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.
© 2011, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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