Tasteful bar-hopping now goes to 11 Cafe

Matt Ward/Special to Knoxville.com
A cheese plate makes a lovely display at 11 Cafe.

Matt Ward/Special to Knoxville.com A cheese plate makes a lovely display at 11 Cafe.

It was Wednesday evening on April 27, 2011. I was getting ready to head out the door for a stand-up comedy open-mic at Prince's Deli, a bar on the west end of Knoxville. Comics were texting me back that they would not be coming because of potential inclement weather. "Not me, a little storm doesn't scare me," I scoffed out loud. I got in my car and headed into the rain toward West Knoxville. About the time I got to downtown on I-40 things started to get ugly. Just as I passed the Papermill exit the rain suddenly stopped. In front of me in the distance I could see large spheres bouncing in the road, like golf balls dropped from a sporting goods truck. Within an instant huge chunks of ice came crashing down on my car, inspiring one of the unique profane utterances that such spontaneous disaster conjures.

This past Friday evening the skies looked eerily similar to that fateful day in April of last year. The previous time I had ignored weather warnings for the sake of comedy. This time, it was for you, the beloved, dedicated reader of this column and noble seeker of Knoxvillian entertainment options. I made it to the newly opened 11 Cafe in the ritzy renovated section of South Gay Street around the corner from the Old City. As I walked up on the cafe the exterior had a very modern city vibe with a few seats on a wide sidewalk. I saw a musician in the window of the venue and the warm air that night allowed for the door to be open. Music spilled into the street as I made my way inside.

Upon entering I quickly surveyed the scene and was invited with a gesture to the back of the room where owner Mustapha Moussa greeted me. We talked briefly about the weather and the entertainment before I took a seat to check out the room in more detail. I sat at a table to the right of the room (if you were facing the front door). High-quality couches and armchairs were neatly placed around, potentially meeting some of the requirements of feng shui but mostly in an arrangement that encouraged small groups to convene. The room held on to the classic hardwood-floor ambience with bare brick walls showing signs of the true age of the building. I love when venues preserve the history in the architecture, but have never cared much for ones that only did so because they couldn't afford to fix anything. This was clearly a case of design preference.

As I sat tapping away at my phone, entering random notes a cheese plate drifted past me to a table of folks sitting close to the musician. I stopped the presenter and asked if it was OK if I snapped a quick picture for the article. They happily agreed and brought the dish to a brightly lit table for me to capture its simple awesomeness. On the plate was a small pile of walnuts drizzled in honey, some bread and various cheeses. After seeing this flavor-filled plate, I had to look for the wine. Alas, the stereotypical partner was absent; however, in this search I found four fantastic beer taps with New Belgian and Marble City selections. I ordered myself a Marble City Spiced Pumpkin and returned to my vantage point near the tunes.

I picked up a flyer and found I was listening to Steve Rutledge. Steve had a voice that never missed a note. He varied back and forth between cover songs obviously revealing himself as a human acoustic jukebox. After a quick Google search, I found he was quite the well-respected musician in Nashville and was charting in Canada with a single he had released, which was allowing him to tour the Northern reaches of the Americas later this year. Mustapha brought me a plate of freshly made hummus and I was in heaven. Good start to a night that fortunately didn't end with the hail and storms to the degree of that awful day last April.

I finished my beer and let the cool breeze wash over me as I stared upward at the tall ceilings, and thought about what life would be like to live within a bike's ride to work. I would spend way less in gas, and I would be privileged enough to stop in at places like 11 Cafe for a quick espresso or cheese plate, OR a draft beer before heading out for the evening on the town. Don't let this place pass you by folks, this section of northern Downtown just keeps knocking out great little venues.

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