North Knoxville

Central Avenue is quickly becoming not only a hotbed of cultural activity and the place to do small business in Knoxville, but the preferred place to spend leisure time in the city; for many, it’s become the alternative to downtown.

The developments of recent years, including the gorgeous new construction of Three Rivers Market, the renovations and growth in Happy Holler (Relix Variety Theatre, Chop Shop, Central Flats and Taps, Raven Records) the opening of a cupcake shop (Magpies), gourmet lunch spot (Holly’s Corner) and yoga studio (Glowing Body), along with a brew spot (Hops ‘N’ Hollers), brew tour company (Knox Brew Tours), not to mention the revitalization of nearby Emory Place (Crafty Bastard) and its overflow across Broadway via Tyson (Remedy, Makers Doughnuts, Bar Marley) and the new nearby K Brew on Broadway, all serve to blow the area up with an explosion of activity. Festivals and shows like Waynestock, Happy Hollerpalooza, Open Streets and Emory Place Block Party showcase the artistic brilliance that the 4th and Gill and Historic North neighborhoods foster so well.

I’d always popped out to Central in the past for a quick this or that –a show at Corner Lounge, for example, or a dance night at XYZ, karaoke at Toots, a chili dog at Freeze-O, a tattoo at Body Graffix or a jaunt over to the old Co-Op for some local veggies–but I have increasingly found myself spending as much or more time on Central than I am downtown. It’s becoming a business corridor, a grand strand of funky and unique local small businesses that is really beginning to thrive.

Rather than attempt to run through a catalogue-style directory of businesses on Central Avenue, I’ve often thought it might be a fun experiment to spend a full day traversing, shopping, eating and hanging out exclusively on Central, starting back towards Heiskell and working my way towards downtown, in the case that an after-party in the Old City was in order by the wee hours of the morning.

If I ever get to it, or you wish to try, here’s the recommended itinerary:


Rankin Restaurant

Sometimes you just want to go to a diner where everything smells like bacon and the waitresses call you “baby.” A place without fancy fusion dishes, or even a website. A place where you pay cash. A real, true, Southern diner. Rankin Restaurant (2200 Central) is one of those places. If you want biscuits and gravy and the saltiest country ham you’ve ever tasted, with piping hot black coffee or spine-tingling sugary sweet tea, Rankin is your spot. Unpretentious, friendly, honest-to-God great food and service.

Mid-Morning: Shopping at Mid-Mod Collective

“We collectively go out and hunt,” says Terry Davis, one of five partners/groups responsible for the chic collection of Mid-Century Modern furniture, clothing, books and records at Mid-Mod Collective. “We don’t have booths, so whatever looks good together, we put together. It has a better flow.” The store, opened in 2014, is on 1617 North Central, and unlike many vintage and antiques stores, it is designed to feel more like a new furniture store. That means only the most mint-condition pieces are used, or the partners personally refurbish or re-upholster the pieces themselves. This creates the effect of walking into a cool furniture store of the day.  The collection is so strong that the collective ships items all over the country and has walk-in customers who have traveled from all over the region. Davis is active on Mid-Mod’s social accounts, sharing historical design knowledge. He and the other partners have all come up as collectors and dealers privately with other shops, so the team brings experience and knowledge to the store, whether it be about furniture, books or other hard to find pieces.

My wife and I had at least 10 items on our wish list within five minutes of being there.

Matinee Performance at Knoxville Children’s Theatre

Hard-working non-profits also line the Central Avenue corridor. One of them is Knoxville Children’s Theatre. Zack Allen, Dennis Perkins and Emma Campbell comprise the staff of the 501(c)(3) non-profit theatre, which serves around 300 children a year, 54 this term, in four six-week class terms in their academy, and 30 weekends of performances a year. The theatre is working on their 76th production since 2008, an original stage play written by Allen called Snow White and Rose Red, which Allen described as “a combination of Snow White, Ferris Bueller and all things ‘80s.” Allen and Perkins went to UT together in the ‘90s, where they were active with the Clarence Brown Theatre. Both worked there later as adults before KCT got started in 2007. Emma Campbell is the production manager, overseeing sets, lighting and costume design among other things, while Allen and Perkins handle the adapting, writing, educating and directing duties. But it’s also about “entrusting jobs to young people,” Perkins adds, mentioning that the current production boasts a student lighting designer and a former student back from college doing set design. Parent volunteers are also an integral part of what KCT does: “parents do unglorified work,” Perkins says. “They help us out tremendously.” Later in May, KCT is taking a group of 50 kids to New York City to see Broadway plays and various other theatre-related activities.

photos by Alyssa Millsaps and Bill Foster

Late Lunch at Time Warp Tea Room

Daniel P. Moriarty opened this keystone business on 1209 Central Avenue in Happy Holler in October 2002. The place revolves around his love for vintage motorcycles and the accompanying memorabilia and other cultural curiosities of the last 50 years of Americana, including jukeboxes, pinball machines and more. He serves a large variety of beverages – coffees, teas, sodas- and a full deli menu from behind a massive vintage bar. Paradoxically for a motorcycle enthusiast, part of Time Warp’s allure is the tranquil quiet on most days. It is the perfect place to tuck away and sip a coffee and eat a chicken salad sandwich while leafing through the newest Blank. If you’re big into biking for reals, find out about one of the meetup nights.

Mid-Afternoon: Perusing Raven Records for the Perfect Vinyl Find…

Raven Records in Happy Holler (1200 Central) is Jay Nations’ and Jack Stiles’ passion project. It’s an ever-evolving collection that has shifted sites and themes over the years but has represented the eclecticism of Knoxvillians’ music and collectable tastes and their commitment to supporting local business and local music. Alan Sims, also known as Knox Urban Guy, did an extremely thorough write-up of the store last year on his Inside of Knoxville blog in celebration of Raven’s 30th Anniversary that would be difficult to top:

…and Continuing at Retrospect Vintage Store

Tree Griffin, Gina Alazawi and others have put together a thorough collection of Americana memorabilia, furniture and clothing, focused most heavily on mid-century modern style. There’s a whole case dedicated to vintage political swag, one for merchandise from popular cartoons of the past several decades, and the list goes on. Unlike many other antique shops, however, Retrospect doesn’t feel junky or cluttered, and most of the items are the good stuff–it seems like the damaged or cheap or dull stuff has already been weeded out for you. The shop is clean and tidy and organized well by category, making it easy to find what you are looking for.

Late Afternoon: Trim at Chop Shop

The Chop Shop crew • photo by Tara Kneiser/Dixie Pixel

Tim Eisinger is an artist, both in his musical life in the band Paperwork and as my stylist for the past few years at Chop Shop. I’ve had my hair cut by four or five of the stellar stylists there, and while I’ve settled on Tim as my preference (he just “gets” me…or, my hair), they’re all sensational at what they do and as people. Chop Shop effortlessly achieves an organic balance between feeling like a hip urban salon and a friendly, laid-back neighborhood small business.

The key to that vibe is owner Cindy Douglas, who, in the first few minutes of our interview, vacillated between saying her name is “just Cindy” to saying I could end her last name with “one s, or two s’s….no, one s is fine,” laughing, at ease, probably the most textbook chill Type-B person I’ve ever met.

Douglas had been an Aveda Color Educator at Salon Azure until a mudslide in Peru in 2010 changed her perspective. She traveled there to help with the relief efforts and realized that “When I came home, I wanted to do something in my community.” She opened Chop Shop that year. To Douglas, the development of thriving communities within the city is the key to developing the vibrance of a Portland or Austin, saying “we need more small communities.”

With a soda or coffee always an offer away, Douglas’s lazy Basset Hound flopping around the shop, chill music and classic movies always on play, and a sunny, open industrial interior with bright color accents, it seems like the ideal spot for a stylist to work. But Douglas’s business philosophy may have something to do with this breezy vibe as well: “Be good to your staff and they’ll be good to you,” she says, and, laughing, “and hire people that are opposite of you.”

Douglas and Chop Shop have been active in neighborhood events like Happy Hollerpalooza and Open Streets, and while plans aren’t firm right now for this year, she says, “we’ll probably do something.”

Happy Hour at Central Flats and Taps

I was able to visit Central Flats and Taps for the first time on St. Patty’s Day in 2012 when the restaurant had recently opened. It hooked me right away with its specialty “flat” pizza offering that day: corned beef. It was the perfect spot for leisurely day-drinking with its broad selection of craft beers and expansive back patio. I’ve celebrated birthdays there, played trivia, seen cool gypsy jazz on the back porch, and done fun runs to Saw Works and back that entailed more beer than a sweaty, dehydrated runner with open capillaries should be allowed. One of their playful slogans is “Lock Your S#$% Up!” which is ironic, because Flats and Taps feels like one of the most open and inviting spots in town.

Other recommendations: Sriracha wings, the Maditerranean (sic) panini, and the Porky Pie flat.

Show at Relix Variety Theatre

Home to Waynestock and host to music videos by the likes of Hudson K, Relix Variety Theatre lives up to its name. While not a regular nightly entertainment venue it’s almost better that way; every few months, it emerges from sleep and private events with another exciting artistic offering. The VIP loft and the pews up front give the venue a funky feel and the acoustics are just right. It’s become one of my favorite places to see a show in Knoxville.

After-Show Karaoke at Toots’ Little Honky Tonk

In the song “Three in the Mornin’” on the Black Lillies’ second record, 100 Miles of Wreckage, Cruz Contreras sings “thank you, Dear Bonnie, for treating me so kind,” when, in the song, she gently kicks him out at closing time one evening. Toots’, right off Central on Anderson (across from Flats and Taps’ parking lot) is the perfect hole-in-the-wall joint; it’s an unassuming square brick box with a beer bar and some pool tables, dart boards and karaoke. Sometimes they’ll have the odd blues band as well. Like Rankin Restaurant, it’s the perfect place for a visitor to take in the full small-town Southern culture of Knoxville. In fact, Rankin may be the perfect place to eat off a hangover earned at Toots’ the night before.

Dance Party at XYZ

I’ve only been to XYZ once, stumbling in at the end of a long evening of carousing with my bandmate, and between the pulsing music, the raised light-up dance floor, cheap drinks and the enthusiastic yet chill crowd, we had a ball. I’ve been to some straight and gay dance clubs that seemed to be all about the hook-up and the bump-and-grind culture, but this dance floor seemed like it was all about fun and there was a lot of silly group dancing going on. I got the impression this neighborhood bar has a lot of regulars just dropping in to pass the night away on the patio/porch with old friends.

Late Night Drinks at Crafty Bastard Brewery

Crafty Bastard, on the corner of Central and Emory Place, is the final stop before crossing over Magnolia and into the Old City and the perfect link bridging the gap between the two neighborhoods. The open concept space, with concrete floors and picnic tables opening on to a big patio through massive open garage doors, is the perfect place to enjoy a local craft beer with friends. For the non-drinkers like myself, they have some excellent non-alcoholic ginger beer there that they brew themselves.

Summer on Central: Be There

In the next four months, between Open Streets, the Emory Place Block Party, Happy Hollerpalooza, and plenty of sunny Saturdays, it’s the perfect time to visit any of these killer spots on Central or any of the dozens of others I didn’t get around to mentioning: if you have kids who need some extra help, contact Emerald Youth and its Just Lead youth leadership training program. If you’re looking for the latest in ladies apparel for any age, check Folly Boutique. If you want delicious pastries or lunch, stop by Magpies or Holly’s Corner. If you want to get Zen, Glowing Body Yoga Studio may be for you, and if you want a fine night of craft beer and chill hang time in an interesting atmosphere, Bar Marley may be your spot. Kick off an early morning with a coffee and a Donut on nearby Tyson from Remedy and Maker’s Donuts.

Just don’t stay home this summer. Get out on Central Avenue and have some fun.

And stay tuned next month when we tackle another part of our fair area of residence in our “Know your Town” series. Oh and use this thing if you talk about us online -> #knowknox

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