Downtown Grill & Brewery
KNOXVILLE — Recently, my dad came into town for a few days and it challenged my entire nightlife approach. He's not a big drinker, but he enjoys going out.
For me, that meant having the best designated-driver ever. So the obstacle became this: Find a place with decent drinks, great food and good atmosphere that makes Knoxville look good.
It didn't take long for me to decide on Downtown Grill & Brewery, but I headed in with several reservations. First of all, my last outing (for the sake of an article) yielded a frustrating evening of rowdy college students - not something I want to experience when I'm trying to show off Knoxville to my father who lives in Texas and has barely even been to the city.
Secondly, we noticed shortly after parking that we were downtown on a Thursday night just minutes before the start of Sundown in the City - an event that congests the city like an early-summer sinus infection.
But we risked it. I saw it as worth a shot because most major cities have their own form of downtown brew pub, serving up refined drinks and pristine atmosphere. Chattanooga has a similar place, as does Nashville, and Dallas (where my dad lives), and I've even celebrated a New Year's Eve in the same sort of venue in Oklahoma City's Bricktown area.
These popular microbreweries, usually in the downtown area, can tell you a lot about a city. And in the case of Downtown Grill, it literally tells you a lot about the city, with black-and-white photos of Knoxville throughout its history. The building feels historic (it's been around since the early 1900s), but has clearly been updated. Its dark wooden paneling obscures the ability to tell exactly when it was remodeled. It feels modern, but not overly so. It's not specifically trying to be new or historic (an attitude that encapsulates the Knoxville mentality in general).
As expected, the place was packed and we were stuck with a 45-minute wait, which didn't faze either of us. I took the opportunity to grab a Downtown Brown from the downstairs bar and discovered it was happy hour, racking my tab up only a mere $2 per beer.
We sat on one of the wooden benches in the corner of the downstairs area, waiting for our table and talking. Neither of us are big phone people, so since we see each other about twice a year conversation's pretty important. Fortunately the decibel level at Downtown Grill was low enough for us to talk without going hoarse. As such, the wait for our table actually became a pretty important part of the evening. Although we spent part of it standing, we weren't having to dodge other customers or waiters carrying huge trays.
When we got our table we started discussing food options. Downtown Grill tries to cover the spectrum of restaurant food, which is usually something I dislike about bars. There's no real common denominator to their selections; they try to do it all. I prefer it when there's some kind of recurring theme. (For example, all of Half Barrel's food comes with spice or peppers.)
I started listing off the entrees I had sampled as recommendations. When I told him that the quesadillas were good he laughed, telling me that he wasn't about to order Mexican food in Tennessee (keep in mind he's a Texan). I can't say I blame him.
He decided on a steak and I went with the fish and chips, which prompted him to ask the obvious question: "Are they any good?"
He was actually onto something, because the answer is that they're just OK. They're not stellar, but they certainly aren't bad. I order them simply because they're on the menu. I associate Downtown Grill with beer, and I see fish and chips as going well with beer (although most think of it the other way around). Whatever the case, I've never been disappointed.
We sat at our small upstairs table on the mezzanine, catching up and watching the downstairs floor grow increasingly packed. At the end of the evening, we had two good entrees, a handful of great beer, and a relatively small check, all on what's typically one of the most hectic evenings the bar sees.
Essentially, Downtown Grill was fighting a massive uphill battle and far exceeded expectations. And I'm proud that it did.
© 2011, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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