When I lived in Knoxville in the mid- to late-1970s, the pre-World’s Fair years, there was a great restaurant/bar called the L&N, where I had my first egg roll. Not to be confused with the much larger L&N Depot, which was transformed by the fair, the fine establishment I’m referring to was up on a hill I think near the Old City Hall on Summit Hill. I’ve tried to find the site but my guess is it was taken down as part of the downtown connector tunnel? Any help you can offer on its years in business and exact location?
My Dear Mr. Locker:
We too have fond memories of the L&N, from that period well over 30 years ago. Its fate was ironic. Around 1980, it was the only place open in that benighted part of town, the life of that neighborhood’s party. In 1982, it was adjacent to the World’s Fair’s “Folklife Festival,” a daily presentation of acoustic country and blues for small audiences, and probably the lowest-key part of the six-month exposition. During that strange time, the L&N Hotel often seemed like a wallflower, left out of the bright, noisy fun.
To clarify for those who might be confused, the main L&N station is the big, elaborate 1905 red-brick-and-marble building that’s still standing—more than that, handsomely renovated and now the home of the STEM Academy. It housed a series of restaurants from 1982 until sometime early in our own century. But that’s not what we’re talking about.
Near the L&N station is the old L&N freight depot, which housed restaurants, too, even more recently, the Butcher Shop, which closed several years ago. That’s not what we’re talking about, either.
You’re remembering the establishment that was in the old L&N Hotel, at what was then considered 723 Western Avenue. It was across Western, now called Summit Hill Drive, from the old station. It was near the Foundry, and tall enough to be a presence on the viaduct—but it was not really close to the Old City Hall (that is, what’s now LMU Law School). The L&N Hotel was a few hundred feet down the hill, and across Henley to the west.
It was a weatherbeaten, rectangular brick building, interesting to look at if not beautiful. Hard to picture today, it was the L&N’s railroad hostelry, though not a very big building, by hotel standards. The several hotels near the Southern station were much larger and fancier. Although the L&N Hotel was never an architectural icon, it might be called one of Knoxville’s first preservationist conversions of the modern era.
As a latter-day attraction, sometimes listed as the “L&N Hotel Tavern & Restaurant,” it was a sunny, offbeat sort of place, existing a little bit outside of the usual orbits, a little bohemian, a little scruffy Knoxvillian, a sort of freer-wheeling version of the then-voguish fern bar. It was a resort for college students who wanted to go somewhere their parents had not heard about. It was kind of off the grid, not downtown exactly, but not Fort Sanders either. It was legal, as far as we know, but most of its clientele would have been happy about patronizing it if it weren’t.
Its original proprietors were named Dan Reinhardt and Ching Yu. The former was known for his woodwork and interior architecture (Reinhardt was later half of Zeke & Dan’s, the Fourth & Gill institution which evolved, indirectly, into Sassy Ann’s); the latter was known for his cuisine. The L&N’s offbeat menu included distinctive Chinese food, but also “spiders,” sweet-potato fries that were unlike anyone else’s.
It was not exactly on a hill, but sort of beside one. Its foundation was down on the bottomland. It was older than the viaduct, so most of the building was below the level of the viaduct. But there was an embankment in back, with a sloping gravel parking lot, and you more or less entered the building on its top floor. It went through a couple of articulations, but we remember one that had some sort of unusual rustic theme, with a unique chandelier of some sort.
It’s interesting to remember that for most of the time the L&N Hotel was thriving as a restaurant, the big L&N station across the road was an abandoned hulk.
The L&N Hotel is one of several reasons we’re hesitant to join in the bandwagon opinion that downtown was “dead” in those days, as people are fond of saying. On a good night, the L&N was a good deal of fun. But you had to know about it.
We don’t remember the place after the fair, but city directories indicate the “L&N Hotel Restaurant and Lounge” was still in business until 1983, whereupon it became something with the touristy-sounding name of “Smoky Mountain Country Restaurant and Lounge,” but only for a short time. The building at 723 Western Avenue was listed as empty in 1985, and in 1990 first appears the chilling phrase, “torn down.”
It’s interesting to imagine what would have become of it if the building had survived just a few more years.
Your query reminded us of a much-older one that we haven’t yet been able to answer:
Dear Doc Knox:
In the early 1980s, there was a piano player named Russell who played upstairs in the Copper Cellar (above the entrance) and occasionally at the L&N Bar, across from the depot. We were friends—however, his last name I can’t remember. Can you find out his name?
Dear Mr. Kerr:
We apologize for the four-year delay. There should be a register for piano players of the past, so we can just look them up. We apparently didn’t come on the right nights to meet the pianist. We’ve confirmed through some old jazzhounds that it did indeed employ one, at times at least. Maybe someone out there remembers.
Yr. Obt. Svt.,
Dr. Z. Heraclitus Knox, L.N.N.
What historical mysteries have you that need solving? Send them (one at a time) to the doctor in care of firstname.lastname@example.org.