What's the oldest bar in town? You'd think it might be a simple question. People in some other cities can tell you, or at least offer a learned opinion. In New York, for example, it's McSorley's Old Ale House, which claims to date to 1854, and really does seem it. Same name, same location. I'm not sure it's even had a good scrubbing since the Tweed Ring. It survived Prohibition as a speakeasy, and today it's a New York landmark.
Of course, 150-odd years isn't all that old compared to some bars in Britain and Ireland that claim, and look, to be 200 or 300 or even 900 years old.
Knoxville has nothing much like that. We go through bars and restaurants both faster than we go through basketball coaches. In Knoxville, a bar that dates back to the Ashe administration is considered antique, a beloved reminder of long-ago youth. But some are a little older than that.
Of course, many bars try hard to look old. Some bars in strip malls seem designed to convince us that they were favorite haunts of General Grant or W.C. Fields. Age makes vice seem venerable.
Conversely, indulgence makes things seem aged. It doesn't take many months of nightly parties for any building to start showing some interesting wear. Lots of Knoxvillians assume their favorite bar is much older than it is.
Authentic age would seem to be a rare and prized quantity in a bar. As it happens, though, the question of which bar is Knoxville's oldest doesn't come with a simple answer. It has a lot to do with what you consider old, what you consider a bar, and how you assess continuity.
Continuity turns out to be our biggest challenge. One reason that Knoxville's not a place known for really old bars is the city's incoherent development patterns. First everything, literally everything, was downtown. Then most everything was in the suburbs. Now things seem headed back downtown again. All the ebbing and flowing left a lot of businesses beached on one shore or another.
Another reason, of course, is that the city endured a period of prohibition probably longer than that of any other American city its size—outside of Utah, at least. From 1907 until 1972, liquor by the drink, including wine, was illegal in Knoxville. Many big-city saloons, like McSorley's, were able to sneak through the 14 years of national prohibition, but 65 years is a very long time to expect the authorities to look the other way.
Patrick Sullivan's Saloon
Taking all that into due consideration, what's the oldest? Many might guess Patrick Sullivan's Saloon, the centerpiece of the Old City. It's almost certainly our oldest building built mainly to be a bar, but its history poses kind of an extreme aspect of the continuity dilemma. Built around 1888 by the Irish immigrant whose name it still bears, Sullivan's looks like a classic saloon from the saloon era, though with its high cupola, it's grander than the saloons being built in Dodge City about the same time. Pat Sullivan had already done more than his part to establish an immigrant-oriented commercial district down here between the railroad yards and the river wharves. At the time of its construction, it was central to the heavily accented district called Irish Town, which became more notorious as a district of vice known as the Bowery. Sullivan's upper floors were taken up by tiny boarding rooms, and popular assumptions that it served as a whorehouse at one time or another are hard to disprove. Sullivan's saw numerous saloon fights, some of them fatal. There are credible stories that Buffalo Bill, who did have relatives in Knoxville, came here during one of his Wild West shows, had a little too much too drink, and took a few pot shots at the ceiling. (An often-repeated story that it was the saloon where Wild Bunch outlaw Kid Curry gunned down two Knoxville cops in 1901 suffers a disadvantage due to its lack of truth; we don't doubt that the Kid, aka Harvey Logan, was familiar with Sullivan's, but Knoxville's most famous saloon fight actually occurred at a modest billiards saloon called Ike Jones', about three blocks to the south, and torn down decades ago.)
Sullivan's was eventually known as DeWine's, after Sullivan associate Daniel DeWine, who much later donated a hill in North Knoxville that became the campus of St. Mary's Hospital; what was long considered East Tennessee's top medical center was made possible, in part, by saloon money. But the saloon served its original purpose for probably less than 20 years. Sullivan's/DeWine's was closed by local prohibition in 1907. It trafficked in "soft drinks" for a while, as did many forlorn saloons in those days. Beginning in the early 1920s, it was as an Italian-run ice-cream shop and confectionery—Armetto's sign is still barely visible on the wall outside—which evolved in a restaurant called Mike's Place, which may or may not have offered beer. It closed during World War II. Then, for about three decades, it was an upholstery shop. It was vacant for years before it reopened as a restaurant/bar in 1986, reviving the Sullivan's name, and with a multi-layered interior that admirably evokes the building's era and maybe, for all we know, some aspects of the original saloon. The current saloon has been in business even longer than the original was. But in between were some 78 tedious years as a non-bar.
Diagonally across the street from Sullivan's is Manhattan's. Not nearly as old as Sullivan's, it has something of an advantage in continuity, in that it endured a much shorter period as a non-bar. Opened as a Greek-run chili parlor known as the Manhattan Café around 1925—it had previously been a photography studio—it's rumored to have been a Prohibition-era bar for its diverse but sometimes shady neighborhood. By some stories, the bar in the middle divided black customers from white ones. There are also stories that during the 1940s, when only beer was legal in Knoxville, the café operated as a kind of liquor speakeasy that—perhaps thanks to its name—attracted some scientists and engineers from the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge. It was a rough place, though, the scene of at least one murder—according to a story told by an old-timer of the neighborhood, a prostitute once left an acquaintance nailed to his seat back with an ice pick. None of these stories, all plausible, are very easy to confirm. The Manhattan Cafe closed around 1951, commencing some fairly prosaic years as a furniture store.
It reopened as a bar in 1985, the first bona fide bar to open in a new development freshly named the Old City, and has served that purpose ever since, and has a rich old-bar atmosphere, and looks best in the late afternoon sun, thanks to the lantern skylight on top. A recent expansion into old adjacent buildings has rendered Manhattan's bigger than it has ever been.
Oldest By Beer License
Of course, beer joints became re-legalized in Knoxville in 1933, and if there were a very old beer joint here, it might be in the running. But most were small and inexpensive places that came and went like loan sharks. Just to be sure there wasn't some obscure roadside beer joint with a genuine deep heritage, we called the city's beer permits office. Wanda Day, who works in that office, did some checking for us, and offers some surprising answers to the question. The city's not so much concerned about same-location authenticity as the identity of the individual who's responsible for paying beer taxes, and judged by that criterion, Knoxville's oldest continually open bar, under the same management—Knoxville's oldest beer license—is that of the Longbranch Saloon on Cumberland Avenue. It did change locations around 1991, swapping its old narrow saloon-style arrangement for the living room of a century-old house across the street (the pool tables are back in the dining room). Some old patrons say they still haven't gotten used to it, after 17-odd years. But it does have the same management it did when it opened in the old space in 1978.
As far as bar/restaurants, Day says, the oldest continually open one under the same license, is one of the few beer joints that doesn't even try to seem old. It's enclosed in reflective glass on the 27th floor of one of Knoxville's most modernist buildings: Club LeConte, the private club in Plaza Tower, has been doing the same thing under the same management for 30 years.
That claim will raise a couple of questions of apparently older places. The Old College Inn bears the legend, "since 1939," but it actually opened as the OCI around 1980; behind that early date is a complicated hitchhiking adventure with a predecessor called Brownie's, which opened in a different location in 1939. A beloved lunch spot which did offer beer, Brownie's was not a bar. Just as the OCI, though, it's one of the few traditions on the Strip, and one of the older full-bars in town.
So the oldest same-location bar on the Strip is now the one at Copper Cellar. It's been known mainly as a restaurant since its opening in 1975; that date, makes it the oldest surviving dining establishment on the Strip except for the Krystal, Burger King, and McDonald's. But some folks come to Copper Cellar just for a drink, and it has the rare distinction of serving a significant drink to one of the great American poets of the 20th century. Robert Lowell had agreed to give a lecture at the University of Tennessee in May, 1977, in the Shiloh Room of the University Center, but was alarmed at UT's strict no-alcohol policy. With some UT students, he fled to the Copper Cellar to get fortified before his talk. The UT reading would turn out to be Lowell's last appearance anywhere; he grew ill and died of heart failure about three months later. The Copper Cellar outlived several of its neighbors, like Sam and Andy's Roman Room and the Quarterback. Of course, the precise location of the Copper Cellar's main bar might raise questions of how old it is; the street-level development was a 1980s expansion of the restaurant, which was previously literally in the cellar.
However, Day says their beer license isn't as old as that of the Longbranch.
Though much better known as a restaurant than as a bar, Regas has a right to chime in. The venerable restaurant opened in 1919 as a luncheonette called the Ocean Cafe, owned by a couple of Greek-immigrant brothers, and moved into its current building, which was then a big hotel called the Watauga, around 1922. Either date would make it, by far, Knoxville's oldest operating restaurant. For its first 30 years here, it was just a narrow, sunny little eatery, much beloved, but not a bar. In the 1950s, Regas underwent a wholesale remodeling, became much bigger and much swankier. Eventually they did add a posh bar, with a piano, advertised as "the Gathering Place." According to Bill Regas, the bar went in almost immediately after Knoxville voters finally legalized liquor by the drink in 1972. That might well make Regas Knoxville's oldest full bar.
Of course, there's the matter that it closed for the better part of a year, 2000-01—permanently, it was thought, before the surprise reopening—which strict constructionists might insist breaks the continuity. That's why it doesn't trump Club LeConte in the beer-permit assessment.
A reference found Googling the subject alleges the oldest bar in Knoxville is the Corner Lounge—which, alas, closed just a few months ago. Once better known as the Corner Grill or just the Corner, the modest bar on North Central Street recently did have a legitimate claim to being the longest-running bar in town. Though it's been closed for more than one interval in the last 10 or 15 years, it has never been anything else.
It opened in the 1930s, not long after the end of Prohibition, as the Corner Grill, and, though it usually served simple food, the Corner quickly became better known as a beer joint. Cormac McCarthy's novel Suttree, set in the early 1950s, includes a brief scene here. In the '70s, the Corner trumpeted its association with the regular piano player, one Con Hunley, who had a locally celebrated recording career. It reopened about five years ago as a "listening room," a nightclub with good acoustics and audience space, its exterior decorated with street scenes of interesting North Central types, and depending on the attraction, was often packed. But after 70 years of almost-continuous service as a bar, it closed early this year, and though its current owner is sympathetic to its heritage, it's unclear when or if it will reopen.
The Carousel II
It's worth mentioning that several of our oldest continually open bars have opening dates clustered around 1978, and one of them is called the Carousel. If the main criterion of "oldest bar" is continuous openness of a bar that's not primarily a restaurant, without change of name or location, one of the oldest may well be Knoxville's oldest gay bar. The Carousel II (the meaning of the II isn't obvious; calls to the bar were unreturned) is certainly the oldest continually open one-name, one-location bar in the downtown-UT area. The basement club on White Avenue has been open ever since about 1978, 30 years now. Its patrons have included, among many others, playwright Tennessee Williams.
If you want to sense the presence of ghosts, though, no bar is able to claim quite the heritage of the Bistro; the Gay Street establishment is adjacent to the Bijou Theatre, which is sometimes directly accessible to the Bistro, via the lobby. It's better known to some bankers and theatergoers as a lunch-and-dinner restaurant, but it also features a handsome and prominent bar, as fully equipped as the Rubenesque nude in the painting above it.
The chaotic arrangement of brick in its rough, dark walls makes it seem old, tracing nearly two centuries of remodelings. Especially on its ancient northern wall, the brick appears in variant sizes, some of them nearly cubical, like no brick made lately. The Bistro is housed in one of the oldest buildings in Knoxville, the 1816 hotel building once known as the Lamar House—which is almost a century older than East Tennessee's oldest theater, the century-old Bijou. By 1817 the building was known as Archie Rhea's Tavern, and though it was mainly a hostelry, it also served food and drink. It goes so far back that in its very earliest days, it advertised its prices in shillings, which were officially out of fashion in dollar-and-cents America, but apparently still respected in Knoxville. Breakfast and supper were one shilling. Dinner, the mid-day meal, was more elaborate, one shilling six pence.
Over the years, this stout edifice hosted a couple of different parties feting guest Andrew Jackson to celebrate his various triumphs, the one over the British and the one over the bank bill. Before Knoxville had a public building, it was a place of wonders, of masquerade balls and all-night St. Patrick's Day parties, and, on at least one occasion in the 1820s, a place where an enterprising entrepreneur invited citizens to take turns sampling a new luxury, nitrous oxide. Perhaps fortunately, it was a short-lived fad.
By the 1850s, or perhaps even before, this corner of the building was operating as the Lamar House Saloon. Its location was sometimes described as just to the left of the hotel lobby, or precisely where the Bistro's main dining area is. The oldest part of the room is the part where the tables are, to the right of the support columns.
Judging by advertisements, it was one of Knoxville's best-known saloons of the Civil War and Reconstruction era, run for more than a decade by one John Scherf, who advertised Rhine wine, lager beer, cigars, and, a high-tech indulgence in the 1860s, real ice. Early in the war, Unionist Andrew Johnson, an enthusiastic drinker, gave speeches out front, and was at least once fired upon. It was a meeting place for officers of both armies. One of his regular bartenders was John Hodgson, the English-born brother of author Frances Hodgson Burnett.
In what some historians have claimed was the most divided city in America, it was the site of numerous political debates in those bitter days. Some of them turned violent; Joseph Mabry, co-donor of Market Square, among other things, shot political opponent John Baxter, non-fatally, after an argument in the bar. Gen. James Clanton, CSA, died in this building six years after the war, just after a gunfight on Gay Street.
It thrived through the 1880s, but seems to have ceased operating as a bar sometime before the turn of the century—in the 1890s, there's a cobbler's shop listed there—though the same building sometimes housed a saloon on its other side, on the corner of Gay and Cumberland. Eventually the Bistro space evolved into a restaurant, one called the Old Homestead Dairy Lunch. Sometime early in the century—maps suggest it was between 1903 and 1917—an addition to the Lamar House building added the space where the modern bar, which doesn't look modern at all, now resides.
In the 20th century it served several other uses, including the Southern Barbecue and what's said to be Knoxville's first Chinese restaurant, the Pagoda, in the 1930s. It served beer and had a reputation as a gathering place for gangsters.
It had fallen into disuse before maverick preservationist Kristopher Kendrick remodeled it to be the Bistro in the early 1980s, soon after the first big renovation of the adjacent Bijou. Even that date makes it one of Knoxville's older consistent bars. Its proximity to the courthouse has given it a reputation as a magnet for lawyers, and its proximity to the Bijou makes it popular with theatergoers and, on weekend evenings, artists and musicians. It's the rich setting of a couple of scenes in Richard Yancey's popular 2006 mystery, The Highly Effective Detective.
Some have seen a ghost in this room, a grayish man with a hat. No one claims to know who he is; there are too many candidates. Even Club LeConte, high in the glass building across the street, can't claim such a depth of spirits.