dine at Calhoun's on the River, in her novel, The Body Farm. Robert Lowell, one of the best-known American poets of the 20th century, had a few fortifying drinks at Copper Cellar on Cumberland right before the last poetry reading of his career.

Some stories fade, others get warped a little, but a lot of Knoxville's more durable restaurants end up with tales of the day the Celebrity came in for a bite.

The Bistro at the Bijou Theatre

The Bistro has quite a celebrity heritage to live up to: These walls have witnessed visitors like the young Andrew Jackson—who was the equivalent of an international rock star when he was the subject of a gala reception here in 1817—and English-born author Frances Hodgson Burnett, whose brother John tended bar here for a time during the Reconstruction era.

Longtime manager, now owner, Martha Boggs has taken the steady stream of celebrities, many of them before or after a show at the adjacent Bijou, in stride. "Of course, a lot of these bands come in here after the show and sit around and get all drunky-pants," she says. "And Steve Earle comes in nearly every time he's in town. He's a meat-and-potatoes guy." When actor Vince Vaughn came in for a cup of coffee (an unusual order in the morning, when the Bistro is usually gearing up for lunch), she didn't even know for sure who he was.

Football coach Johnny Majors has been a semi-regular, and the last time she saw Congressman Jimmy Duncan in the house, she bought him his turkey Reuben, "to thank him for voting against that stupid-ass war."

But an unexpected guest can still stop her in her tracks. Two years ago, it was the famously elusive novelist Cormac McCarthy, sitting with a small group by the window. "When I saw him, I almost dropped my teeth out. He ordered a filet of beef tenderloin. It was right about the week before he won the Pulitzer."

Actor-comedian Kathy Griffin was famous for favoring the Pizza Palace drive-in on her last visit, but she also likes the Bistro: "She eats like a 12-year-old boy, chicken fingers," Boggs says. "We made her a ham-and-egg-and-cheese panini."

When she served legendary singer-songwriter and guitarist Doc Watson his cheesecake desert, he said, "It looks good!" Watson is blind, and enjoys a joke.

Folk legend Joan Baez once danced on the bar at an Old City club, but here she was a bit more subdued. "She came in after lunch and ordered a pot of tea and sat around all afternoon. She was just sitting there staring out the window, chilling out."

One particular former Talking Head ruffled some feathers when he wrote an ambivalent blog post about having supper with his daughter at Trio on Market Square about three years ago, but when he went to the Bistro, he was a prince. "David Byrne was the nicest person I ever served," Boggs says. "He was just super, super nice. He thought it was a cool place, said the building reminded him of a place in New York."

Regas Restaurant

Bill Regas has worked at his family's Regas Restaurant in some capacity for more than 60 years, and says over-the-top pianist Liberace was one of the most memorable celebrities to visit in that time. In the late '60s and early '70s, Liberace would play Knoxville venues, then come to Regas to eat, still dressed "pretty fancy," says Regas—fur coat, diamond rings, and all. Liberace's meal might vary, says Regas, who as manager would greet him and his entourage at the door and supervise the seating, but he always finished with not one, but two, pieces of the restaurant's signature Red Velvet cake.

"He was so friendly, such a happy guy," says Regas. "Some entertainers don't want to be bothered. But he was one that liked to mingle and be happy."

Bayou Bay

Andy Cantillo is a native of Lutcher, La., just 40 miles up river from New Orleans, and an inspired Cajun and seafood cook. But his favorite celebrity memory at Bayou Bay, the Chapman Highway restaurant he's co-owned with wife Cindy for 18 years, doesn't involve anything the restaurant is well-known for. Two years ago, when '70s "Yellow Ribbon" crooner Tony Orlando stopped in, he ended up eating a chargrilled chicken salad, no gumbo or crawfish in sight. "He said he had to watch his weight, keep his figure," says Castillo with a laugh.

Cantillo says the 1974-76 Tony Orlando and Dawn variety show was must-see television at his childhood home. "I learned that Tony was coming next door [to Bayou Bay] to talk to Rev. Mull at the Christian radio station [WJBZ], so I ran next door to meet him. They told him, ‘This man makes the best seafood you can get in Knoxville,' and Tony said, ‘Well, that sounds like where we should eat.'"

He's not sure if Orlando's voice is still up to par—"He did not sing to us"—but Cantillo says he would have recognized Orlando if he'd walked through the door unannounced. "He looked just like on TV. And his hair was still pretty, it looked that good."

The Orangery

Throughout its unusual 40-year history, the Orangery has always been a celebrity magnet. Among their most regular customers are local stars, like retired opera star Mary Costa (the voice of the title character in Disney's 1959 animated movie, Sleeping Beauty) who, as it happens, had just left when we called last week. Patricia Neal often drops in when she's in town.

Kathleen Anderson recalls that KISS frontman Gene Simmons came in, "many years ago," sans makeup. Other musicians like Rod Stewart and ELO ate there, as well as talk-show hosts Jane Pauley and Larry King, on separate occasions. The Orangery is often listed as Knoxville's multiple-star restaurant in travel guides, and King seems like the sort of fellow who would use the Mobil Travel Guide like a Bible. Dancer Rudolf Nureyev ordered a vintage champagne—Moët & Chandon—and a beef filet so rare it was practically raw.

One of West Knoxville's most stubborn celebrity legends is that Billy Joel, who rarely performed in Knoxville, spent several hours at the Orangery in the 1970s, working on a song; it was, by one account, his 1977 deflowering anthem, "Only the Good Die Young."

Kathleen remembers Tom Jones' visit. "I remember that his manager was a total jerk. Tom Jones was nice as nice can be," she says, but his New Yorkish manager was offended to see someone wearing jeans. "I thought you didn't allow jeans in here," he said, in an imperious tone, implying the offender should be thrown out post-haste. But it apparently didn't bother Mr. Jones.

Pete's Coffee Shop

You just expect to see a Vols football coach at this lively diner owned by Pete Natour—Phil Fulmer, legions of assistants, Johnny Majors, Lane and Monte Kiffin (hey, how was Pete supposed to know how that would turn out?), and now Derek Dooley. But there have been a few more unique celebs to stop by for a meat-and-three or über breakfast over the years—not that the staff always recognizes them at first. Jody Haynes, a server there for the past 12 years, remembers that the guy from Lost who plays Ben came in and ate an omelette a few years ago, but not his name (Michael Emerson). "The only reason I know is that Pete was gone that day, and his brother Sam was here and I served the guy the omelette and Sam recognized him."

Bernie Kopell, who played Doc on The Love Boat, was even easier to miss because he came in years after the show had ended, with his hair under a cap. The restaurant was already closed for the afternoon, and Pete was sitting reading a newspaper at the counter, when the guy asked where he could get a sandwich downtown. "Jody and I both recognized him then, immediately, because of his voice," Natour remembers.

Kopell ate a turkey sandwich, and Haynes and Pete both stuck around to talk with him. "He was married, and at that time had a small child, so we chatted about that," remembers Haynes. "I think he was here speaking at a seminar somewhere."

A few weeks later, an 8x10-inch glossy arrived in the mail that looked just like Kopell as his Doc alter ego. He'd written "the turkey sandwich was delicious" and signed it; the photo now hangs on the wall next to the second table on the right when you enter Pete's.

Lyle Lovett also made an appearance at Pete's some time ago, before playing the Tennessee Theatre, and introduced server Sheree Atkins (who's worked at both Pete's locations for a record 31 years!) to his girlfriend. She remembers he was nice, and ate... "green beans," she says with a laugh. "Something and green beans."

Tomato Head

Now 20 years old, Market Square's avatar Tomato Head, which is a favorite of AC Entertainment owner/host Ashley Capps as well as WDVX disk jockeys, has seen perhaps more than its share of celebrities; floor manager Trace Bateman says every server has a different list, and you can tell a lot about the personality of a server by the celebrities they remember in most detail.

He saw writer/comedian David Sedaris eat there once. "He had the Southwest Chicken Salad, I'm pretty sure," Bateman says. Comedian Paula Poundstone, uncustomarily quiet, sat alone at a table by the front window, reading and writing. Performance artist Laurie Anderson was there, once.

Tomato Head might have the highest teen-idols-per-square-foot factor. Cook Hunter Overby remembers actor Jared Leto and Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale, and that the rock band Papa Roach ate there two days in a row. They're names you might not recognize unless you're under 40.

But Overby's biggest moment as a server came the day when another server said, "Scotty's at my table!"—Scotty as in Star Trek.

"I'm a huge Trekkie," Overby admits. He told the other server, "That's not funny. James Doohan has been dead for two years."

But she was insistent, and he walked out to be only slightly less awed to find, sitting at a table with friends, not Scotty, but Mr. Chekov. Also known as Walter Koenig, the mop-headed actor was a bit of a teen idol on television before he got the call to create the role of USS Enterprise navigator Pavel Chekov in 1967. Koenig has appeared in the Star Trek movies, and in other sci-fi projects like the '90s TV show Babylon 5. "That was a huge deal for me," Overby says. But he was a little disappointed that the warp-speed navigator is not the most pleasant of customers.

"Well, he was kind of a jerk," Overby says. "He was upset that we didn't have pasta." But he will never forget what he did order, which might be nicknamed the Mr. Chekov: "He got a turkey melt, on wheat, with blue-corn chips."

Copper Cellar (West)/Cappuccino's

West Knoxville restaurants get celebrities, too. Copper Cellar/Cappuccino's was once the Fancy Place past Bearden Hill. It now has some more competition in that regard, but still brings in some big names.

There's an old secondhand story, from the Carter administration, that the Doobie Brothers—all of them, apparently—came in and spent some time in a back room, as the tale has it, snorting something.

Manager Jack Davis can't confirm that one, but doesn't doubt it. He started working there not long after that. But he's seen his own share of celebrities in his almost three decades of keeping an eye on things there. In recent years, the restaurant has been a favorite of movie-premiere crowds.

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson was in there at the time of the Walking Tall premiere. Not long after that, maybe five years ago, a young thespian named Jessica Simpson came in for supper with an entourage of eight.

"That was the biggest spectacle I remember seeing," Davis says, with a tone suggesting he's happy it's not a daily occurrence. "It was when the Dukes of Hazzard came out. About 100 people were outside the restaurant, waiting to see her get in her car." She and her posse dined in the Cappuccino's section. "I was too embarrassed to even walk through there. I kind of felt sorry for her."

Oscar, Tony, and Emmy-winning actor Jason Robards, who died in 2000, is one of Davis' favorite sightings. "He was a very nice guy," he says. "He came in with some friends." He doesn't remember what Robards ate, except that it was Italian. Robards' Kingston Pike habits present a bit of a mystery. The long-gone Bearden Hill Mexican restaurant El Palenque, which is about a quarter mile from Copper Cellar, used to boast, ca. 1985, an inexplicable photograph of Robards with his chum Mickey Rooney. Inexplicable, because he is not known ever to have performed here. Did the Chicago-born Robards, the granite-faced, gravel-voiced actor who at various times played Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Doc Holliday, Dashiell Hammett, Andrei Sakharov, Ben Bradlee, and Drunken Writer (in Bright Lights, Big City) have some business interest in West Knoxville?

But Davis' favorite celebrity guest, ever, was one Mr. Waylon Jennings (who died in 2002). The legendary country singer, the original Outlaw and Willie Nelson's best collaborator, was dining in the Copper Cellar's banquet room with his band. Davis asked one member of the entourage if he could meet Jennings, assuming he might just get permission to approach him at his table.

"But he came out to meet me at the bar," Davis says. "I was kinda taken aback." Jennings was friendly and happy to chat, but "I was put on the spot too much to talk."

Chandler's

East Knoxville's soul-food mecca Chandler's is well-known for local celebrities. Bill Haslam has been a monthly regular since his first campaign for mayor, and even worked in the kitchen one day. "The thing I like about him, he's just very personable," says Charles Chandler. "He will not ever come here without coming back to the kitchen to ask for Charlie and Gwen." Both of Tennessee's current U.S. senators have been customers, and as Chandler has it, a big portion of the Tennessee Supreme Court eats there regularly, as well as current and former Vols coaching staff, including, now, Mr. Dooley. David Keith is a regular; being swarmed by fans was a problem for a while, but now Chandler says the regulars are used to seeing him.

"The day before yesterday, Meadowlark Lemon came in here," says Chandler. "You know who he is?" Of course you do. The most famous of the Harlem Globetrotters, ever, he was all over TV in the '60s and '70s and was even a Saturday-morning cartoon character. And he was at Chandler's last Wednesday. "He had the ribs, and I think macaroni and green beans." Chandler says Lemon is an affable fellow and asked about the restaurant's history. Chandler says he thinks he was here for an exhibition of some sort, and that his family has business connections in the area.

Benjamin Hooks, the late civil-rights activist who was longtime director of the NAACP, came in once several years ago, when he was speaking at a Martin Luther King Day function. "I've always regretted not getting his picture," Chandler says.

The '60s soul star Clifford Curry has been in before. New Orleans rapper Mystikal came by in a long white limousine, but Chandler, who was a little unsettled by the prospect of a big gangsta-rap event in his little restaurant, declined to set up a special section for a hip-hop party inside. Mystikal, who later did some hard time, ordered some chicken and hosted an autograph party in Chandler's parking lot.

Chandler brightens up when he talks about another celebrity entourage. "Earth, Wind, and Fire, you know who they are?" They were performing for an event at nearby Chilhowee Park. "They came in and got chicken and stuff. They're just normal. Occasionally celebrities come in and want to be sort of stroked, but they were just glad to get some basic home-cooked food."

Miscellanea:

• Wright's Cafeteria is famous for its local political celebrities (as a Haslam commercial demonstrates), but they've had a few others over the years. Author Alex Haley was a regular—"He used to eat here all the time"—and singer Con Hunley has been seen there more than once. "Kenny Chesney came in here and ate one day," says owner David Wright.

• Litton's draws quite a few, including some unlikely sorts. Scottie Pippen and some other Chicago Bulls were in a few years ago.

• Congressman Jimmy Duncan met his wife, Lynn, when she was a server at Regas Restaurant and he was a judge.

• Pete's Coffee Shop owner Pete Natour and longtime server Sheree Atkins never served Alan Jackson in the diner, but both appear in his 1994 video for "Gone Country."