The importance of being eldest
by Jack Neely
People don't carry marquees advertising their birth dates. Restaurants aren't like people. Restaurants want to seem as old as possible. Often they try to seem much older than they are, with quaint decor or framed pictures of Vols without facemasks. Sometimes they see how far they can reach with a founding date.
Some cities, like New Orleans, have restaurants that are over 100 years oldsame building, same name, same specialties. In fickle Knoxville, a restaurant that's more than 10 years old is downright venerable, and must be good.
I couldn't help but notice that, despite the recent demise of the Torch and the Varsity Inna couple of Cumberland Avenue's eldest eateriesthe Strip is somehow looking more historical than ever before.
The marquee of the new Sam & Andy's says "since 1946," as if to firm up its connection to the original Sam & Andy's. Before they were forced to move, of course, Sam & Andy's was across the street at the site of what's now McAlister's Gourmet Deliwhich is, by the way, also borrowing on the Sam & Andy's heritage, preserving their original ROMAN ROOM sign on its verandah, as if it stayed there floating in space while the rest of the building was torn down and this new one built up. (The original Roman Room is still so revered, by the way, that I hear there's a high-level proposal on the table to evoke the decor of the old knotty-pine-and-football-pictures diner in the interior decoration of the new Convention Center.)
But if the Sam & Andy's across the street still dates back to 1946 in this new place, does the Sam & Andy's in Farragutwhich is actually olderalso date all the way back to 1946? And how about the new one at West Town?
Even more puzzling to a lot of old collegiates is the Old College Inn. Sometime in the last decade, an awning materialized in front of the Old College Inn proclaiming "Since 1939."
For years, I've hesitated to admit this out loud, being reluctant to date myself. But I don't think the Old College Inn was there when I went to college. As I recall, there wasn't even a New College Inn here. What it was was a neighborhood restaurant called Brownie's Grill.
It was a quiet place where factory workers ate lunch and old guys drank coffee in no particular hurry. It was a Southern-style diner with a few local eccentricitieschief of which was owner Raymond Brown's specialty, mets and beans.
Brownie's did open in 1939, sure enoughbut not here. Then it was up the street a few blocks. They moved from one place to another a couple times but were here at 2204 Cumberland in the '70s, when they closed. After a brief spell during the Carter administration when a new owner called this place "the Gasthaus," a brand-new restaurant called "Old College Inn" moved into Brownie's space. They weren't connected to the Brown family or its cooks, and this building wasn't the original 1939 Brownie's. How'd they pull it off?
Here's how. The OCI uses its building to connect to Brownie's. Then they pull a quarterback sneak, leaving the building aside and using the Brownie's heritage in all its previous buildings to make an end run all the way back to 1939.
It's kind of like the old shell game. Or, for that matter, quantum mechanics. You never know where a restaurant's heritage is going to pop up, and it's hard to trace the path it took.
Admirably, OCI does acknowledge the sleight of hand on a back wall, where a collage depicts some of Brownie's previous locations. And OCI does serve mets and beans, Mr. Brown's basic idea, and a link, so to speak, to 1939. It's a different recipe, but you've got to admit that just including it counts for something.
Now here's a puzzler: in the '80s, the son of the original Brownie opened another Brownie's Grill on Chapman Highway, used a similar menu, even hired one of Brownie's old cooks. They also claimed Brownie's 1939 birthright: The motto of the Chapman Highway Brownie's was "A tradition since 1939."
It closed after a few years, but for that awkward moment, the OCI, "since 1939," and the new Brownie's "since 1939," coexisted in the same city. You could have mets at OCI and beans at Brownie's. It was a paradox. I used to get headaches just trying to sort it out.
Of course, Old College Inn doesn't have any reason to exaggerate its heritage. It's so popular you only have to use the initials. Tell somebody you're going to "PS's S." Or "the OG." Nobody will know what the hell you're talking about. Say you're going to "OCI," and they do. Even if you date it only from when it was first called the "Old College Inn," 20 years ago, that alone makes it one of the two or three most venerable places on the Strip. For a Knoxville restaurant, the Old College Inn is, finally, old.
Meanwhile, up the street from Brownie's, Sam & Andy's motto is "since 1946." Their new building, a utilitarian structure set back from the street, isn't 53 years old. Sam or Andy probably wouldn't have recognized itbut the original family still runs it, under the original name.
So has Sam & Andy's been there since 1946? Or has Old College Inn been there since 1939? Their methodologies are contrary. If one is true, the other would seem untrue. So what makes a restaurant? The family that runs it? The name of the place? A building? A menu?
It's even more complicated than that old conundrum about the ship. If a ship lasts long enough, all its timbers will be replaced. But what if you could go back to the shipyard and salvage all the original timbers of the U.S.S. Constitution, sayand reassemble them? It'll be leaky, sure enough. But will it be the U.S.S. Constitution, too?
Beats me. I'm getting dizzy.