Bob Deck, Smarmy Talk Show Guy

World's Fair V.I.P. Hosts & Hostesses

John Majors, Vol Football Coach

Richard Lakin & Charles Williams, Restaurateurs of the Unusual

Reggie Johnson, UT Basketball Hero


Richard Lakin & Charles Williams, Restaurateurs of the Unusual

Of all the menus in all the dining rooms in all the restaurants in Knoxville, there's never been another like the one at Richard's (or, to give its full name, Richard's—an American Café).

From 1985 to 1990, the restaurant operated at 5200 Kingston Pike, in the building currently occupied by Tuscany. It was memorable for its decor, for its ambiance, for its weekly cabaret shows—but its most distinctive feature was undoubtedly its enormous and varied catalog of entrées. If you wanted rattlesnake, snipe, Ohio River muskrat, leg of lion, boarbecue or bearbecue, Richard's was the place—the only place—to go.

"The only problem was dormice," recalls Richard Lakin. "We were never quite able to get them. Very limited availability."

Lakin started Richard's with his partner Charles Williams. The two native East Tennesseans had several years of restaurant experience between them—both had worked at the Sheraton Campus Inn, where Lakin was food and beverage director. Williams had started as a dishwasher there and by the time the concept for Richard's was born, he had become a captain at Club LeConte. The two talk about their restaurant venture now with unabashed nostalgia.

"It was a nice little oasis for creative people who were sort of on the edge," Williams says fondly, paging through a photo album of menus, press clips, and advertisements for the establishment.

Lakin says the restaurant actually grew out of social events he and Williams used to host. "We'd been having lots of parties at the house, 20, 30, 40 people, so we decided to try to get paid for it," he says.

The space they chose had already been through several restaurant incarnations—as a Middle Eastern eatery and then, briefly, an Irish place. The Mediterranean decor was still in place, so Lakin and Williams decided to play off it for the name, inspired by Rick's Café Americain in Casablanca (the gin and gambling joint run by Humphrey Bogart).

From the beginning, the restaurant had a sense of fun. Knoxville actress Jayne Morgan worked as a bartender, and she and Williams conspired on several japes. Among the most popular was the diary they wrote for a mannequin in the foyer dubbed Miss Viveca. Customers could take the diary to their table to read about Viveca's latest exploits.

"Jayne and I would just come up with these awful sordid stories and put them in diary form and see if anyone would notice," Williams says, laughing.

Morgan also ran the restaurant's weekend cabarets, where she performed along with future TV host Bob Deck, who worked in the kitchen (and who is also featured in this issue). "Ask Bob about his version of 'My Way,'" Williams says. "Just ask him if he still has my white satin bustier." The house pianist was local jazz fave Marcus Shirley ("the only person in the world who could sit down and for dinner music play 'Hey Jude' or 'Paint It Black' for 45 minutes").

At first, the menu featured relatively traditional high-end fare, mostly chicken, fish, and steak dishes. But after a year and a half or so, Lakin started hearing from distributors that they could provide more exotic game.

"It was sort of a 'Why not?'" he says. "It was the '80s, everything was really prosperous, our generation was just coming of age with money to spend."

As the menu mushroomed to include things like Australian boar, alligator, Scotch woodcock, and reindeer, so did the number of questions from curious customers ("What does water buffalo taste like?"). But Lakin says a surprising number of patrons opted for the esoteric platters—although he only served snipe twice, he says. "Very aromatic, very musky and gamy—didn't care for it."

Lakin says all the meat was ranch-raised and licensed for eating; but that didn't stop the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency from banning bear and beaver from Richard's menu. "They had no way to certify they weren't being poached, even though [the bears] were coming in from Sweden," Lakin says.

The Richard's crew also started catering, most famously at a Whittle Communications party at the Knoxville Zoo. The novelty of eating exotic animals in their own backyard appealed to some and offended others. The catering business, in fact, was soon more remunerative than the restaurant itself—a fact not lost on the run-ragged restaurateurs.

"It was wearing us down," Lakin says. "We had a really good, strong group of customers, but not enough of them. It was a 75-seat restaurant, and in Knoxville everybody wants to eat at 7 on Friday and Saturday nights."

After five years, Lakin and Williams finally closed the place down to devote themselves full-time to catering. They now handle events at the University of Tennessee Conference Center and the Gatlinburg Conference Center. They occasionally talk about giving their own place another go, Williams says, but, "We talk each other out of it."

Still, they sometimes run into old customers who want to know if there's any way they can get a bowl of Son-of-a-Bitch Soup (made of odds and ends—bits of lion, alligator, etc.) or find out what made the black bean soup taste so good (venison blood, Lakin says with a grin).

"We miss the adulation," Lakin says. "It can be an incredible high when you've got a full dining room and everything's clicking like it should...But then some nights, the commode backs up."

—Jesse Fox Mayshark