Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Cure To Those Christmas Blues: $2 Pints

Downtown Grill & Brewery
424 South Gay St.
Knoxville, TN
Visited December 8, 2010

Beer selection: $2 pints of fresh beer brewed on premises!

Food: Pizza, pasta, steaks, nachos – you name it.

Downtown Knoxville rocks!


On this frigid December Smoky Mountain Wednesday night, the sidewalks were bustling with Christmas shoppers, diners and bar hoppers alike.

And it’s easy to see why. They have lots to choose from – like the Downtown Grill & Brewery, which makes its own beer.

Dozens and dozens of restaurants, bars and shops line the unfortunately named main drag, Gay Street, and the adjacent Market Square.

Theater-goers, concert-goers, movie-goers and even a few suits hustled by a spectacular display of Christmas lights and trees.

It was like a scene out of “A Christmas Story” – a long forgotten time back when people actually went downtown to shop, dine, mingle and meet Santa Claus.

The sad fact is in our current age of Wal-Mart, Applebee’s, the suburban AMC movieplex and the now ubiquitous manufactured “Town Center”, the only reasons most people have to go downtown are to score drugs, get mugged or fulfill a court summons.

Cities ten times the size of Knoxville could learn a thing or two down on Gay Street.

For example, Jacksonville, Florida – a city that actually hosted a Super Bowl – is a typical center city urban wasteland with absolutely nothing of interest going on downtown (unless you count watching some homeless dude defecate on the sidewalk).

Another recent Super Bowl city, Detroit, offers downtown visitors a beautiful view of a riverfront park covered in concrete, weeds and bums – all surrounded by stunning vistas of burned out buildings.

But here in the Southern Appalachians, you can find plenty of evidence of how entrepreneurship can thrive downtown if government kicks the winos off the park benches and otherwise gets the hell out of the way.

Knoxville, TN, Asheville, NC and Greenville, SC all boast of spectacularly successful downtowns teeming with twenty and thirty-somethings out on the town for a good time.

In fact, half the population of Knoxville seemed to be packed into the Downtown Grill & Brewery on this otherwise mundane week night.

Pints of fresh brewed craft beer for two bucks no doubt help to draw a crowd.

The double-decker restaurant and brewery located in the historic Woodruff Building, a 106 year old former furniture store, is the size of two Wal-Marts stacked on top of each other. And there wasn’t a vacant seat in the place.

I had a great perch up above on the balcony looking down on the enormous bar and 15 barrel brewhouse surrounded by hundreds of hungry and thirsty patrons.

Obviously, nightlife in Knoxville is greatly aided by the presence of 27,000 college students a few miles away on the campus of Tennessee’s flagship university.

But just as I was about to explain away Knoxville’s unusual coolness as the necessary benefit of being a college town, I noticed something.

The Downtown Grill & Brewery wasn’t teeming with rowdy frat guys slurring drunken versions of “Rocky Top”.

Most of the people packing the house this Wednesday night seemed to be young professionals – with jobs and cars and everything.

Of course it occurred to me that even at $2 per pint, no college student could afford to come to a place like this. My college friends and I would be lucky to scrape together $10 for a loaf of bread, a jar of Skippy and a case of Beast for our weekend sustenance.

No. The happening vibe at the Downtown Grill & Brewery is organically created, aided enormously by some tasty brews.

The white board on the wall listed seven hand crafted beers, none particularly unusual.

My first choice was the Woodruff IPA which had a nice hoppy kick to it and a surprisingly dark copper color.

Next up, I tried the White Mule Pale Ale, named after some albino mule that died while touring with the gypsy circus right here on Gay Street in the 1860s. Rumor has it that the Woodruff Building has been cursed by the animal ever since, resulting in a series of fires that burnt the place to the ground three times.

Maybe the curse explains the lackluster taste of the beer. The White Mule Pale Ale just didn’t offer up much zip, especially compared to the IPA.

The beers brewed here seemed to be standard but tasty microbrews. Part of my problem may have been that I was spoiled into beer snobbery after spending the previous three days in Asheville, North Carolina, AKA “Beer City USA”.

Enormous is the only way to describe the food.

The menu listed page after page of everything under the sun from seafood to steaks to pasta to sandwiches to pizza to bar food.

And Mexican.

I went with the steak fajitas which came out sizzling accompanied by half a garden of onions, peppers and pico de gallo. And enough rice, beans, cheese and sour cream to satisfy Phil Fulmer.

I couldn’t come close to finishing it all. But I tried.

The steak was seared and seasoned to a nice medium. The peppers and onions were sautéed to perfection.

These fajitas wouldn’t be taken as a threat to a true Texan, but for a brewery in Knoxville, not bad at all.

As I put my coat on and ventured back into the crowds of bustling Christmas shoppers on Gay Street, I reminded myself of my Suits in Strange Places mantra: get out and look around.

When you’ve been to Knoxville at least half a dozen times like I have, it’s tempting to assume there nothing to see here and spend your evening at the Quality Inn eating take-out, drinking a Seven-Eleven 40 of Bud and flipping back and forth between Sean Hannity, Larry King and Rachel Maddow (and wondering what you would do if you had all three of them in a room with a gun with only one bullet).

I mean, who, in this day and age, would ever even think to check out downtown?

Well, now I know. And now you know too.

You might not find a department store Santa in downtown Knoxville, but $2 pints of good beer beats the heck out of Sean Hannity any time of year.

Rating: Seriously Thought About Buying Shirt.
Downtown Grill & Brewery on Urbanspoon

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