KNOXVILLE — Few bars in town have the legacy that Old College Inn has. If you talk to anyone who's lived in Knoxville long-term, at the very least they've been to the bar, if it wasn't a crucial part of their college experience.
But I'm not sure where that legacy is going.
I graduated from UT in 2007, and during my time there OCI was becoming less and less of a staple. People older than I told me about the good times they used to have there. It seemed like a somewhat classier version of Cool Beans, or Hanna's with better atmosphere. I'd even hear rumors of Peyton Manning stopping by every now and again.
I'd always wonder to myself, "Why do I never end up there?"
Fast forward a few years and OCI shuts down its location out west, showing a potential downfall for the legacy. Somewhere around this time period I went to the old OCI location on the Strip (around 22nd Street, near the Pilot) to check it out for myself. I went on a weeknight, on a night following a Vols home football game, and early on a Friday night. All in a two-week span. And I was underwhelmed, at best.
Having checked out OCI's newest spot right smack in the middle of the Strip, across from prominent Half Barrel and occupying a former location of Chili's and Bandito's, I still don't know what to think of OCI.
First of all, its newest location still looks exactly like a Chili's, except a little bit darker (and there's now a pool table in the back room). As soon as you walk in those familiar doors the appearance screams Chili's.
It's trying to take on some ambience, though, to distinguish itself from the always-brightly-lit corporate chain. The old location had this, too, but it had the dark wooden paneling and brick atmosphere to back it up.
That's not to say it doesn't work. You're overcome with that bar-going vibe - likely the reason you went out instead of drinking at home.
But the crowd didn't give me much indication of what the place is like. Most everyone there was older than 25, with crowds in the back room being slightly younger. Groups of three to four people in their 50s or 60s sat at booths in the front room, adjacent to the wide, open bar that hasn't changed at all in three incarnations.
This older crowd shows me that in some capacity the OCI legacy is still shining on. It's possible that OCI has become a place for an older crowd to enjoy the Strip. Because OCI takes a more subtle approach with its atmosphere (not an overabundance of NASCAR or Vols decor, simple, plain walls and dark lighting) it's for bargoers with more refined tastes. But since it has a college-based attitude (see its title) it's still drawing in those who like large, cheap beers.
And on my visit, that's exactly what I took advantage of. I got a gigantic Miller Lite that only ran me a few bucks and ordered a hamburger. It wasn't anything spectacular, but it wasn't bad by any means.
I struck up a conversation about OCI with a couple in their mid-20s sitting near me. Both explained they hadn't been to the new location yet, but they had been going to OCI for years, and one of the main reasons was the food. Specifically, the wings.
Don't get me wrong, I like OCI. I respect any bar in this scene that's managed to hold on to a following for so long. I think I might have missed the boat on it, though, and even though I enjoyed my recent trip I don't really know how often I'd make it back given how many venues in the vicinity that I prefer.
© 2011, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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