Niceley's Tavern brings fresh meat to campus area

Server Stephen Bohlen and bartender Abbi Roehl pause for a photo during happy hour on a recent Friday at Niceley's Tavern.

Server Stephen Bohlen and bartender Abbi Roehl pause for a photo during happy hour on a recent Friday at Niceley's Tavern.

Long before downtown became Knoxville's go-to bar-hopping destination (think mid-90s), there was a pioneer on the nightlife scene: The Mercury Theatre.

Housed where Preservation Pub now stands, The Mercury Theatre was a mecca for live music, bringing in national and local bands nearly seven nights a week, and was a haven for rockers, hipsters and misfits of every stripe.

The Mercury's owner, Kevin Niceley, was as hands-on as they come, always working to keep the bar running, whether that meant physical repairs to the club, working the door or even tending bar.

Niceley's back on the K-town scene with his latest venture, Niceley's Tavern, and that same DIY spirit prevails at his new establishment.

When I stopped by on a recent Friday evening, Niceley was bouncing between the kitchen and a smoker. Despite that, he was hospitable enough to sit down and chat for a bit as I nursed a few Depot Street Stouts.

The tavern, which opened in May, has already developed strong word-of-mouth buzz for its burgers, which Niceley said are made from organic, grass-fed beef raised on his family's 900-acre "Strong Stock" farm.

Structurally the two-story establishment hasn't changed much from its old Hawkeye's days, and that's not a bad thing.

When you enter, a cozy downstairs bar sits to the right and a big flat-screen TV sits over a digital jukebox. Just outside the downstairs bar is a patio area with several long wooden tables and wrought-iron chairs, perfect for summer-evening sipping.

Also downstairs and to the left as you enter are seating areas for dining or relaxing. Down a few steps remains a glassed-in area with several tables and an intimate stage for the spot's live entertainment. Nicely said, for now, live music will primarily be on weekend nights and will feature a variety of genres. (The day I stopped by, local jazz artist Labron Lazenby was scheduled to play.)

As you venture upstairs, the tavern takes on a lodge-type feel with gleaming hardwood floors, rough-hewn columns, wooden tables and booths, and hunting trophies and art mounted on the walls. (Of impressive note: Server Stephen Bohlen told me that Niceley hand-built all the tables, booths, mantel and stage himself.)

As for drinks, the bar is waiting on its liquor license but has a large stock of bottled beers, with beers on tap coming soon. Beer prices run the expected range, from $3 for a Miller Lite to $4 for the above-mentioned Depot Street Stout (hand-crafted in Jonesborough, Tenn.).

Despite the early hour of my visit (happy hour), a steady flow of folks, including some families, ambled into the tavern and headed toward the dining areas. In addition to burgers, the menu also features barbecue, a "Smokey" chicken salad, entree salads and sides. For early birds like myself, the tavern is open for lunch as well as dinner.

On my drive home I was kicking myself for not trying the food, but at least I've got the perfect excuse to drop in again.

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Comments » 1

janelee writes:

May be the meat is fresh, BUT... I agree with everyone who says : Never ever go to this place again! It is a complete dump with a rude redneck owner, unprofessional and incompetent management and terrible customer service. They can burn your burger to coal and cuss you out of the restaurant if you let them know about it. This is a bunch of disorganized crooks who cannot handle a situation. A manager sits in a corner drinking beer and the owner on crack cannot even analyze and solve a problem. Considering that many students attend this place and there should be at least a slight sign of intelligence, all you see is a red neck hang out and all you hear is drunken cuss. I bet it’s a matter of months for this place to go down. For some restaurants I feel bad but for this dump – pleeease, let’s do good for Knoxville, clear this dump and sanitize it properly.

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