Several years ago my friend Chris and I were at Preservation Pub on a Tuesday night when our High Life-guided evening led us into a conversation with a man in his late 40s sitting at the bar by himself.
He explained he was from New York and in town on business, staying in a hotel downtown. He'd asked around about the bar scene and ended up walking to Pres Pub. He added that he was trying to get to the Old City but didn't know which method of public transportation to use.
Chris, realizing the man to be from an area where walking dozens of blocks is a daily occurrence, explained that it'd be almost as easy to walk there, since it's only a few blocks away. The guy laughed, saying everyone else gave him the impression it was farther away.
The man disappeared shortly thereafter, and when we went to close our tabs the bartender explained the mysterious Northerner had taken care of it.
This arbitrary encounter from 2006 has gotten me thinking about bar-going in unfamiliar cities, and, specifically, what someone passing through Knoxville might think of our nightlife only ever experiencing the fringes of it while facing travel limitations. Not everyone's as willing to explore on their own as this man was.
One of the most likely stops for one traveling through Knoxville is the Ruby Tuesday in McGhee-Tyson Airport. Last Thanksgiving I flew out to visit my parents in Dallas, and my flight was delayed. I figured I might as well hit the bar.
In these situations I've learned a vital lesson: avoid beer. You don't want to be bloated having to walk long distances to terminals, run to catch a bus or taxi, or be in dire need of a restroom while the "Fasten Seat Belt" sign is on.
My traveling drink is the martini. It works no matter what time of day, it's not overloading and it goes well with food (not to mention it packs a punch).
So I ordered one on this inconvenient November day at the Ruby's bar. Although it was strong, it wasn't chilled enough, resulting in off-putting taste. I ordered several, which all had the same problem. An out-of-towner might have concluded that Knoxville can't make a martini.
On the other hand, the Orange Martini Bar, in the downtown Hilton, showcases the beverage.
The venue is in the upscale downtown hotel. The place has a martini lounge theme, but it's still lacking in atmosphere (being adjacent to a Starbucks doesn't really help).
But the Orange Martini Bar has a larger wine selection than most bars, especially those in major hotel chains. They offer an array of martinis outlined on a menu, ranging from $8-$10. The draft beer is priced a bit high (with Coors being $4 and Shiner Bock being $5), but the wine is reasonable (roughly $6.50 per glass).
Although $10 for a drink isn't cheap, I've seen worse in other cities. Knoxville generally has cheaper drinks in the grand scheme of things. So someone from a major city stopping into Orange Martini Bar might draw the conclusion that our drinks are reasonably priced. (And that we love the color orange.)
Traveling by car is a different story. It opens up opportunities to explore a scene further. When you've been on the interstate for hours, you really don't want to deal with driving out to a bar.
Since Knoxville is a medium-size city not far from several others (and attached to major interstates I-75 and I-40), it's a highly feasible stop for road-trippers.
Heading in from either I-40 or I-75 there's one bar with its logo on a road sign: Wild Wing Cafe. (It's also next door to a hotel.)
Wild Wing gives a more accurate impression of the Knoxville nightlife, with its heavy sports bar theme and decor, plentiful TVs and frequent wing specials. Some Knoxvillians might say because it's out west it's more upscale, which is true only in comparison to other local spots. It's still comfortable and easy-going, which describes most venues in town. It is, however, smoke-free, which is a misrepresentation of most local spots (but likely favorable by tourists).
With hotels downtown and out west, sampling the fringes of Knoxville's nightlife might be enjoyable. But someone restricted to the airport area might not be so enthused.
© 2011, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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